In The Beginning

by Nola McKey Eads

    The blazing sun had not yet cleared the horizon when the penetrating smell of strong black coffee began to fill the air around the campsite. Cookie, as the wagon chef was often called, was rattling his pots and pans so that the cowboys knew that the evening meal was not too far away. One by one they sauntered toward the chuck wagon, anticipating the nourishment ahead.
    Cookie had been up since 3 a.m. as he pinched off the last of the sourdough biscuits and placed them in one of the big dutch ovens to rise, he was already planning the next day's meals in his mind. With any luck, the weather would hold for a day or two, and he wouldn't have to cook in the rain. He might even be able to make a treat of a peach pie.
    When cookie finished cooking, he pronounced the food ready by yelling, "Chuck away, come an' get it!" Another meal at the chuck wagon had begun.
Although cattle drives took place in the United States as early as the 1790's, the chuck wagon tradition didn't develop until after the Civil War, when the opening of the northern markets expanded the western cattle industry. The need for some sort of mobile kitchen was obvious: Large trail drives required men, and men required large amounts of food.

    Charles Goodnight is credited with inventing the chuck wagon. In 1866 he and his partner, Oliver Loving, made preparations to take a herd of 2,000 longhorn cattle from near fort Belknap in northern Texas, to Denver. Goodnight purchased a government wagon and had it completely rebuilt according to his specifications in seasoned bois d'arc, the toughest wood available.
    The distinguishing feature of the wagon was the sloping box on the rear with hinged lid that lowered to become a cook's worktable. The box was fitted to the width of the wagon and contained shelves and drawers for holding food and utensils. To the cowboys, "chuck" was food, so the box was called a chuck box and the wagon became known as a chuck wagon.  
    Goodnight's early prototype of the chuck wagon was copied widely and changed little in the years to follow.
Most chuck wagons had the same basic design. They were large, sturdy, four-wheeled wagons with bows across the top covered with waterproof sheets. There was usually a cowhide stretched beneath the wagon bed and fastened at the corners; it was used to carry wood or cow chips. In the front of some of the wagons was a jockey box, which was used for storing tools and heavier equipment needed on the trail
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King of the Range

    During the long trail drives, the chuck wagon was the headquarters of every cattle outfit on the range. The cowboys didn't just eat their meals there; it was their social center and recreational spot. – a natural gathering place for exchanging "windies," or tall tales, listening to music if their happened to be a musician in the group, or just recounting the experiences of the day.
    The chuck wagon was also the cowboy’s only known address – truly their home on the range. And if the chuck wagon was their home, the chuck wagon cook was the king. He ruled the wagon with an absolute hand. Because the morale of the men and the smooth functioning of the camp depended largely upon him, the cook’s authority was unquestioned. Even the wagon boss walked softly in the vicinity of the chuck wagon cook.
    Wagon cooks as a group had the reputation of being ill-tempered, and no wonder. Their working conditions usually left a lot to be desired. The nature of the cook’s job required that he get up several hours earlier than the cowhands, so he worked longer hours with less sleep. When the outfit was on the move, he had to be at the next appointed camp and have a hot meal ready on time. He was often short of fuel or water. He was constantly called upon to battle the elements – wind, rain, sand, mud, insects, and even rattlesnakes – while preparing his meals. In addition to preparing meals, Cookie also was expected to act as barber, doctor, banker, and sometimes as mediator or referee if a disturbance among the cowboys arose. He was keeper of the home fires, such as they were, out on the range.

Cowboy Etiquette

    The atmosphere around a chuck wagon has been described as pleasantly barbaric, as might be expected with a group of men far from home who were doing rough, dirty work under sometimes brutal conditions. The language was colorful and often profane. There were, however, definite rules of behavior around the chuck. Most were unwritten laws understood by all but the greenest of cowhands. For example, riders approaching the campsite always stayed downwind from the chuck wagon so that they didn't cause dust to blow into the food. No horse could be tied to the chuck wagon wheel or hobbled too close to camp. Cowboys looking for warmth never crowded around the cook’s fire. There was no scuffling about of kicking up billows of dust around the chuck wagon while meals were being prepared.

    When it came to eating, no cowboy dared help himself to food or touch a cooking instrument without Cookie’s permission. The cowboys never used the cooks worktable as a dining table; they sat on the ground and used their laps instead. When dishing out a helping of food from a pot, they placed the lid where it wouldn’t touch the dirt. It was against the rules for a cowboy to take the last piece of anything unless he was sure the rest of the group was through eating. If a man got up during a meal to refill his cup with coffee and someone yelled, " Man at the pot," he was supposed to fill all the cups held out to him as well as his own.
    After a meal, the cowboys always scraped their plates clean and put them in the "wreck pan" or the receptacle that the cook provided for this purpose. Like most rules of etiquette, the rules around the chuck wagon were based on concern for others and common sense.
    Along with sourdough biscuits and coffee, most chuck wagon meals included beans, or frijoles, as they were often called. Beef was something that was never in short supply, and a good chuck wagon cook knew how to prepare it in many different ways. Fried steak was the most common – the cowboys never seemed to get tired of it – but pot roasts, short ribs, and stew showed up often on the menu.
    If Cookie had time, and he was feeling kindly toward "the boys," as he called the cowhands, he would make a desert. Usually it was a two-crust pie made with apples or some other dried fruit. To let the steam out, he often cut the outfit’s brand into the top crust of the pie.
    Simple food, a seemingly monotonous menu, and less than ideal dining arrangements were standard on the range. Yet many retired cowboys get misty-eyed when they recall their food from their days with the wagon. 


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A good chuck wagon cook was hard to find and harder to keep. Because of this they earned double or more what the cowpunchers earned. If there was a dispute, a puncher would be run off long before cookie was. Cookie didn't just cook either. From time to time he was barber, banker, dentist, healer and priest, counselor, and letter-writer. Other names for cookie, depending on the mood of the cowhands and their distance from him were bean wrangler, dough puncher, pot wrassler, bean master, biscuit shooter, dough belly, and belly cheater To his face he was always cookie.

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