It has been my pleasure to eat many meals at several different chuck wagons out here in the West, and I’ve even cooked a few of those meals, but believe me I’m not braggin’ on the cooking part (my own cooking that is). Some of those chuck wagons have been on the 6666 Ranch both at Dixon Creek out of Amarillo, Texas and at Guthrie, Texas, in New Mexico on the Hat Ranch at Angel Fire, a chuck wagon at Clifton, Texas and the LOT wagon out of Twin Bridges, Montana.
The chuck wagon is a home away from home for cowboys on the roundups or trail drives. It carries the food, cooking gear, and utensils and sometimes the sleeping gear if there is no hoodlim wagon, for three squares a day. The “Cocinero” or cook or in Montana the “cooky” is the most important person on the crew. He or she keeps everybody happy if they know what they are doin’, and most of them do—they have to or soon they will be replaced. You just can’t do cow work without good range cooking and plenty of it. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but it’s got to taste good and satisfy big appetites. There’s nothing like riding horses all day to create a bottomless stomach. When I was punchin’ in Montana, I ate a heap of food, and lost probably 15 to 20 pounds, and I ate about everything I could. That combination of pounding leather and breathing fresh air all day, strenuous activity and lots of sweat calls for nourishment in generous amounts.
In Texas at the 6666 wagon the one thing that “always” was served, along with everything else, was “boiled beef and boiled beans” at least two times a day. That was standard. What wasn’t eaten was recycled into other stuff like refried beans and enchiladas, etc. Skipper Shepard, the Cocinero on the 6666 wagon made sure there was always some kind of Dutch oven cobbler, like cherry cobbler, or peach cobbler for dessert after lunch and supper. That was always a satisfier and we all loved Skipper.
Standard breakfast was scrambled eggs, bacon, biscuits and gravy, hot chocolate and coffee, sometimes tang, also fried spuds and onions. It was a long time between breakfast and noon chuck, usually about seven hours, and there wasn’t anything left in the ole gizzard by the time we got back to the wagon.
Cold water, cold lemonade, and hot tea were standard at noon and ice cold pop sometimes. A big canvas tent was set up around and over the wagon, so whatever the weather, we could eat out of the wind, rain and cold, or if it was hot the sides of the tent opened up for ventilation. I never saw a rattlesnake around the chuck wagon, but they weren’t far away, and you learned to be paying attention wherever you walked and sat.
The Cocinero had one or two sidekicks to help him in a big job. Wood always had to be hauled and stacked for fires, endless piles of dishes and utensils and cookware had to be washed, dried and ready. Lots of hot and cold water had to always be on hand. Lots of peeling, cutting, rolling, pounding, mixing, sorting, counting, spreading, stirring, flipping, checking, re-checking, had to constantly be done. The cooking crew usually started their day about 3 A.M., and they were going pretty much non-stop till about dark, then they were in the feathers “sound” asleep.
Breakfast was at least a good hour before sunup. As soon as breakfast was over they were cleaning up and starting to get things ready for the noon meal. After the noon meal, same thing, getting ready for supper. I don’t know what they paid Skipper but whatever it was, it wasn’t enough believe me.
When all the CA (Cowboy Artist of America) were there, there were a lot more mouths to feed besides the regular branding and round up crew, and then all the wives showed up on Friday evening, and they cooked ribeye steaks for everybody. The atmosphere at the chuck wagon was somewhat “festive” with that many people there, lots of laughter, good smells, good food and relaxation (all but the Cocinero and his crew). Good memories right there. Yes, I have fond memories of the smell of the cook fire smoke, the good food smells, the shade of the oak trees, all the cowboys gathered talking, laughing and eating. I’m glad I was there.
Big bonfires were built at night, and we all sat around, telling stories, and experiences etc. Some men had guitars and could sing, and it was a pleasure to listen to while the stars twinkled in the big Texas sky. A lot of the men drank beer, whiskey, tequila, and wine, us Mormon’s drank pop—but we all enjoyed the comradery.
Up in Montana our trail drive crew was small, only about ten men, but sitting around the camp fire at night was very entertaining. I still remember a cowboy explaining how badly he was injured when he got bucked off his horse and landed flat on his face in the dirt and rocks. He was describing how his face looked the next morning when he saw himself in the mirror. I’ve always remembered his expression, it paints a pretty good picture he said, “I’d have had to get better to die!”
I’m glad and grateful for the experiences and food I’ve had around the chuck wagon, not many people get that chance, fortunately I did, and hope to have more. Now days there are not that many ranches that still run a chuck wagon on the spring and fall works, but there are a fair number. Some of the ones I know are the Haythorn outfit in Nebraska, the Bell out of Tucumcari, New Mexico. There are others out of Wyoming, Montana, Nevada, and Idaho that I know, and some ranches in Arizona, Utah, Colorado, some more in Texas like the Pitch Fork. Maybe even in California, Oregon, Washington, North and South Dakota, maybe Kansas, Oklahoma too. These I’m not sure of but it’s likely. The days of the free and wide-open range are gone but there are many big ranches where a traveling chuck wagon is still worthwhile. I think Canada also has some working wagons in Alberta and Saskatchewan. The Gang Ranch in Alberta is 175 miles from one side of the ranch to the other. Long live the chuck wagon! And there are quite a number of chuck wagon cooking competitions in the West. I’d love to eat at those. My Dad wrote a cookbook called “Skillet Magic” from the chuck wagon and it’s got many great recipes.