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Back when the West was being won, cowboys often returned from cattle drives complaining about weak coffee and hard biscuits, but eaters today pay good

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Eaters Line Up for Chuck Wagon Grub

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Back when the West was being won, cowboys often returned from cattle drives complaining about weak coffee and hard biscuits, but eaters today pay good money for food cooked in cast iron Dutch ovens.

Chuck wagon catering continues to thrive in Stetson hat territory, attracting practitioners such as Rod McGuire, who's been "drinking whiskey and cooking" for 10 years.

"I'm booked up a year and a half in advance," says McGuire, who manages to keep his dance card full without the advantage of an e-mail address. "I cook for a lot of very rich people."

McGuire of Arlington, Ore. was one of a squad of chuckwagon cooks participating in last weekend's Spirit of the West Cowboy Gathering in Ellensburg. For $12, attendees could purchase a lunch ticket entitling them to a hunk of meat (served with bottled barbecue sauce, in keeping with pragmatic cowboy logic: "It's cheaper," a hand explained); cole slaw or potatoes; beans; bread and dessert. For his dessert, McGuire prepared bread pudding soaked in whiskey, perhaps the most important item in the chuck wagon catering pantry.

"Of course there's whiskey," says Kris Akehurst of Ellensburg's Longhorn Cattle Company. "It's cowboy cooking."

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Akehurst concedes the boozy nature of cowboy cuisine might account for its continued popularity, but customers are also drawn to the mystique of the chuck wagon - Akehurst and her husband Greg use an Army surplus John Deere model that Greg's great-grandfather bought in 1889 - and the seeming impossibility of assembling a hot, rib-sticking meal without electricity or propane.

"People will look and say 'how do you cook a meal out of those things?'," says Akehurst, who last year launched the catering company from her family's ranch.

Not easily, her husband adds.

"I'm not a professional, by no means, but it's a lifetime of learning," Greg Akehurst says. "Look, right now, that little bit of wind, that changes how it cooks. You don't just walk away and leave it. It's a real skill. You learn more every day."

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