Thursday, June 7, 2012

Chuck Wagon Cooking: Sometimes a Wild Ride

The first rays of dawn are peeking over the horizon, and a few moos from the waking cattle herd tell the cowboys it’s time to mount up and tend to business. Life for both man and beast is hard on a cattle drive.
But one man had been hard at work long before the cowhands awoke--the cook, or Cookie, as he was often called (or cousie, by those who spoke Spanish).

About Chuck Wagon Cooks

Before we get into Cookie's day, let's take a look at who he was. Most chuck wagon cooks were ex-cowboys who were either too old (meaning in their 30s and sometimes 40s) for cowpunching or were injured. Either way, he was experienced in all aspects of the cattle drive and no one, not even the trail boss, questioned his authority around the campfire if they knew what was good for them.
Most cooks were considered surly old coots. Of course, with the terrible working conditions, the injuries, the heavy lifting, the rigid schedule of long working hours and short nights, it would be hard for nearly anyone to maintain a sunny disposition. In return for their efforts, cooks made nearly as much money as the trail boss and double that of the average cowhand, but they earned every penny of it.
Food was (and always will be) important to young men, and most cowhands were 14 to 25 years old, so hiring the best cook helped the trail boss recruit the most accomplished cowhands. That's another reason why trail bosses didn't give a good cook any guff, or let the young men get out of line. Once he lured a good cook onto his crew, he did his best to keep him.

About Chuck Wagons

Chuck is defined by Etymology Online as a "piece of wood or meat," 1670s, probably a variant of chock "block." The "meat" sense is the source of American English chuck wagon, from approximately 1880. The date is, of course, wrong, since Charles Goodnight is credited for inventing the chuck wagon in 1866, and it was called a chuck wagon, so the correct date should be 1866 or before.
While companies did make chuck wagons (Studebaker, for one), most were converted farm wagons with a chuck box on the back. A hinged lid with folding legs on the chuck box served as a fold-out work bench, and there were generally hooks for a canvas at the top of the wagon to use as a sun shade. Underneath the chuck box was the boot, where they carried the Dutch ovens, tin plates, forks, knives, spoons, and cups, and whatever else they could get in there. Various hooks and fasteners on the sides of the wagon held the water barrel, large pots and tubs, axes, the coffee pot, and the like.
Underneath the wagon was another canvas or cowhide called the possum belly. Sometimes two or three. This is where they kept the firewood (or buffalo or cow chips) collected along the way for the evening fire. They also kept the kerosene for the lanterns here, usually in a separate boot. Inside the wagon, they hauled the flour, beans, coffee, dried fruit, canned goods, and other foodstuffs to last 30 days, as well as cowhands' bedrolls and personal effects, and whatever else was needed on the trail drive.

A Day in the Life of a Chuck Wagon Cook

Three in the morning comes pretty early when you put in an eighteen-hour day before, and before that, and before that... But while the cook got away with a considerable amount of crankiness and general orneriness, one thing that the cowhands wouldn't put up with was late meals. First order of the day is to build the fire and put the coffee on to boil. Then he'd "build the biscuits," meaning he'd mix up the biscuit dough and set it to rise. Those two things were the mainstays no matter whether he was cooking for a cattle drive or a roundup. After that, he'd fry some sowbelly (bacon) and maybe a few potatoes if he had them, or maybe sourdough flapjacks. It took a good two hours to get breakfast ready.
After the cowhands ate, they tossed their dishes in the wreck pan and off they went to the herd. But the cook's job has just begun, and he didn't get to sit on a horse all day to do it, either. He had to clean up the dishes and pots, pack everything away, hitch up the team (usually four mules), and head to the noon destination hell-bent for election, because he had to have dinner (served midday) ready before the herd got there. The business of the chuck wagon moseying along with the herd just wasn't true. In reality, he started an hour later, but had to be there two hours earlier than the herd, so it was sometimes a wild ride accompanied by a lot of cussing and hollering.
Finally at the destination, he unpacked everything, started the fire and put on the coffee. He made coffee by boiling the water and then tossed a couple handfuls of ground coffee in (Grandpa threw in some egg shells and salt, too) and let it simmer. It's said that if you dropped a horseshoe in the pot and it sank, the coffee hadn't boiled enough yet. This meal usually consisted of warming up whatever was left over--just enough food to keep the hunger at bay. Maybe some son-of-a-bitch stew or the some other kettle food.
After he did the dishes and disposed of the food scraps, he packed everything up again and raced the team to the evening camp, collecting firewood and other materials to use for camp fire fuel along the way.
When he got there, you guessed it, he unhitched the team, unpacked everything all over again, started the campfire, put on the coffee, built the biscuits, slapped some steaks on the grill (for roundup, usually didn't have steak on a cattle drive), and, if the cowhands were lucky, maybe he'd make a vinegar pie or a tasty dessert out of dried fruit.
While the cowhands were sitting around the campfire drinking coffee and shooting the breeze, the cook was cleaning up, feeding his sourdough starter, and getting ready for the next day--more of the same.
But the cook didn't just cook. He was also the doctor, banker, referee, often the letter writer, and father figure.
Once the fire was out, the cowhands were bedded down, the cook could go to bed, too. He got the prime sleeping spot--under the chuck wagon, but in just a few hours, another grueling day would begin.

Cow Camp Etiquette
  • Riders always stayed downwind of the chuck wagon so as not to kick up dirt in the food.
  • Horses were not to be tied to the chuck wagon.
  • There was no using the worktable as the dining table.
  • Cowboys were very careful not to let the pot lid touch the dirt while serving themselves from the pot.
  • Never take the last of anything unless everyone had been served.
  • Always scrape your plate clean and stack it in the wreck pan to be cleaned (when water was scarce, they were cleaned with sand.)

Carter Museum
Lone Hand Western: Reliving History
Muller's Lane Farm
My Wooden Spoon
Friona Star

May your saddle never slip!


Hearts of Owyhee
Coming soon: #3: Much Ado About Mavericks
Try a short story, western with a bit of magick:
Willow, Wish For Me (Merlin's Destiny #1)


Sherry Gloag said...

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. Living in the UK, it is sometimes hard to comprehend the figors these folk went through and how tenacious they were.

Meg said...

I tell ya, I always learn something new with your posts!! And that's after researching cowboy chuck wagons. :-D Love it!

mesadallas said...

I learned a couple of new things too. I hadn't known that the chuck wagon went on ahead. I had always assumed that it followed behind or on the side.

Lyn Horner said...

Great post, Jacquie! It brings to mind the old Rawhide TV series that gave Clint Eastwood his start. God, he was a gorgeous young stud back then! But I'm thinking of Wishbone, the salty old cook. He was one of the best characters in the show. When writing the trail drive portion of Dashing Druid, I naturally pictured the actor who played Wishbone (whose name I can't recall, sadly) as Chic Johnson, the cook for my drovers. He grumbles a lot, but he makes a mean stew. :-)

Unknown said...

wonderful, informative post on the old west. I remember the Rawhide series, sad to say. Makes sense they would hire a great cook to keep the hands happy.

You did some deep research.

I'd say I trust you enough to 'ride the river with you.'

Good luck on the sales.

Unknown said...

Jacquie, this is another enchanting look back at the Old West. I always enjoy your posts, and like Meg, I learn something from each one. I've actually been through a few reenactments, and I STILL learned a thing or two. :-)

My only complaint is that you didn't share any of your chuckwagon recipes! I know you've got some. Didn't you share a few the other day in the Coffee Time Romance chat?

Caroline Clemmons said...

Great post, Jacquie. So glad I am not a chuck wagon cook! But I certainly enjoyed knowing the routine.

Jacquie Rogers said...

Hi, Sherry. Thanks for stopping by!

They all put in some long, hard days, that's for sure. Of course, I only went through a normal day in the life of a cook. If there's a river crossing, dry camp, or rustling issues, things could get a bit dicey.

Jacquie Rogers said...

Since you've also researched them, you can build the biscuits next time, Meg. My back hurts. :)

Jacquie Rogers said...

If you think about it, the most of the movies and television programs have the chuck wagon moseying along with the herd, so it's only reasonable that we should think that. But in those stories, the cook was a secondary or peripheral character, so to keep them in the story, they have to be with the herd.

Jacquie Rogers said...

Lyn, George Washington Wishbone (played by Paul Brinegar) was hands-down my favorite character in Rawhide. That show had a lot going for it. I was especially enamored with Gil Hodges (played by Eric Fleming). Sigh.

Jacquie Rogers said...

Lorrie, as the years go by, it's better to say we've seen the re-runs. LOL.

All right, I'll tar up the wagon and float it across. By the time you've herded the cows across, I'll have a nice hot son-of-a-gun stew waiting for you, along with some good stout coffee.

Jacquie Rogers said...

Kathleen, um, yes I do have a few recipes. Actually, we use quite a few of them around here. Will post some on my own blog and let you know.

Jacquie Rogers said...

I know, Caroline. Doesn't your back ache just thinking about hauling those 24" cast-iron dutch ovens in and out of the fire? Washing them in the creek? Hauling water, wood, or whatever? And what a long, long day. Then, you're sleeping on the ground at night--don't even get a decent bed. And whoever brings you coffee? No wonder they made as much as the trail boss.

Marie-Nicole Ryan said...

Impressive info, Jacquie.

Lyn Horner said...

Jacquie, thanks for remembering Paul Brinegar. He was terrific! I also like Gil Hodges, the trail boss, but Rowdy was my guy. Sigh!

Ellen O’Connell said...

Really interesting, Jacquie. I wonder how many cooks sleeping under the wagon under all those things attached got claustrophobia.

I've got a question about those biscuits. The from scratch biscuit recipes I know have baking powder in them and don't need to rise, just mix them up and bake. However, they do use milk. Were biscuits on the trail something different from what I think of as a biscuit?

Anonymous said...

Great blog. I enjoyed reading it. A friend of mine actually went on a cattle drive as research for her book. I envied her that, but I suspect it wasn't all that much fun.

mesadallas said...

They might have used canned milk. Never tried it myself but it would probably work.

Jacquie Rogers said...

Thanks for stopping by, Marie-Nicole!

Jacquie Rogers said...

My sister dibsed Rowdy early on. Since I was already in love with Clint Walker, I was okay with thaty. :)

Jacquie Rogers said...

These are sourdough biscuits. I have a recipe somewhere... anyway, you mix up starter with the flour, salt, soda, a little grease, and a dab of water. You can had whatever sweetener you have if you want to (honey, molasses, or sugar). All ingredients are optional except the starter, flour, and water. Mix it up, knead it a bit, roll out and cut the biscuits. Put 'em in the pan and let rise.

Believe me, sourdough biscuits are to die for. Manna from heaven.

Jacquie Rogers said...

you can "add" not you can had. Sigh.

Jacquie Rogers said...

Sounds like a blast--if you're twenty-something, which I'm not. Exactly. I've never been on a cattle drive but have been on a round-up, with is completely different.

Jacquie Rogers said...

The cook did have to pay attention to how much weight they put in the wagon, though. Not sure if canned milk would make it just because of that. I wonder if anyone ever brought a few milkers along the way. I've never heard of it but it would make sense.

Also, cooks bought supplies along the way wherever they could, and also foraged for wild onions and such.

Jacquie Rogers said...

I've decided my July post will be chuckwagon recipes, so stay tuned!

Gerri Bowen said...

This was really interesting, Jacquie. Just shaking my head and thinking how lucky I am not to be a cook on a cattle drive. I also assumed the chuck wagon followed the herd. I wonder if it ever happened that the herd never made it to the chuck wagon? How many miles did they travel per day? Also, how did he ever wake himself up at 3:00 AM? Great post, it got me thinking.

Alison E. Bruce said...

Will you tell us how to make vinegar pie? That one has me curious.

Ellen O’Connell said...

You know, I was thinking about the getting up thing today. Actually not for cattle drive cooks, but for servants in the good old days who had to be up at oh dark thirty to have things all nice for the master or mistress. In the days before alarm clocks, how did they do it? As someone who is not a morning person and who can sleep through anything short of water in the face....

Jacquie Rogers said...

Yep, I'll include vinegar pie. Just don't kick up any dust near the campfire.

Jacquie Rogers said...

Gerri, unless there was a stampede or something, I bet those cowhands did their best to get the cattle to their destination and settled. Stomachs are hard taskmasters!

How does anyone get up at 3am??? It's a mystery to me--I don't even go to bed until 4am.

Jacquie Rogers said...

Ellen, you must be my soul-sister! I dunno, maybe they had a Big Ben alarm clock. Remember those? I slept right through them. Then again, I've always had a mattress inside a room. Maybe sleeping under the wagon on the dirt and rocks wouldn't be quite so restful, and they didn't sleep as soundly. Of course, after a week of that brutal schedule, a man could probably sleep standing up.

Anne Manning said...

Best description of the business of the trail cook I've ever read. Thanks, Jacquie, for the research and great read!

Paty Jager said...

Great info, Jacquie!

Jacquie Rogers said...

Thanks, Anne! And I appreciate you stopping by. :)

Jacquie Rogers said...

Hi, Paty! Glad you dropped by. Bet you've cooked for a crew once or twice, yourself. :)