Stacey Kayne: Chuckwagon ~ More Than A Cowboy’s Meal-On-Wheels

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Chuck away, come and get it!”

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The chuckwagon has always struck me as a fun part of cowboy history. Just as kitchens were the heart of the home, the chuckwagon was the heart of any cattle drive. Movie’s generally show a colorful, jovial sort of fellow, “Cookie” as they are often fondly called, in charge of keeping a cattle outfit fed. In truth, most chuckwagon cooks were known to be ill-tempered and stern. These chefs of the open range were far more than simple campfire cooks. Cookie was also the doctor, barber, dentist, letter-writer and banker of the cattle crew, and he was regarded in high esteem only second to the trail boss. His pay also came second to the trail boss, often double or triple to that of a cowhand.

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On the cattle trail chuckwagons were loaded down with all the cowboy bedding, water barrels, dough kegs (a main staple), cast iron Dutch oven as well as the food supply. Canvas usually draped the outside of the wagon in a hammock fashion, which stored fire wood, tools and dried cow chips. Packing and unpacking a wagon was a skill all its own. These wagons were usually drawn by oxen or mules and followed along behind, usually joined by the cattle crew’s “wrangler” – a young inexperienced cowpoke charged with herding the spare horses. Once parked, the chuckwagon became cattle drive headquarters–and the cook was in charge.

chuckwagon7Charles Goodnight, co-founder of the Goodnight-Loving Trail running out of Texas and through New Mexico and Colorado, needed a sturdy wagon that could withstand five months of rugged travel along the cattle trails.  He rebuilt his Army supply Studebaker wagon, adding steel axels and what became known as the “chuck box” at the back with a hinged lid that also became a work table when parked. In chuckbox1866 the first “chuckwagon” hit the Goodnight-Loving Trail.

“Chuck” is considered to be the least-expensive cut of beef. This gives some indication of the type of food served from these contraptions. There’s a misconception that most cattle crews had all the beef they could eat while on a long drive – not so in most cases.  Cattle drive chuckwagon6outfits were generally contracted to drive cattle by the owners, and those owners expected their beefs to arrive alive and kicking at the stockyards, not in the bellies of cowboys. On most drives, while beef was served occasionally, these hard working beef herders ate mostly salted pork, beans, black-eyed peas, potatoes, sour dough biscuits and cowboy coffee. A cowboy hungry for a steak must have felt a lot like a thirsty sailor…steers as far as the eye can see, and not a steak to eat! 

Cookie had no shortage of responsibilities, rising hours before the crews to prepare breakfast, chuckwagon3staying on the move and having meals ready for the returning crew—cooking rain or shine, freezing snow or brutal heat–no wonder they were cranky!  He was expected to know practiced medince and tended to any injured cowboys riding in, and truly seems to be a source of rough-handed nurturing for young cowhands far from home. If Cookie was having an agreeable day and feeling generous towards the boys, he might whip up some Spotted Pup for desert (sweetened rice with raisins) or pie using dried fruit.  

 I have read that chilies and peppers were planted by cooks along the edges of many cattle trails for added convenience. I wonder if there are still wild peppers and chilies growing in those areas.

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Who remembers that Chuckwagon dogfood commercial?  YouTube link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9BBqgMQluDM

Did y’all know Chuckwagon Racing is competitive sport?  Here’s a couple fun You Tube links:

Houston Race:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aUr742hGzMY
Music Video:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GEU4ZsYawBI

 

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Written by Stacey Kayne

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30 Comments on “Stacey Kayne: Chuckwagon ~ More Than A Cowboy’s Meal-On-Wheels”

  1. Paty Jager says:

    Good information, Stacey! I’d read most of this in my researching, but it’s always good to learn a few more tidbits. I think I would have rather been a wrangler than a cook on a cattle drive. I don’t care that much to cook now and would hate to have had to do it in those circumstances.

  2. LuAnn Morgan says:

    Gosh, I remember the Chuckwagon dog food commercial. Too funny! I’d forgotten all about that one. Can you still buy that brand?
    Anyway, great post and wonderful pictures to illustrate.
    Thanks.

  3. Charlene Sands says:

    Hi Stacey,
    At the Gene Autry Museum (you should visit if you come south — you’d love it) they have a chuckwagon on display. I took pictures of it at one time, pre-digital cameras, to use as research.Its amazing how many things they loaded on that wagon and it still functioned!
    And I didn’t know that’s where “Chuck steak” got it’s name. Yes, I remember the Chuckwagon commerical!
    Fun blog!

  4. Roberta Harwell says:

    Hi Stacey,
    I sort of remember the Chuckwagon commerical but I’m not quite sure. Thanks for all the neat information, I look forward to reading this blog each day. I always learn something new.

    Have a great day.

  5. Stacey Kayne says:

    Hi Paty! I don’t think I’d be signing up for this job either! Cooking for three men/boys everyday is enough for me ;-)

  6. Mary Connealy says:

    Great article, Stacey. I love stuff like that I can come back to and use for reference.

    What this made me think of was, planting the peppers along the trail, was that someone planted horseradish along the trail coming up the Missouri River in or near Nebraska. Years…maybe decades later…when the Mormans were coming through on their way to the promised land…Utah, they were starving in Winter Quarters in and around Omaha and they found these beds of horseradish that had gone wild. For the worst part of the winter, the horseradish was the only food they had.
    Makes me wonder if there’s any of it still growing out there. I wonder if the peppers have gone wild and still exist, too.

  7. Stacey Kayne says:

    Hi LuAnn – glad you enjoyed the pictures–I love illustrated history :-)

    I don’t think that dogfood is still around–I did find the commercial on YouTube!

    Here’s the link for anyone needing a blast from the past: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9BBqgMQluDM

  8. Stacey Kayne says:

    Oh wow, Charlene—that museum sounds fantastic! I love the pic of that wagon piled high :-)

  9. Stacey Kayne says:

    Hi Roberta—be sure to check out the YouTube commercial link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9BBqgMQluDM

    I learn alot around here too :) Thanks for checking in!!

  10. Stacey Kayne says:

    Wow, incredible info, Mary!! Yipes–nothing to eat but horseradish–makes my tummy burn just thinking about that.

    Thanks for sharing :-D

  11. Stacey Kayne says:

    Here’s a couple Chuck Wagon Race videos:
    Houston Race:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aUr742hGzMY
    Music Video:

  12. Colleen says:

    I remember the Chuck Wagon Dog Food Commercials as a kid. I even knew a restaurant called The Chuck Wagon.
    Great Post! :D

  13. Connie Lorenz says:

    Loved the pictures and the information. My husband and I often go camping in the mountains of Colorado. we have an old two wheeled trailer that we haul all our stuff with. Our son build a box at the back with a hinged cover where we haul the things we need for cooking including the food and pots and pans. The cover drops down for a surface on which the campstove can sit. We are camping on public land where there are no facilities. Everything we need we haul with in that trailer. We love it, everything except the lack of a shower and we have even figured out how to haul something with that allows that at least once while we are there. Yes, as head cook, I do tend to get grumpy especially on a rainy day.

  14. Stacey Kayne says:

    I remember the restaurant too, Colleen :)

  15. Stacey Kayne says:

    Sounds INCREDIBLE, Connie!! We camped a ton when I was growing up. My folks belonged to a sort of campers club and we’d take weeks out of school–I remember sitting at the camper table doing homework when I wanted to be out in the wild! *g* I envy your chuckwagon-equiped trailer ;-)

    LOL about the grumpy head cook :-D

  16. Linda Broday says:

    Great information, Stacey! No matter what the subject is I always learn something new. I’d never heard that about cooks planting chili peppers along the trail. That’d add a neat bit of detail for anyone writing a trail drive book.

    Charles Goodnight was quite a forward thinker. He came up with lots of good ideas. Did you know that at one time he had the largest ranch in Texas? Yep, it’s true. Even beat out the King Ranch down in South Texas.

    Loved your blog today!

  17. Stacey Kayne says:

    He was certainly a pioneer of the cattle industry and a very interesting fellow, Linda :) Thank you for the added info!

  18. Kate Bridges says:

    I loved reading about Cookie! What a wonderful detail about how they planted peppers on the trail–obviously for others to enjoy. They probably reciprocated with each other. It’s fascinating how much the cookie was responsible for. Thanks for the informative blog, Stacey!

  19. Estella says:

    Our county fair used to have chuckwagon racing, until some of the drivers got over exuberant and tipped a couple over.

  20. Pat Cochran says:

    I remember that dogfood commercial, too!
    Also remember seeing a chuckwagon race once at
    a rodeo some years back. The clean-up was time
    -consuming after a tip-over, which probably is why they are few and far between nowadays.

    Pat Cochran

  21. Anita Mae says:

    Me too, me too! I remember the dogfood commercial, too!

    I really like your post, Stacey.

    And I love the chuckwagon races, as well.

  22. Stacey Kayne says:

    Thank you, Kate! I think Cookie may have had one of the toughest jobs in the west ;-)

  23. Stacey Kayne says:

    Hi Estella! I’m thinking they didn’t have all too spills in the West—that wagon was too heavy to tip! *g*

  24. Stacey Kayne says:

    Hi Pat! Maybe they ought to change those races to packing a wogon with all they packed in the 1800′s :) That would be a sight to see ;-)

  25. Stacey Kayne says:

    THANK YOU, Anita Mae!!!

    Hope everyone is having a super weekend :)

  26. Patricia Barraclough says:

    Remember those commercials. My daughter did a wagon train in Virginia not quite 20 years ago (good Lord, has it been that long?!). It spent several months traveling the state to celebrate their bicentennial I think. They had a chuck wagon and she helped at times. She also worked the wagon train unit at a Boy Scout camp and did the cooking duties chuck wagon style. Its a lot of work, but once you get the system down, its pretty manageable. Did see a chuckwagon race when we lived in Colorado.

  27. Cheryl St.John says:

    Great blog! Your anthology cover is gorgeous!

  28. David Haynes says:

    I would like to find out the possibility of using a photo of a chuck wagon I found on your website in a new culinary arts textbook. It would appear in the chapter Cuisine and Culture of the Western Ranchlands. Credit will be given to you and your website.

    Thank you for your help and consideration

    David Haynes
    717-968-4538

  29. imprezy dla dzieci wrocław says:

    You wrotesomething totally fabulous!Now my thoughts will not let me sleepat night.

  30. David Michaelson says:

    Beautiful website with great information.
    I am writing a novel about a cook who comes from England to Independance, Missouri in 1874. I would like to use one of the images on your website (first one displayed) as part of my cover. Please advise as to copyright or Public Domain information on that image.
    I can email my proposed book cover if you wish, so you can see what I have in mind. Of course, I will give the appropriate credits.
    Thanks, David