Long before food trucks were dishing up Indian food, Korean barbecue and fish tacos to hungry urban dwellers, the humble chuck wagon was serving up nourishment to cowboys in the Old West. While the chuck wagon menu was far from gourmet, the history of the chuck wagon is a tale that I feel deserves to be told.
Following the Civil War, and the Western expansion, there was an ever-growing market for beef. Cattle drives were used as the means to get cows from the West to the growing marking in the East. When cattle drives began, in the late 1860s, trail bosses found themselves in desperate need of hard working men who could get the job done. In a competitive job market, the bosses did exactly what bosses do today; they offered incentives. For someone whose backside is stuck to a saddle for virtually every waking hour for months on end, food is a mighty fine incentive!
It was Charles Goodnight – – pioneer with the Lewis & Clark Expedition and later, developer of the famed Goodnight Trail for driving cattle – – who solved the problem of how to offer good, hot food to cowboys on the trail. Goodnight bought a war-munitions Studebaker wagon and turned it into a mobile kitchen. He hired a cook and Chuck’s wagon design soon became known, forevermore, as the chuck wagon.
But the chuck wagon was more than a place to just grab some “grub.” Sure, it was the place where the men gathered for three “squares” a day, but it was also the place where belongings were stored. And, for the cowboy on the trail, the chuck wagon served as the hub of social activity. It was where tall tales were told and music was made. Above all, it was where the cook ruled with a cast iron skillet and a cast iron fist.
No Wonder the Cookie was Tough!
Chuck wagon cooks, known as “Cookies,” had a reputation for being a bit surly. I feel it’s only fair to point out that if I had to get up hours before everyone else and cook over an open fire, it’s doubtful that I would be nominated for Ms. Congeniality! It was like running a mobile Bed and Breakfast for a bunch of men who spent 24-hours a day surrounded by cows.
To be called, “Cookie” meant that you had to run on fewer hours of sleep than anyone else, you had to arrive at destinations early enough to have a meal waiting for the cattlemen and you had to scrounge up water and firewood too! Oh, and your travel accommodations were provided by a mule or ox-drawn wagon. If that’s not enough reason to excuse a little irritability on the part of the chuck wagon cook, don’t forget that he was also fighting the elements and all of the creepy-crawly things that went along with life on the trail. Cookie also had the privilege of serving as medic, barber, dentist and banker to the men on a cattle drive. I hope the men remembered to send Cookie a Mother’s Day card.
Who’s Hungry fer Beans?
The mainstay of chuck wagon meals was strong coffee, sourdough biscuits and beans. The menus included salt pork, potatoes, onions, and dried fruit. It was also common to have beef dished up in a variety of ways. Spices were normally limited to salt, pepper, garlic and dried chili peppers. Just when the monotony of the menu was getting to be too much, Cookie might go all out and make dried fruit pies for dessert. Grant it, I’m pretty to happy to eat most things that someone else has prepared for me, but I would probably be craving a salad and fresh veggies before long.
Hit the Trail
If you have some cowpokes around your homestead that might enjoy traveling back to the Old West, you may be in luck. Throughout the West, there are establishments that market the chuck wagon experience. Just Google “Chuck wagon dinners.” Most include an authentic chuck wagon supper and some Western entertainment. If you hit the trail and tie on the ol’ feedbag, drop me a line and let me know where you went and how you enjoyed it!
Happy Trails, y’all!