Amuse-bouche Chuck wagon cooking
merica’s infatuation with cowboy mythology doesn’t extend to the legendarily cranky cooks who prepared suppers for cattle drivers. It’s the roper and the rider who get refrains in country songs, not the stumpy guy everyone called “Cookie” whose job was to stir a cast-iron cauldron of refried beans over a fire pit. Not even his cuisine gets romanticized — George Strait doesn’t sing “Biscuits by Morning,” which is kind of too bad. But at fairgrounds, ranches, and parks across the West, a steady legion of late-1800s cooking aficionados and re-enactors still stoke the fires of Cookie’s legacy.
People show up in droves to a chuck wagon cookoff. Though I had a press pass, I nearly didn’t get a plate a few weekends ago at the Custer County Cowboy Gathering in Westcliffe, Colorado, where six vintage chuck wagons competed to take home cash prizes for best meat, beans, bread, potatoes, dessert, and authentic wagon. I’d dawdled on the gorgeous drive north toward the 5 p.m. dinner bell at A Painted View Ranch, and when I arrived 15 minutes late to the grounds, it was a genteel mob scene. Six Stetsondotted lines snaked before a row of covered wagons, each outfit serving their take on a standard menu: chicken-fried steaks with cream gravy, potatoes, bread, pinto beans, and a peach dessert.
Charles Goodnight, who with Oliver Loving forged a cattle-driving trail from Texas to New Mexico’s Fort Sumner in 1866, is credited with the first installation of a chuck box for the back of his covered Studebaker wagon. Goodnight’s setup included storage compartments along with a hinged lid that folded out to provide a flat surface. He also attached a water barrel to the wagon and hung canvas underneath the vehicle to store firewood. Thus was born the chuck wagon field kitchen, along with an indelible Wild West profession. Through the heyday of the late-1800s cattle drives, all along the cozily named Goodnight-Loving Trail and the Chisholm Trail, which stretched from San Antonio to Abilene, Kansas, the chuck wagon cook rode alongside man and beast, serving charro beans, sourdough biscuits, and cowboy coffee to a team of tired cowherds day after day. He was second only in stature to the trail boss, and his job description extended from cook to counselor to dentist to barber. Cookie was den papa of the cowboys, and there would be hell to pay if you kicked up dust riding up to his outdoor kitchen.
Out of curiosity, my friend Grant had driven down from Denver to join me. We’d both attended a few black-powder-rifle mountain-man rendezvous, with their offerings of hardtack and pots of chili, and we speculated that this event would be similar in a living history re-enactor sense. I’d read on the website of the American Chuck Wagon Association, which has members in 31 states, that this was an officially sanctioned event of the association, which meant that competition rules of authenticity had been followed to the letter. At daybreak, each wagon had begun their cooking fires to serve 50 dinners with the same basic ingredients and spices that would have been available to Cookie back in the day. Some of the cooks, in search of a more visceral experience, had spent the night in bedrolls on the ground under the stars and the Sangre de Cristos.
Monte Deckerd from Golden, Colorado, served me the very last piece of meat from Rafter 76, a circa-1915 Peter Schuttler wagon. He loaded my orange plastic plate with a chicken-fried steak roughly the size of my head, along with peppery mashed potatoes and cream gravy, a fluffy yet substantial biscuit, some kicky charro beans, and a dollop of sweet peach cobbler. The judges had already sampled the wares on offer — though some contests include a people’s choice where guests can sample goods from each wagon and vote on their favorites, on this evening, patrons could only select one venue for dinner.
I chose well. Though Rafter 76 didn’t place high in the overall competition, Deckerd’s beans blew those on Grant’s plate out of the water. After dinner, Deckerd told me his pintos were made with onions, bacon, chile powder, molasses, salt, pepper, cumin, and a little tomato sauce. He said he had listed them as “Third-Place Beans” on the menu board because they’d won third place in so many competitions, though on the first occasion he called them that on his menu, they took the whole category.
Deckerd, who is a banker during the week, said his Schuttler wagon represented a $25,000 investment, with all original paint and equipment. “I’ve got $15,000 worth of cast iron just in the Dutch ovens,” he marveled. He outlined his day for me, peppering his monologue with frequent chuck wagon cooking