We're so hungry we could eat just about everything served up at and around the Star of Texas Fair & Rodeo
Cook-Off at High Noon, or Near It
If you happen to be looking across the grounds of the Travis County Expo Center about daybreak on Saturday, March 12, you might see some smoke from 22 campfires mingling with the early morning mists. This is the signal that dedicated wagon-camp cooks are beginning preparations for the third annual Chuck Wagon Cookoff at the Star of Texas Fair & Rodeo. From points all over the state and beyond, wagons arrive the night before, and the cooking commences at dawn. Austin is one of the newer destinations on the national chuck wagon cook-off circuit. The competition is friendly but stiff, the rules for authenticity are strict, and the prize monies are not chicken feed.
Thanks to the Saturday-morning Westerns of yesteryear, the chuck wagon (ã la Roy Rogers' sidekick Gabby Hayes) is firmly entrenched in the American imagination. Historically, however, the chuck wagon's heyday during the great cattle drives lasted only about 20 years, following the end of the Civil War. It's been estimated that during those years, 35,000 men rode with 6 to 10 million cattle up from Texas to the railroad head at Abilene, Kan.
In response to cowboys' privations on the trail, in 1866, rancher Charles Goodnight hit upon the idea of retrofitting an Army surplus Studebaker wagon to serve as a mobile trail kitchen. To the basic flatbed, he added a compartmented "chuck" box to carry ingredients and utensils; it had a broad cover that dropped down to become a work surface, with supplies in easy reach. (The term "chuck" not only refers to a shoulder cut of meat but is an archaic, informal expression for a meal.) Goodnight's basic design was the model for all subsequent trail wagons, as well as the ranch wagons that later worked the vast, fenced cattle spreads. Presided over by a cook who one aficionado assured me was usually "a broke-down old cowboy" the chuck wagon was responsible for staying ahead of the herd, carrying the cowboys' gear, and feeding the crew three times daily.
Today, the folks who restore the old wagons like wheelwright Elmer Richardson and his wife Shirley of Bryson Trading Post in Bryson and those who join the associations and participate in the competitions are passionate about honoring and preserving the skills that were developed on the trail. It's a diverse group; many hail from multigenerational ranch backgrounds, but there are also urban professionals who feed their inner cowboy via a chuck wagon. The tie that binds them all is a desire to keep an iconic piece of Western history alive.
This is a close-knit community that converges several times a year, hauling their lovingly restored wagons on flatbed trucks to various events around the country. The competitions are twofold: first, the wagons and their gear (right down to the nuts, bolts, and coffee cups) are judged for historical accuracy and authenticity. The wagon crews' cooking skills are evaluated in a variety of categories, from biscuits to beans to chicken-fried steaks to fruit cobblers. Producing delicious food under such circumstances is the result of lots of practice as well as mastering complicated algorithms of heat control, and the weather is a huge factor. Flipping back a waist-length brown braid, seasoned competitor Shirley Creacy of Wild Cow Ranch (near Pampa) vouched last year that "bread is the hardest thing. If the wind comes up, it just burns."
But the competitive aspects are only part of the deal. Dressed in period attire that they wear with unaffected grace (not to mention some of the best hats you'll ever see), chuck wagon people gather for additional reasons, both social and informational. They swap stories and recipes, mentor the newbies, and admire one another's wagon accoutrements. Buster McSparran of Hamilton put it this way: "These cook-offs are like going to a family reunion where you like all your relatives."
During the March 12 Chuck Wagon Cookoff, Austinites have a rare opportunity to check out the wagon details up close, mingle with the crews and cooks, and taste fine examples of camp cuisine. Wagon-judging takes place on Saturday morning, and the cooking competition is in the afternoon. At 11am and 1pm, Tom Perini, cowboy cook, restaurateur, and cookbook author from Buffalo Gap (see below for our review ofTexas Cowboy Cooking
), will host cooking demonstrations and discuss the history of trail cooking. Star of Texas board member and cook-off Chairperson Richard Meyer says that the $10 individual food tickets will be sold only on Saturday at the event, on a first-come, first-served basis.
When you visit the chuck wagon encampment, here are two things to remember, imparted by cowboy cook Gerry Self, who runs the Jardine's 7J Ranch wagon out of Buda: First, while the hospitable wagon crews are delighted to show you their rigs and discuss their histories, keep in mind that they are simultaneously engaged in a stiff cooking competition. Second, it is impolite to step within a camp's tented cooking area unless you are invited. And one more thing: If your own inner cowboy needs some nurturing, I noticed a chuck wagon for sale on eBay last week.
For directions to the Travis County Expo Center, the Star of Texas Fair & Rodeo schedule, and additional information about the Chuck Wagon Cookoff, see www.staroftexas.org.