Friday, March 5, 2010

Let's Talk Chuckwagon Cookin'

The Chuck Wagon
     Cowpuncher's cafay,

It is that-o-way,

An' we strike it kerslam 'bout three times

a day;

When the cook yells, "Come get it!"

He don't have to please,

"Hi yip! all you logies, come gather your feed." 
Robert V. Carr
Cowboy Lyrics, (1908)

Legend has it that in 1866 a Texas cattleman by the name of Charles Goodnight invented the Chuck Wagon while blazing the rugged west. Since today is the day the "father of the Texas Panhandle" was born, (March 5, 1836) I figured it was just the day to share the Chuck Wagon Cookbook (1960) by Beth McElfresh, a trail cook from the early 1900s. But first, a bit of chuck wagon history.

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 northern Texas, to Denver. Goodnight purchased an army surplus Studebaker wagon and had it completely rebuilt according to his specifications...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. (excellent source)

According to some resources, the term "chuck" is from 17th Century England. It was used by meat merchants who referred to the lower priced part of the beef carcass as the "chuck." By the 18th Century, "chuck" was colloquial for good, heart-warming food. Goodnight's chuck wagon revolutionized the cattle industry and in 2005 it became the official vehicle of Texas.


Before Charles Goodnight constructed the first chuck wagon, cowboys carried food in sacks and saddlebags. They cooked the food themselves over open campfires. On longer journeys, supplies were packed in a wood cabinet, known as a chuck box, that was strapped to a mule or an ox.

Most all westward journeys began in the spring, when there was sufficient grass on the trail to support grazing, and ample time to cross the mountainous areas before the winter snows began. Homesteaders would hit the trail carrying about 2,500 pounds of freight in their ox-drawn prairie schooners. Because, once on the trail, the wagons were so full, they traveled at the rate of about two miles per hour. Wagon trains could only expect to travel 12 to 20 miles a day, under the best conditions. In the immense open spaces of the Great Plains, this frequently meant that settlers stopped for the night within sight of their previous day's campsite, and in poor conditions, such as when the ground was muddy or when there were rivers to cross, they might toil all day to progress less than a few miles. (On the Trail)

Like a ship's galley, the chuck wagon was a compact vehicle that formed part of a wagon train. Goodnight's wagon had a canvas over the bow in front so supplies such as jugs of water and the cowboy's bedrolls could be stored. The chuck box, at the rear of the wagon, was a honeycombed cupboard filled with draws and compartments for holding various things needed for cooking, as well as a fold-down door that served as the cook's work table. Underneath there was a storage place the cook used for firewood. Staples in the chuck wagon included salted pork, beans, canned tomatoes, salt, molasses, vinegar sugar, pepper and lard. There was also a place for flour, cornmeal and coffee, and a large keg for sourdough. Sometimes, these basics were supplemented by dried apples, cheese, onions, and potatoes. The chuck wagon was rugged enough to endure life on the plains for as long as five months, making trips as far as Canada. No easy feat in the days of the open range.

On the trail, the chuck wagon went first, drawn by horses or oxen. Then came the lead steer, and then the herd of sometimes two or three thousand head of cattle. The trail boss and up to twenty cowhands rode ahead...They pushed hard for the first three or four days, covering up to 30 miles between dawn and late afternoon, in order to tire the rambunctious longhorns. After that, ten or fifteen miles was considered a good day's travel. Stampedes were the greatest hazard and Indians were a constant concern. They rarely attacked the camp but were always ready to make off with stray stock. The chuck wagon was guarded as if it were carrying bullion; and the cook was an honored citizen, even though his nicknames were hardly complimentary with names such as "gut robber" or "old lady." (Better Homes & Gardens Heritage Cookbook p. 179)

The chuck wagon cook, known as cookie to the "fleet," was second in command on the cattle drive. In his domain, which was the wagon and a 60-foot radius around it, he was the boss. The cookie would not only act as cook, he also served as barber, dentist, gravedigger, equipment repairman, clergyman, psychiatrist and letter writer. He could shoe a horse just as well as he could darn up an old pair of ripped cowboy jeans. The cook was so important to the success of the trail drive that he was paid more than the regular cowboys.

"Only a fool argues with a skunk, a mule or a cook."
Chuckwagon Etiquette: On the old time cattle drives and roundups, the cook was sometimes an aging cowboy hired for his ability to drive a wagon more than his cooking skills. He was in charge of the wagon and everything related to it.  The cook was paid more than the other hands because the success of the camp and the drive depended greatly on him and the cook's job was arguably the hardest.  A cowhand earned about a dollar a day and the cook made twice that...Cowboys were forbidden to eat at the chuck wagon table-that was where the cook prepared the food.  A cowboy never rode their horse through the "kitchen."  The cowboys always rode downwind of the wagon, so the dust they stirred up wouldn't blow into the food.

At mealtime, cowboys got their own plate, fork, knife, and cup.  The cook would pour the coffee and the cowboys helped themselves to staples like hot biscuits, beef steak, and beans.  When they were done, they stacked their dishes for the cook to wash. (source)

Rough-and-Ready Cookin'

Using a basic cast iron pan, Dutch Oven and a spider of colonial times, the cookie could "concoct" a considerable variety of grub from the chuck wagon ingredients, especially with the addition of beef, game or fish. He could whip up fried meat, cornmeal dishes, molasses or apple pie, hot potato salad, hashed brown potatoes, chili and beans and any number of cowboy meals. (No cook would begin the journey without beans. In fact, mealtime was often referred to as bean time:)

Here's a Sample List of Food Supplies courtesy of a fun, informative site called Kids N Cowboys.
600 lbs flour
300 lbs meat
50 lbs beans
100 lbs rice
2 barrels crackers
300 lbs bacon
200 lbs ham
50 lbs dry beef
50 lbs cheese
50 lbs butter,
400 lbs sugar
20 gal syrup,
50 lbs black tea
100 lbs coffee
400 lbs dried apples
100 lbs dried peaches
20 lbs salt
40 lbs dried raisens
pepper spices, vinegar, cod fish

Chuck wagons, of course, always had plenty of beef, which the cook would fry, stew, or braise in a pot roast. “Son of a gun” stew (there are other colorful names) was made just after slaughtering an animal and contained beef tongue, tripe, liver, kidneys, hearts and other innards. Some theorists believed that chili con carne began as a range food, yet it seems unlikely that a busy cook would go to the trouble of dicing meat into pecan-sized chunks when normal stew-sized pieces would do perfectly well. Chuck wagon cooks might or might not have used dried chile peppers as a spicing if they were available...Beans, which could be transported in dry form and soaked before cooking, provided the main side dish. The cook would begin the cattle drive with a sourdough starter that, when perpetuated by setting aside a small amount each baking, would form the basis for a cattle drive’s worth of bread for the men. Cornmeal would also be used to make cornbread and grits. Fresh vegetables were a rarity, but canned fruits were available to make special treats for the men (provided they behaved) source

Sourdough; Sourdough belongs in a post all it's own. According to author Sourdough Jack Mabee in his book titled Sourdough Jack's Cookery and Other Things, "wilderness yeast" had as much fame and lore contributed to it on the back of a kitchen range as it did in the chuck box of a cowboy cook. Cattle range cooks were notorious for sourdough biscuits baked in a Dutch Oven beneath glowing coals. These "pinch-offs" as they were called were a hearty accompaniment to the stews of the Cowboy Cook. So important was this keg of sourdough, that if it was too cold at night the cook would wrap the keg in a blanket and bring it to bed with him."

I no longer have the above sourdough cookbook. However, I have another rather interesting book filled with sourdough recipes by the Herters; George & Berthe. It's titled, Professional Sourdough Cooking and Recipes (1974) If I take a moment to tell you about the wealth of information and curious facts held in this book, chances are, I may just run out of time to finally finish this post. Don't worry, I'll be sharing a few more recipes in the near future. In the mean time, you better get that starter started!!! Look what you're missing:

I chose a pretty basic sourdough recipe to share. Supposedly, according to the book anyway, Nicolas Chauvin, of "chauvinism" notoriety was quite the sourdough "cooker." His apple fritters were very popular and he fed all the children in his neighborhood apple fritters twice a week when apples were in season. Here is his Apple Fritter recipe based on "modern" provisions.

In a bowl put 4-1/2 cups of bubbling sourdough starter that you have removed from storage the night before and covered with a damp, warm towel and left in a warm place, preferably a covered box.

Add 1/4 cup of whole milk or evaporated milk, (the evaporated milk actually works the best.) 4 tablespoons of cooking oil and 1 egg. Mix these ingredients thoroughly into the sourdough batter.

In another bowl mix 1 level teaspoon of salt, 1 level teaspoon baking soda and 2 level teaspoons of sugar. Sprinkle these ingredients over the top of the batter and gently work it in. Quickly dip pieces of apple into the batter and into a pot of fat or cooking oil at 370 to 390 degrees. (he used rendered beef suet. If the batter is quite heavy enough to stay on the pieces of apple, work in a little more flour.

Fry until the fritters are delicate brown. Remove and drain on paper then sprinkle powdered sugar on them.

You may have stumbled upon the following recipe for Salt Pork with Gravy in one of the Little House on the Prairie books. This recipe is from the Chuck Wagon Cookbook and notes; It makes a good meal when on a camping trip.

Salt Pork with Gravy
1-1/4 lbs. salt pork
2 tbs. flour
3/4 cup corn meal
2 cups canned milk
Have salt pork cut in slices 1/4 inch thick. Cover with hot water for a few minutes, then drain and dip each piece in corn meal and brown slowly in fat in skillet. Drain off all but 2 tbs. of fat, mix in flour. Brown for two minutes, stirring well; then add milk and cook for 5 minutes. Add salt and pepper. Served with slices of sweet onions and potatoes cooked in their jackets.

Now, we mustn't forget coffee. What would a wagon train be without a big ol' pot of Joe? Sourdough, salt pork and plenty of coffee were what cowboys ate for breakfast.

The first trail coffee came as green coffee beans that had to be roasted before they could be ground and made into coffee. In 1865, John and Charles Arbuckle, who were grocers in Pittsburgh, patented a process for roasting coffee beans and treating the roasted beans with a mix of egg white and sugar to preserve freshness. The coffee made from these pre-roasted beans was an immediate success and is still available today. The usual coffee formula on the trail was one handful of ground coffee per cup of water. It was often called "six shooter coffee", as it was strong enough to float a six shooter. (source)

Once again, a recipe for dessert from Chuck Wagon Cooking (Here is something old-time ranch cooks made often. It makes a lovely dessert served with good cream.)

Vinegar Drop Dumplings
To 1 pint of hot water and 1/2 cup vinegar, add 2/3 cup sugar, 1 tbs. butter, 1 tsp. nutmeg. Put the above on the stove to boil. Then drop in the dumplings. Place a tight lid on the pan and boil for 10 minutes.
To Make Dumplings: 1 egg, 1/4 tsp. salt, 1/3 cup milk, 1 tbs. sugar, 1 heaping tsp. good baking powder: add flour and mix well to a very stiff batter. Drop by spoonfuls into the boiling water and vinegar. This will make 6 helpings.

Don't forget to "partake" in an Oreo cookie tomorrow, It's Oreo's Birthday! (previous post)

1. The Goodnight-Loving Trail
2. Skillet Potato Bread
3. Cowboy Recipes
4. Spotted Pup (Cowboy Pudding)
5. Dutch Oven Cooking-Dump Cake
6. Sonofabitch Stew
7. Cowboy Coffee Cake @ The Food Librarian (or Buttermilk Coffee Cake)
8. Chuck-Wagon Style-By A Cowboy's Wife @ My Wooden Spoon
9. Corn Bread, Some Good Grub
10. Chuck Wagon Cooking @ Saveur
11. Cookbook Review: "Cooking The Cowboy Way" @ Kahakai Kitchen
12. Chuckwagon poems
13. Davy Crockett (previous post)

Revised February 2015


  1. Thanks for the informative post! Very interesting.



  2. A fun read! And interesting recipes!

  3. What a fun, informative post, Louise. Have you made the vinegar drop dumplings? I've never even heard of these, but they sound really interesting. Especially topped with cream :)

  4. Fun to read about chuckwagons and their history, Louise. And the "grocery" list. Fun recipes too.
    Really love your posts because I learn so much about things we don't often think about.
    Maple syrup month would have been fun...there are so many recipes out there, especially from those in the north country.
    (And we finally fixed the link problem on my site!)

  5. What aan interesting read! Thank you for putting it together. I love the quote about not fooling with a skunk, mule, or a cook!

  6. I can't even imagine. I've watched some "chuck wagon" reinactments, and it's simply amazing what they turn out, in massive quantities, over an open flame...

  7. Love this culianry history mystery revealed! Who knew? Thanks for this post.

  8. for the longest time, i thought the term 'chuckwagon' simply referred to whatever it was that they served us in my elementary school cafeteria that went by the name. to this day, i have no idea what i was actually eating. :)

  9. What a great piece of history and you own so interesting cookbooks. I really love to read your blog.

  10. We all have some romantic ideas about the chuck wagon and cowboys, don't we? I love your little slices of food history!

    And happy Oreo day to you, too!

  11. Now that was fun reading about what all they carried in their chuckwagons. Those are some amazing groceries they were carrying. Wouldn't it be fun (in a romantic, greenhorn-ignorant kind of way) to travel like this. Course, I'd probably quit after a week, grins.

  12. Thank you for all your kind comments everyone. This was a fun post to do:)

    Lynn: I've never tried the vinegar drop dumplings. They do sound intriguing though. Perhaps, someday:)

    Barbara: I'm so glad you enjoyed this post and, I'm delighted the link problem is fixed. It was rather odd that it happened. Your Spring Muffins are just perfect for Maple Syrup Month!!! (yay, the link works:)

    Katy: I've often thought I was born in the wrong era, however, as time goes by, I really wonder how the heck they did it!!!

  13. Bless you. You have no idea what you have done. You gave me a whole lesson plan for my children on the Westward Expansion - Ok, not a whole one but it will amplify what I teach. Thank you.

    I must tell you and as absurd, as it may sound, it is the truth. This morning, I was thinking about you and how I have not been here, in a while. I do have a reason. It was the Jewish holidays and I was cooking, every spare moment. Anyway, here, you were on my mind, and your comment appeared on my blog and yes, there can never be too many almonds and the golden raisins tasted just fine on the bottom. Thanks for the comment.

  14. YOU have no idea how delighted I am to hear that Sweet & Savory!!! Someday I would love to do a food survey of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

    Absurd? Not in the least. I think about many of my favorite food bloggers during the course of the day. I was actually thinking about posting the notion. Thanks for visiting!!!

  15. Great historical lesson and very entertaining. I may have to borrow your quote for my Facebook account -

    Only a fool argues with a skunk, a mule or a cook."


  16. Our 4th grade building has Frontier Days in Spring and I do a 1 hour session with all the groups with Dutch Ovens. The students help make bubble loaf in a dutch oven, I talk about the history of the dutch oven then the students eat the bubble loaf made by the previous class. It is a blast.


Through this wide opened gate,
none came too early,
none returned too late.

Thanks for dropping in...Louise