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A chuckwagon is a type of "field kitchen" covered wagon historically used for the storage and transportation of perishable food and cooking equipment on the prairies of the United States and Canada. Such wagons formed part of a wagon train of settlers or fed traveling workers such as cowboys or loggers.
While some form of mobile kitchens had existed for generations, the invention of the chuckwagon is attributed to Charles Goodnight, a Texas rancher, the "father of the Texas Panhandle," who introduced the concept in 1866. After the American Civil War, the beef market in Texas expanded. Some cattlemen herded cattle in parts of the country that did not have railroads which would mean they needed to be fed on the road for months at a time. 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 was also attached to the wagon and canvas was hung underneath to carry firewood. A wagon box was used to store cooking supplies and cowboys' personal items.
Chuckwagon food typically included easy-to-preserve items like beans and salted meats, coffee, and sourdough biscuits. Food would also be gathered en route. There was no fresh fruit, vegetables, or eggs available and meat was not fresh unless an animal was injured during the run and therefore had to be killed. The meat they ate was greasy cloth-wrapped bacon, salt pork, and beef, usually dried, salted or smoked. The wagon was also stocked with a water barrel and a sling to kindle wood to heat and cook food. On cattle drives, it was common for the "cookie" who ran the wagon to be second in authority only to the "trailboss." The cookie would often act as cook, barber, dentist, and banker.
The term "chuck wagon" comes from "chuck", a slang term for food, and not from the nickname for "Charles".
The American Chuckwagon Association is an organization dedicated to the preservation of the heritage of the chuckwagon. Its members participate in chuckwagon cook-offs throughout much of the US. Through these events, the members educate the public on the history and traditions surrounding the chuckwagon.
At a chuckwagon cook off, each wagon is judged on the authenticity of the wagon. Wagons must be in sound drivable condition, with equipment and construction available in the late 1800s. Contents of the chuck-box, including utensils, must also match what would have been used during the era. Wagons are also judged on the attire of their cooks. A typical chuckwagon cookoff is composed of 5 food categories: Meat (usually chicken-fried steak), Beans (pinto), Bread (sourdough or yeast), Dessert (usually peach cobbler), and potatoes. A team of judges evaluates the entries from each wagon, giving each a score. Once scores are tabulated, prizes are awarded to the top wagons.
Among the few chuckwagon cook-offs east of the Mississippi River takes place during SaddleUp! each February in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Held just outside Great Smoky Mountains National Park, SaddleUp! also features a cowboy symphony and cowboy church services over a four-day period.
Chuckwagon racing is an event at some rodeos mainly in Western Canada such as the Calgary Stampede. Chuckwagon races were held from 1952 until 1998 at Cheyenne Frontier Days, one of America's biggest rodeos. There are a few professional chuckwagon racing circuits that operate in North America with the premiere circuit being run by the World Professional Chuckwagon Association (WPCA) based in Calgary, Alberta, the Western Chuckwagon Association out of Grande Prairie, AB, and Canadian Professional Chuckwagon Association out of Saskatchewan. A yearly chuckwagon race event is still held in Clinton, Arkansas.
So far the world's most successful Chuckwagon champion is Kelly Sutherland, who won the Calgary Stampede 12 times - the Wayne Gretzky of Chuckwagon racing. He inherited this tough pioneering spirit from his grandparents Helen and Seath Sutherland who homesteaded about fifteen miles southwest of Grande Prairie, Alberta. They raised 12 children there and Seath drove a team of horses to deliver coal to feed his family during the depression. This he did after mining a coal seam from the banks of the Wapiti river.
Chuckwagons are raced around a figure eight barrel obstacle, and the stove and tent poles within the wagon must not be lost. The racing team also has from two to four "outriders" who load the stove and tent poles at the start and must finish the race with the chuckwagon. Many such races are held each year in Western Canadian cities and towns.
Chuckwagon racing is highlighted by animal welfare experts as dangerous to the horses, due to the unusually high risk of broken limbs and other bones. Horses die frequently as a result and animal welfare charities are trying to raise awareness about the sport in this light. In July 2011, a horse died in the chuckwagon race on the opening night of the Calgary Stampede.
Tourists, mostly in the summers, can experience chuckwagon suppers, sometimes followed by live entertainment, at locations across the Western United States.
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