A chuckwagon was originally a wagon that carried food and
cooking equipment on the prairies of the United States and Canada.
They would form a part of a wagon train of settlers or feed
nomadic workers like cowboys or loggers. It was common for the
"cookie" who ran the wagon to be second only to the "trailboss" on
a cattle drive. The cookie would often act as cook, barber,
dentist, and banker.
some form of mobile kitchens had existed for generations, the
invention of the chuckwagon is attributed to Charles Goodnight, a
Texas rancher who introduced the concept in 1866. Chuck is not
taken from the nickname for "Charles", but for the then-common
slang term for food.
Chuckwagon food included easy-to-preserve items like beans and
salted meats, coffee, and sourdough biscuits. Food would also be
gathered en route.
The American Chuckwagon Association is an organization
dedicated to the preservation of the heritage of the chuckwagon.
Its members participate in chuckwagon cook-offs throughout much of
the US. Through these events, the members educate the public on
the history and traditions surrounding the chuckwagon.
At a chuckwagon cook off, each wagon is judged on the
authenticity of the wagon. Wagons must be in sound drivable
condition, with equipment and construction available in the late
1800s. Contents of the chuck-box, including utensils, must also
match what would have been used during the era. Wagons are also
judged on the attire of their cooks.
A typical chuckwagon cookoff is composed of 5 food categories:
Meat (usually chicken-fried steak), Beans (pinto), Bread
(sourdough or yeast), Dessert (usually peach cobbler), and
potatoes. A team of judges evaluates the entries from each wagon,
giving each a score. Once scores are tabulated, prizes are awarded
to the top wagons.
One of the most famous chuckwagon cook-offs is the Lincoln
County Cowboy Symposium. Held annually for nearly 20 years, this
event attracts thousands to Ruidoso, New Mexico.
Among the few chuckwagon cook-offs east of the Mississippi
River takes place during SaddleUp! each February in Pigeon Forge,
Tennessee. Held just outside Great Smoky Mountains National Park,
SaddleUp! also features a cowboy symphony and cowboy church
services over a four-day period.