Amuse-bouche Chuck wagon cook­ing

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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

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