Cowboy Cookin’

I’ve been watching episodes of Masterchef this summer, and one particular cook caught my eye and set my cowboy-loving heart to fluttering. Mike Hill from Powder Springs, Georgia. From day one of the auditions, I could tell this was a cowboy with class and with true cowboy heart. He competed in memory of his sister and always comported himself with honor. And man, but he looked good in that stetson and plaid work shirt.

Well, Mike got me thinking about cowboy cooks from the days when there were no fancy Masterchef kitchens. Or any kitchens for that matter. Not when they were out on the trail. Nope, all they had were a few cast iron pans, firewood, and a rigged up wagon to carry the supplies.

The invention of the chuckwagon is attributed to Charles Goodnight, a Texas rancher who introduced the concept in 1866, in time for his first cattle drive with fellow rancher, Oliver Loving along what would later become the famous Goodnight-Loving Trail. Goodnight modified a Studebaker wagon, a durable army-surplus wagon, to suit the needs of his cowboys driving cattle from Texas to sell in New Mexico.

He added a “chuck box” to the back of the wagon with drawers and shelves for storage space. The compartments held a variety of tin cans and wooden containers holding staples such as spices, tableware, utensils, medicines, and food enough to feed an average trail crew of ten or more men at least thirty days. A fold-down tailgate doubled as a door and a cooking surface when opened. A water barrel was also attached to the wagon and canvas was hung underneath to carry firewood.

Below the chuckbox on many wagons, would hang a wooden storage compartment known as the pan boot. It contained the heavy pots, skillets and dutch ovens, used in open range cooking. Upon reaching the campsite, the range cook would dig a trench for his fire and erect a pot rack (two tall iron stakes connected by an iron crossbar) or tri-pod, hung with several pot hooks.

Chuckwagon food typically included easy-to-preserve items like beans and salted meats, coffee, and sourdough biscuits. Food would also be hunted and gathered along the trail. On cattle drives  it was common for the “cookie” who ran the wagon to be second in authority only to the trailboss. The cookie would often act as cook, barber, dentist, and banker.

Now, with Chuck being a nickname for Charles, I thought that the chuckwagon terminology came from Goodnight’s name. However, it simply comes from the slang term for food – “chuck.” Too bad. I would have liked it the other way.

They still have chuckwagon cook-offs today, pitting rangy cowboy cooks against one another using nothing but the utensils and supplies that would have been available to their 19th century counterparts. Have any of you ever seen one of these cook-offs? I’ve watched some on the Food Network. Lots of chilis, stews, corn bread, biscuits, and cobblers. I’m getting hungry just thinking about it.

What kind of food do you like to eat when you’re “out on the trail”? Whether camping, having a picnic, or whipping something up on the grill – what is your favorite outdoor food?


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For those who love to smile as they read, bestselling author Karen Witemeyer offers warmhearted historical romance with a flair for humor, feisty heroines, and swoon-worthy Texas heroes. Karen is a firm believer in the power of happy endings. . . and ice cream. She is an avid cross-stitcher, and makes her home in Abilene, TX with her husband and three children. Learn more about Karen and her books at:

14 thoughts on “Cowboy Cookin’”

  1. Hi Karen,

    Wow, I’m so bummed I missed Mike on Masterchefs! And not for any recipes he might share. :o)

    I LOVE cooking over an open fire, and the food always tastes ten times better. My favorite is a campfire breakfast and especially campfire coffee. Yum! After reading this I may have to go out in the backyard and start a fire. :o)


  2. Hi, Kirsten. You can catch Mike in past episodes by watching online at FOX. He doesn’t get a lot of camera time, but what he does get is worth it. 😉

    I haven’t cooked much outdoors beyond smores, but I admire those who do. I still remember eating fresh rainbow trout that my mom fried up in a skillet over a campfire one year when we were camping. Best fish I ever ate.

  3. Thanks for the tip on a cooking show that I’ve never seen…
    When we first started camping as a family in the early 60’s..Dad found a camping cookbox to build in a DYI magazine. Very much on the line of a chuck wagon. About 3.5 ft by 2.5 ft. Had legs that inserted in a v-style. Both sides opened and contained aluminum cooking pot that had additional pots & plates contained within.. lid became a skillet… Used plastic tubs to corral stuff and also doubled for dish washing.

  4. Hi Karen, It is sad the amount of people who have never enjoyed the joys of outdoor cooking/camping. I have been a backcountry cook since the late 1950’s. We would take our supplies by mule to the Sierra back country and stay for however long the party paid for. All our cooking gear and supplies for the trip were on several mules. Of course the menu was made ahead of time so we didn’t miss a lot. (I did go on a 3-day and forgot the salt!)
    The chuck wagon of olden times was great. Everything you would ever need was fit into that tiny space. We do tend to take stuff we don’t need, now, because of lighter weight items and more efficient things. But the concept is still the same.
    My daughter cooks for a packstation out of Mammoth Lakes, (CA), and her horse drive chuckwagon is a revamped horse trailer. It has EVERY thing imaginable you would ever want or need except electricity.
    Most of the ranches and pack stations have their own version of the chuck wagon that they use on their own horse drives, cattle srives, etc. Mr. Goodnight had a really good idea.

  5. Karen, I LOVE out on the trail food. It tastes so much better cooked in the open air. My mom who’s been gone for several years had a dutch oven and it saw plenty of use. When I was young, we’d make a trip to California to see my grandparents. She’d always throw in the dutch oven and ice chest full of food. Instead of eating in restaurants, she’d get out all the fixin’s while my daddy built a fire and would cook us up bacon, fried potatoes and red beans. Oh my gosh, that was so good.

    Here in Lubbock they have a big Cowboy Symposium every September. The cowboys will bring their chuck wagons and stir up a mess of vittles. Anyone can buy a ticket and eat all they want. Cowboys sure make good cooks.

  6. My favorite outdoor food is breakfast cooked over an open fire—not many places you can have an open fire now.

  7. Mary J – I’m so envious. I would love to camp out with you. I sounds like an awesome experience. And your daughter’s revamped horse trailer sounds like a wonderful expansion of the chuckwagon. Thank you SO much for sharing!

  8. Linda – What an adventure for you growing up. Those roadside cooking expeditions sounds great! And I might have to come up to Lubbock one of these day and sample some of that chuckwagon cuisine. Yum!

  9. Estella – You’re right about those open fires. With all the wildfires we’ve had lately, I’m not sure open flame cooking is the way to go right now, but some sizzling bacon sure sounds good! Maybe when the fire hazards are lower.

  10. Hi Karen, I was hoping Cowboy Mike could go further in the Master Chef competition too. He conducted himself in that honorable cowboy tradition, he wasn’t hard to loook at, he was kind and respectful and he could cook – what more could a girl ask for?
    The part about the chuckwagon was interesting too. I think everything tastes better cooked over an open fire. It makes a huge difference in baked potatoes.

  11. Hi, Karen. Enjoyed the post. A favorite of ours when we go out is usually beef stew in one dutch oven, biscuits in another, and peach cobbler in a third. Another favorite is the hobo pack (hamburger, potatoes, carrots, and onions in a foil pack) cooked on the coals and a orange cake (an orange skin with the sections removed making a cup. Fill with cake batter (white cake mix with OJ substituted for the water) and placed on the edge of the coals to cook. There are other favorites, but then everything tastes good cooked over a campfire.

    A note on chuckwagon dinners. Not long after we moved to Colorado Springs, CO in 1982, we discovered the Flying W Ranch. It was an operating cattle ranch that started serving chuck wagon dinners and providing entertainment in 1953. The Flying W Wranglers are the second oldest western singing group (after the Sons Of The Pioneers). We always brought company there and have returned every time we were in the area. Sad to say, it was a victim of the fires there a few weeks ago. The winter steak house, the outdoor eating area and stage, the village they had built over the years, everything was burned to the ground. It will be missed by many. It is too soon for them to decide whether to rebuild. They were celebrating 60 years of chuckwagon memories. It was a fun taste of the West with good music, the village, and an enjoyable show.

  12. Hi, Paticia. What a cool idea for those orange cakes. They sound so fun!

    I’m so sad to hear about the destruction of the Flying W Ranch. I had heard of them and hoped to visit at some point. I certainly hope they choose to rebuild. What a devastating loss that would be.

    Those fires have just been horrible in Colorado Springs. I sure hope they are under control now. I have a friend whose husband is a firefighter in that area. He’s been working around the clock. So exhausting.

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