Cowboy cooking, chuckwagon style

Photo from Chip Schweiger’s Cowboy Lifestyle, used with permission

Carl Clancy in the upcoming historical fiction Cat’s Cafe lived in the family chuck wagon in the hills above Eagle Rock. He became quite a good cook for himself, and for the seductive Fannie Smiles.

Read more: Cowboy cooking, chuckwagon style

Carl Clancy in Cat’s Café grew up as the youngest member of the Clancy clan and traveled frequently in their chuck wagon as his older brothers drove the cattle and horses they had stolen to area markets outside of Eagle Rock. And, because Pa Clancy wanted his youngest son to get out of the family business, he insisted Carl stay back when the rest of the boys rode out on a stealing spree. Carl’s job was to guard the stolen property in the hills outside of Eagle Rock where his only shelter was their chuck wagon. It was outfitted with not exactly all the comforts of home, but all the comforts that could be expected.

Consequently, unlike most men of his era out West, Carl became a good pioneer cook. With a good selection of cooking utensils and occasional access to his family’s foodstuffs, he became proficient in making himself “biscuits, beans, beef and bacon” which he happily shared with Fannie Smiles when they met for a rendezvous. 

Photo courtesy the Library of Congress, and Chip Schweiger who used this image on his great Cowboy Lifestyle site where we saw it.)

Chuck wagons were lifelines to cowboys across the West in the late 1800s. The first chuck wagon started serving sustenance and satisfaction on the expansive Texas plains following the Civil War.

The story goes that ranchers who left home to serve in the war had to abandon their herds of cattle. Once the war was over, returning ranchers organized themselves into teams to round up what free-range cattle remained across Texas. The two lead men, Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving, then organized a drive to move the cattle to a railhead in New Mexico where they could be transported by train to the east coast.  

Realizing the hardships that would be faced by the trail hands, Goodnight modified a Studebaker army surplus wagon into the prototype of the chuck wagon for food service we know today and pressed it into service on that first cattle drive west. 

For the next 20 years, this method of providing food and a home away from home for the cowboys was employed throughout the West. Bill Thompson wrote for the American Chuck Wagon Association, “The chuck wagon was the cowboys’ home, the only home they had. When a cowboy threw his bedroll on top of the chuck wagon, rolled inside was everything he owned except the clothes he wore and the saddle he sat on. The chuck wagon and cook had to supply everything else the cowboy needed.”

In addition to the familiar shape and design similar but smaller than a Conestoga wagon, a chuck wagon had a “Chuck Box” with shelves for storage mounted on the rear of the wagon with a sloped cover that could be swung down to serve as a horizontal work surface. A “boot” below the chuck box between the rear axles was used to carry the dutch oven and other larger items; a barrel of water and coffee mill were mounted to the side of the wagon and firewood or cow chips were stored in a sling called the “possum belly” under the wagon to be used for the ever present camp fire every morning and night.

In addition to sourdough biscuits, beans, beef and bacon served on the trail, cooks always had coffee and tried to keep onions, potatoes and lard on hand. Creative cooks could perk up morale on the trail by serving steaks, pot roasts, short ribs and stew. 

Interest in chuck wagons continues today including numerous chuck wagon cooking contests and races. The National Championship Chuck Wagon races will culminate this summer at the Bar of Ranch, Clinton, Arkansas. Note that these events sound fun and romantic in a Wild West kind of way, but sources indicate the horses pay the price, up to and including death. In just 10 days in Calgary, 2019, a reported six horses lost their lives in chuck wagon races. 

I might add that Goodnight was born in Macoupin County, Illinois not far from Rebecca Mitchell whose life in the West is chronicled in Cat’s Café, although I doubt they ever met. He left for Texas when he was 10 years old and Rebecca left for Idaho when she was 48.

So what did they eat? Beans, glorious beans! 

Chip Schweiger wrote for his “What Did Cowboys Eat?” article that “Beans made up the bulk of a cowboy’s protein intake. Provided in large quantities in their rations, beans were one of the most abundant foods in a traveling cowboy’s diet. Because beans were readily available and easily transported, many recipes on the cattle drives of the American West called for beans, including chili, mashed beans and bean soups. Cooked in a cast iron ‘dutch’ oven overnight, beans could last for many meals; some cowboys even repurposed the leftovers by forming them into patties and re-frying them later.”

Cooks would put beans and water in the pot at in the evening, cook them all night, and be ready to serve them for breakfast … and lunch … and supper … the next day.

And that method works just as well today …  in a crockpot.

Leave a Reply