Question: What do Big Truck Tacos and Waffle Champion have in common with Oklahoma history?
Answer: A debt of gratitude to
Not the baked good, but the men who commandeered chuck wagons — the first mobile kitchens in this
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
It's fitting, too, that this occasion comes at the start of cookout
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.
“If all that was left to eat was insects, you might have guys looking for different outfits,” Reeves said.
To prepare those simple foods, a trail cooks employed simple techniques that allowed them to walk away from the cooking while they foraged for other ingredients without fear of weather or critters getting into dinner.
The primary tool for this technique was the Dutch oven. Reeves explained the Dutch oven came by its name honestly.
“On the trail, you needed pots that were easy to carry and could hold stuff as you moved along,” Reeves said.
Reeves said the Dutch developed these pots that were heavy duty and
“Guys would say, ‘Gimme one of those Dutch ovens,'” Reeves said. “And the name stuck.”
Kyle Roubidoux met us at the grounds of the Chuck Wagon Gathering to demonstrate her expertise in Dutch oven cooking. Roubidoux said she joined a women's group a number of years ago, and camping was one of the activities they shared.
“I started cooking with Dutch ovens back then, and as time went on, I started wanting to do something other than stews.”
For our get-together, she made chuck wagon staples and gourmet
“When my girlfriends see me coming up to the campsite with my pots, they get excited because they have no idea what might be in store.”
When I asked Roubidoux how many Dutch ovens she owned, she couldn't give an exact answer, but suffice it to say it's more than 20 in all shapes and sizes.
Reeves said the Dutch oven was the primary cooking device, but those ovens didn't work without fire.
“At some point, they started digging little pits to build a fire so the embers would be protected by the wind,” he said.
Over that fire you'd find a little wrought iron spit from which coffee pots and kettles hung on various hooked
This weekend's festival will include examples of all the chuck wagon techniques and a bevy of the fare they served — plus a few they didn't.
Reeves said in the chuck wagon and Dutch oven community dessert has taken on special
“Dessert is the thing the cooks measure each other by,” he said. “So they kind of go all out on it.”
Roubidoux said dessert is the first thing she makes so it's cooled properly before serving. Reeves said in those days a fancy dessert came from a place that we'd turn our nose up at today.
“Canned peaches would've been a really special treat on the trail,” he said. “They were fairly new at the time. Canned tomatoes were also eaten right out of the can.”
Reeves said canned goods allowed trail cooks to offer a more balanced diet.
Attendees will have a chance to watch and taste practices from the past along with live music from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Pony rides for kids are available along with an old-fashioned medicine show, storytelling and plenty of shaded seating.