You won’t find herds of cattle moving through dusty grasslands at the All-American CowboyFest Chuckwagon Cook-Off. You won’t find a lanky — or maybe stout — cook preparing meals over a cow-pie fire for a bunch of hungry cowboys. What you will find is a meal prepared by upwards of 20 teams of competitors in the All-American Cowboy Fest Chuckwagon Cook-Off. This year the fest will take place from September 30 to October 2, 2022. The cook-off occurs on Sunday, the last day.
In 2021, 21 teams competed for generous cash prizes as well as bragging rights for having prepared the best food in the most authentic chuckwagon. They came from Arizona, Illinois, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, and, of course, New Mexico. This year many of the teams will return, and perhaps there will be newcomers, all gathered in the infield of Ruidoso Downs Race Track.
Competitors each will be provided with beans, beef, potatoes, onions, oil, butter, eggs, milk, and fruit. What they do with them is their business, but the result will be a full meal, including bread and dessert. They can cook anything they like, except Texas-style chili.
Driving the Herds
We’ve all seen Western movies and heard about chuckwagons, but what do you actually know about them?
Following the Civil War and before railroads pushed deep into the West, cattlemen drove herds from Texas to trailheads in Colorado or Kansas. A drive could last as long as five months. Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving blazed a trail from Pecos to Pueblo, most of which was chosen for water and pasture for cows. The trail was far from towns, but cowboys still had to eat.
The Chuck Box
So, Goodnight invented a box, built of durable wood that would fit in the back of a trail wagon. Cowboys referred to their meals as chuck, after English slang referring to hearty food. Goodnight’s box acquired the moniker chuck box and, thus, the chuckwagon.
He equipped the chuck box with cubbies, shelves, and drawers. To keep everything in place, it had a door that dropped down to form a worktop. A large water barrel was hung on the side of the wagon. And cowboy’s kits — bedrolls, blankets, slickers, and extra clothes — were stored between the driver’s box and the chuck box — along with hundred-weight sacks of beans, potatoes, flour, onions, and dried fruit, plus salt, lard, and baking powder.
The cook’s pantry held dried foods that withstood the vicissitudes of the trail, including two that were all-important and ever-present — coffee beans and sourdough starter for making biscuits. The cook would trade for fresh vegetables and eggs if the herd passed close to a working farm.
Cookie’s Domain: The Chuckwagon
While cowboys were responsible for the herd, the chuckwagon was the exclusive realm of the cook, affectionately called Cookie. The only one with a higher rank was the trail boss. Besides being a chef, Cookie was repairman, doctor, dentist, barber, and — when required — judge and jury, arbitrating cowboy squabbles.
Cookie did not have a life any easier than the cowboys. He was up around 3 a.m., grinding coffee beans and building a fire. Coffee was ready first. It was the elixir of life to trail-fatigued riders. Once the coffee pot was hung over the fire, Cookie turned to breakfast.
Mostly, breakfast was bacon, beans, and biscuits — and onions and potatoes while they lasted. When food was ready, Cookie rang the dinner bell, an iron triangle with a clapper hanging next to it. Cowboys queued up with tin plates, cups, knives, and forks. They could have seconds, but only after everyone got “firsts.” There weren’t tables or chairs, so the men sat wherever they could — a log, rock, bedroll, or bare ground — holding their plates in their lap.
After eating, they tossed the dirty dishes into a large bin called the “wreck pan.” A cowboy didn’t want to forget that courtesy and earn the ire of the cook, who had to wash dishes.
After the cowboys left to move the herd, Cookie stored their bedrolls, his Dutch ovens, and other gear in the wagon. He’d hitch up the mules and move out to follow. Along the way, when he found kindling, he’d store it in a compartment under the wagon, called the “possum belly.”
During the day, cowboys kept the herd moving, and it wasn’t unusual to trek 25 miles. Keep in mind, that it’s 600 miles from Pecos to Pueblo, even farther to Abilene, Kansas. Lunch was usually eaten in the saddle — hardtack, sometimes called corn-dodgers, and beef jerky. That alone would give a cowboy a good appetite for supper.
Cookie was imaginative when it came to meals. If an out-rider got a chance to shoot a deer, the cowboys might have venison that night. The only time they had beef is when a cow was injured or got sick and had to be killed. Each cow lost cut into the profits. But Cookie could dress up a plate of beans that would grace any restaurant in the country. What he could do with dried pork we haven’t learned yet. And there was always an abundance of fresh, hot biscuits.
As long as the dried apples lasted, cowboys would enjoy brown betty for dessert. When they had eaten all the dried fruit, their desert was spotted pup — rice pudding with raisins. Now that may not sound like epicurean delight, but the food was hot, hearty, and healthy.
Biscuits were set a dollop at a time in a Dutch oven, which was nested in embers. Once the lid was on, hot coals were placed on top to attain a uniform baking temperature. Other foods were prepared in cast-iron skillets or pots. Regardless of what was on the menu, the coffee pot was always there — hot, black, and strong.
It didn’t matter how hot — or cold — the day was, whether it was raining or snowing, or if the wind was blowing dust, Cookie had to be ready to feed hungry cowboys morning and evening.
See Chuckwagon Cooking in Action
That way of life is now history, but part of it is relived in Ruidoso at the annual Chuckwagon Cook-Off. You can wander from wagon to wagon in the infield, watch and talk to the cooks, and you’ll quickly learn how hard it is to cook on an open fire.
Remember, this is a competition. Judging is set at noon, so each contestant’s meal must be finished by then. Contestants are vying for prizes for the best meat, beans, potato, bread, dessert, and overall plate. And it’s not just how it tastes but its appearance, texture, and individuality. There’s also a prize for the most authentic chuckwagon.
And when the dust settles, so to speak, you can buy a ticket, get a plate, and queue up at one of the wagons for a meal just like the cowboys on the Goodnight-Loving or Chisholm trails enjoyed. And, as usual, you can have seconds, as long as everyone has had their “firsts” . . . and as long as the food lasts.
Story and photography by Bud Russo
Posted by Ruidoso.com