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?