Chuck Wagon Cook-Off serves up history

CNJ staff photo: Liliana Castillo Ken Romine of Brownfield, Texas, pulls a chicken fried steak out of a pot of hot oil during Saturday’s Chuck Wagon Cook-Off. Romine said he’s been chuck wagon cooking for 15 years.

Steve Woods, 60, of Denton, Texas, served a hearty cowboy dinner of chicken fried steak, beans, mashed potatoes, biscuits and peach cobbler with a bit of history on the side.

Woods is a member of the Calk-Clark Wagon crew from El Paso, Texas, that competed Saturday at the “Duke of the Dutch Oven” Chuck Wagon Cook-Off.

Thirteen other teams set up their wagons at the Curry County Fairgrounds and fed more than 250 people.

Each team cooked the same meal from scratch using equipment used between 1870 and 1880, according to Woods, who said he finds the competition helps preserve southwestern traditions.

“This is history, and particularly in the Southwest, it’s our heritage,” he said.

Though each team received the same amount of ingredients, not every recipe is the same, he said.

“From then you use the different spices and condiments (in your chuck wagon),” said Woods who started preparing for the cook-off at around 5 a.m.

Johnny Adkins, of the J&L Ranch wagon from Abilene, said his crew used recipes passed down from grandparents or developed through experimentation.

“Some we stole from our wives,” said Adkins.

Teams are judged on their food and the authenticity of their wagons and the crew, Woods said.

The J&L Ranch wagon crew timed their cooking with pocket watches.

Event Organizer Wilma Fulgham said the 560 tickets for the event were sold out. The proceeds of the event benefit the Miss Rodeo New Mexico Pageant.

Hayden Hadley, 13, of Farwell, said he enjoyed his meal prepared by the Cotter Ranch wagon from Muleshoe. He said he particularly enjoyed the chicken fried steak.

“It had enormous amounts of flavor,” he said.

His mother, Annetta, said she enjoyed watching the wagons cook the food using old-fashioned cooking equipment.

“They were (cooking) out in the wide open with no modern amenities, it was amazing,” she said.

Side of history:

Chuck wagons were used in the 1870s to cook meals for cowboys driving cattle from ranches in the south to market.

Chuck wagons start off as freight wagons with chuck boxes attached in the rear that contain spices and condiments, according to Steve Woods, who has been competing in chuck wagon cook-offs for four years.

A sheet of canvas was attached to wooden bows over the wagon to protect wood used for cooking fires. The sheet was also used as a roof when the wagon is used to prepare and cook food.

Additional source: Lone Hand Western Web site