CHEYENNE – Something was needed to keep the cowboys fed during the long cattle drives that came north from Texas following the Civil War.
In 1866, according to the American Chuck Wagon Association website, Charles Goodnight bolted a wooden box to the back of a Studebaker wagon, and added compartments to store utensils, food, trail equipment and each cowboy’s possessions rolled inside a blanket.
The chuckwagon was born.
The cattle drive era is gone, but the tradition is kept alive during the Cheyenne Frontier Days chuckwagon cook-off, which showcases groups of chefs who demonstrate cooking methods used more than 100 years ago.
Thursday was demonstration day, with teams making biscuits, beans and other items.
Bobby Mims of Llano, Texas, was cooking breakfast for his crew, which included scrambled eggs, bacon and biscuits. A kettle of coffee hung above the open flames as smoke drifted into the sky.
“Everything has to be done over a wood fire or in dutch ovens,” Mims said. “We try to use as many period cooking utensils as the health department will let us use. Since we are cooking for the public, we have to follow safe food-handling procedures.”
Preserving and presenting the western heritage and way of life are primary motivations for Mims. He said it’s an “amazing opportunity to show people what life was like back in the 1860s to 1890s.”
“It’s such an important part of the western expansion of the United States,” Mims said. “It’s one of the original food trucks of the West. We’re passionate about sharing with the youth and people who haven’t seen this. We’ve actually talked with people from 17 different countries and 27 different states.”
Mims said they’ve been using other types of wood during the week, but brought about 800 pounds of mesquite wood with them from Texas for Saturday’s competition.
“It’s a hell of a lot of work,” he said.
Down the way, Ron Reed of Cody, Wyoming, was cooking some beans with a little bacon, onion and chili powder thrown in.
“It’s a standard item of the chuckwagon,” Reed said. “The ranch owners liked them because they were cheap. The cooks got along with them well because you can do a lot of things with them. The cowboys ate them because there was enough of them.”
There were two kinds of bad reputation a chuckwagon cook could get back in the old days, Reed said.
“One of them was not enough food, so it was worse to be a skimpy cook than a bad cook,” he said. “The other bad reputation was bad coffee. The cowboys didn’t want to drink what they called ‘bellywash’ or ‘dishwater’ coffee.”
Besides the cooking, Reed said he enjoys talking with people and talking history.
“I like talking to people about the chuckwagons and explaining how things were in the old days, and have fun cooking food and handing it out,” he said. “I just enjoy cooking, and I enjoy being able to make a meal on a fire. It’s one thing to go into a kitchen and make a meal that’s fit to eat, but I think it’s fun to make a meal on a fire outdoors that’s still fit to eat.”
On Saturday, each group of cooks will prepare chicken-fried steak, pinto beans, mashed potatoes, biscuits and a dessert, then be judged against their peers, with the winner receiving a championship buckle. Judging starts at noon.
“This year they gave us cherries to cook with, so we’ll be making a cherry cobbler,” Mims said.
A limited number of 200 boxed lunches to-go are available for pick up at noon Saturday. Tickets are $25 per person, available on the Cheyenne Frontier Days website, www.cfdrodeo.com.
The youth championship cook-off takes place today from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Participants will prepare chicken-fried steak and a dessert.
Jake Tolbert, 13, of Pampa, Texas, is one of the competitors.
“I do chuckwagon cooking because I love it,” Tolbert said. “I love learning about American history. I love meeting new people. It’s all hard work, but the reward comes after you finish something and you serve to somebody and they tell you it’s good.”
The chuckwagons are located in the Western Experience in the south portion of C lot in Frontier Park.