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Cook-off keeps chuck wagon tradition alive

A chuck wagon must hold all the cookware, bedding, and associated harnesses to be historically accurate and competitive in events. (Martin Frentzel/For the Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — In 1866 Texas cattleman Charles Goodnight bolted a wooden box to the back of an Army surplus Studebaker wagon and started driving a herd of 2,000 cattle from Fort Belknap, Texas, to Fort Sumner, N.M. The beef was needed to feed the Navajos and Mescalero Apaches who had been confined to Bosque Redondo, and the U.S. Army soldiers who were keeping them there.

That wagon became the first “chuck wagon,” and eventually the route from Fort Belknap to Pueblo, Colo., and ultimately to Cheyenne, Wyo., became known as the Goodnight-Loving Trail.

There are people in this world who are unwilling to let go of those cattle-drive days, so they continue to stock chuck wagons with the cast-iron cookware, bedrolls, harnesses and tools Goodnight’s cooks and cowboys would have needed during those drives. You, too, can get a taste of this western history April 27-29 at New Mexico’s Ute Lake State Park when the Canadian River Renegades sponsor their 18th annual Chuck Wagon Cookoff.

Bobby Mims of Llano, Texas, learned how to cook during his 30 years as a firefighter. (Martin Frentzel/For the Journal)

The American Chuck Wagon Association is dedicated to promoting the use and reproduction of the chuck wagon and several of its members annually attend the Ute Lake “cook,” as it is called. Using association guidelines, the wagons are judged for their historic accuracy and the wagon teams are judged for how well they prepare a meal featuring chicken-fried steak, potatoes, beans, breads and a dessert.

Although the chuck wagon cooks do compete for cash prizes, this is a very friendly competition and crews often help each other.

“In chuck wagons, it is not uncommon to have someone from a competing wagon drop by and take a peek or need to borrow a spice or condiment,” says Sam Howell II, vice president of the ACWA.

Howell lives in Odessa, Texas, and started cooking with Dutch ovens when he was a Boy Scout. His father took it a step further and involved him in chuck wagon cooking in 1999.

Although Howell enjoys the cooking competition and historical aspects of chuck wagons, he really values the people he meets as much as any prize money he takes home.

“The friendships and camaraderie are very important,” he says. “It is the cowboy way of life.”

Sharon Reid and her husband are boat dealers in Logan and she is integral to the non-profit Renegades.

The Renegades pay the wagons $200 to attend the event, Reid says, and they also provide the identical type and amount of food to each team of cooks. The food is donated and money is generated through ticket sales.

This year tickets are $13 each, and after expenses the cash is used to fund scholarships for seniors graduating from Logan High School. “Last year we provided two $350 scholarships,” Reid says.

“Chuck wagons are really big in Texas, Oklahoma and Missouri,” she says. In fact, the chuck wagon was recognized by the Texas State Legislature as the official vehicle of Texas, and the wagons frequently gather together to serve wounded warriors in Texas and Missouri.

Chicken-fried steak, potatoes, beans, breads or rolls and dessert are the dishes prepared by chuck wagon cooks during competitions. (Martin Frentzel/For the Journal)

Dave Wade of Rye, Colo., and the Mountain Trails Chuck Wagon, drops down to Ute Lake for the cook.

Wade likes the people he meets when traveling to five or six cooks each year, especially those hardy enough to wait for their meals during a snowstorm.

“Last year, we cooked in the middle of a blizzard,” Wade says. “The people standing in line to get food had to put the to-go plates in front of their faces to block the wind.”

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