Some 150 years ago, Charlie Goodnight came up with the idea for a chuckwagon when he retrofitted an Army Studebaker to be used as a moving field kitchen to keep cowboys fed during cattle drives. We bet he’d be tickled to know that, more than a century later, his invention was still being put to good use—filling up bellies of hungry cowboys with delicious grub.
In effort to preserve this iconic tradition from the cattle drive era, the American Chuckwagon Association hosts chuckwagon cook-off competitions, where wagons are judged on the quality of their meals and the authenticity of their setup.
We caught up with Ronnie Sexton, the current president of the association, at the fourth annual Cinch Timed Event Championship Chuckwagon Cook-off at the storied Lazy E Arena in Guthrie, Okla. He explains, “If we don’t try to keep the wagons restored and educate the public through events, one of these days, that part of history is just going to disappear forever.”
The American Chuckwagon Association boasts 400 members from 31 states, and its sanctioned events send winners to the Championship Cook-off—the inaugural championship will take place this year in Fredericksburg, Texas, March 30–April 1.
At the CTEC Chuckwagon Cook-Off, 11 wagons from all over the country are competing for the honor. On Saturday, they’ll be serving up breakfast and lunch—a delicious, mouth-watering plate (or plates!) of chicken-fried steak, biscuits, beans, and cobbler (get tickets here).
Sexton admits the tasty grub they serve up is not quite what cowboys on the trail would have enjoyed.
“They’d eat anything that could be cooked,” he says. “Sometimes that meant tortillas, javelina, and beans. Sometimes it was hard biscuits for breakfast, hard biscuits for lunch, and hard biscuits for dinner. And they’d eat it without complaint, because he who complained just might find himself in the position of being the outfit’s next cook!”
Another difference between then and now is the attitude of the chuckwagon cooks. Historically, cookie had a reputation as being surly. After all, says Sexton, he was up by 4 a.m. to start a fire and have food prepared for the night watch coming in, and then he had to pack up the wagon, get it moved around the herd, and set up camp again—all before dark
And on top of those duties, he was often the doctor and mechanic as well.
“He earned the right to have that attitude!” says Sexton.
In contrast, all the chuckwagon cooks at the CTEC Cook-Off are incredibly friendly and helpful. It’s obvious they love what they do, and are happy to share their passion. It’s impossible to walk away from the wagons without being full of both good food and good stories.
Only a short walk away from where history is being preserved, history is being made, as today’s top cowboys compete for the title of the CINCH Timed Event World Champion.
“The Lazy E is a perfect venue to host the cook-off,” says Sexton. “Where else can you find a venue like this? Here, we have elite cooks, and there are sure enough some elite people in the arena. We have the current cowboys and the old ones, all right here.”