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Taste of Dutch oven cooking offered at Chuck Wagon Gathering and Children's Cowboy Festival

This weekend's Chuck Wagon Gathering and Children's Cowboy Festival at the Cowboy Hall of Fame & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City will offer entertainment, opportunities to taste Dutch oven fare.
by Dave Cathey Published: May 23, 2012

Question: What do Big Truck Tacos and Waffle Champion have in common with Oklahoma history?

Answer: A debt of gratitude to cookies.

Not the baked good, but the men who commandeered chuck wagons — the first mobile kitchens in this country — cutting through Oklahoma prairies throughout the second half of the 19th century.

Everyone has a chance to celebrate those cookies, their wagons and the food they served along the trail at this weekend's Chuck Wagon Gathering and Children's Cowboy Festival at the Cowboy Hall of Fame & Western Heritage Museum, 1700 NE 63.

It's fitting, too, that this occasion comes at the start of cookout season. Chuck wagons and the men who ran them had no choice but to have a cookout every night on the trail.

The event, which takes place in a thicket of trees between the museum and the east parking lot, began 22 years ago when the late Garnet Brooks convinced the museum that chuck wagons were worthy of an annual celebration. Brooks devoted his life to cattle, farming and curating history, and chuck wagons were one of his life's passions.

Now a team of organizers carry the tradition into its second decade.

Don Reeves explained the only reference point for a mobile kitchen in the mid-to-late 19th century came from the sea.

“Chuck wagons were designed after ships' galleys,” Reeves said. “They were the only kind of kitchen designed to withstand shaking, bouncing and moving from one place to another.”

Reeves said the table that folds down off the back is a direct descendant of the galley. The folding table also acted as stabilizer to the drawers full of ingredients, spices and tools sure to jangle open along the trail. A leather strap buckled across the table made sure the whole rig stayed together.

The invention of the chuck wagon is attributed to Charles Goodnight, a Texas rancher who introduced the concept in 1866. Goodnight modified the Studebaker wagon, a durable army-surplus wagon, to suit the needs of cowboys driving cattle from Texas to sell in New Mexico. He added a “chuck box” to the back of the wagon with drawers and shelves for storage space and a hinged lid to provide a flat cooking surface. A water barrel also was attached to the wagon and canvas was hung underneath to carry firewood. A wagon box was used to store cooking supplies and personal items.

Chuck wagon cuisine is derived from availability, necessity and efficiency.

“When you think of food on the trail, you think of beans, biscuits and beef,” Reeves said.

Beans are a hearty dried good, easily packed and moved. Biscuits are made of flour, salt and water, and beef often came from cattle that fell lame along the trail.

Sounds like a lot of protein, which it is. But sweetbreads carry a lot of the other vitamins and nutrition found in primal cuts. And life on the trail wasn't for the finicky.

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by Dave Cathey
Food Editor
The Oklahoman's food editor, Dave Cathey, keeps his eye on culinary arts and serves up news and reviews from Oklahoma’s booming food scene.
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