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Festivals and cook-offs dedicated to cowboy culture serve up some lip-smacking good grub.
Story by T. Wayne Waters
Combine engaging travel with hearty, satisfying comfort food at a chuck wagon cook-off—it’s a tasty way to experience one culinary element of the iconic American West’s cowboy/cattleman culture.
Dozens of chuck wagon cooking competitions, or cook-offs, take place every year; most occur in western states though they can be found throughout the U.S.
According to native Texan and amateur historian Roger Edison, the chuck wagon was invented in 1866 by Texan Charles Goodnight, a rancher trying to find a way to keep his cowboys well-fed during cattle drives that sometimes lasted several months. Goodnight rigged a sturdy army surplus wagon with a large upright wooden pantry box and a hinged door with hinged legs that could be laid flat to serve as a food preparation table. It proved to be an effective way to hold and transport barrels of bulk foodstuffs and other supplies.
Most of today’s chuck wagon cook-off organizers and competitors aim to keep things as authentic as possible. The wagons are recreations of the iconic canvas-covered wooden wagons of Old West cattle drives and wagon trains. Competition rules typically require that contestants use only wood for the fire, only cast-iron cookware, and simple ingredients like those that may have been typical during the 19th century. That usually means beef, bacon, beans, potatoes, eggs, flour, cornmeal, some kind of sweet, basic seasonings, butter and a few more ingredients, though some competitions allow more foodstuffs.
If you’re hankerin’ for some tasty chicken fried steak, beef-and-bean chili,or maybe, as ranchers might put it, some yummy hen fruit (eggs), chuck wagon chicken (bacon rolled in flour and fried), a biscuit smothered with either cookie cow grease (butter) or Texas butter (gravy), all washed down with a cup of brown gargle (coffee), and other grub, then get yourself and your posse to one of the numerous chuck wagon cook-offs scheduled all over the country throughout most of the year.
Here are four great options.
National Championship Chuck Wagon Cook-Off Lubbock, Texas September 7-9, 2018
Lubbock Memorial Civic Center, 1501 Mac Davis Lane
Lubbock, Texas, is home to the National Championship Chuck Wagon Cook-Off, part of the National Cowboy Symposium & Celebration. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the annual event held in and around the Lubbock Memorial Civic Center.
Saturday is the big day for the noontime chuck wagon lunch, which includes chicken-fried steak, potatoes, gravy, bread, beans and dessert, with water or tea to wash it down.
The National Cowboy Symposium & Celebration offers genuine cowboys and cowgirls as well as reenactors; cowboy poets, storytellers, historians and authors; Native American Indian activities, a Youth Wild West Day, Cowboy Church on Sunday, a horse parade, all manner of cowboy paraphernalia for sale, live entertainment, and more. It ranks among the nation’s largest such gatherings.
Day passes for adults attending the Symposium & Celebration are $15, youth tickets are $6, and “young children” are free. Several all-inclusive single-day and multiple-day packages are available ranging from $45 to $170.
Insider’s Tip: The chuck wagon meal is served in a park just north of the Civic Center and is accompanied by some twangy musical entertainment performed on the Outdoor Stage.
Ruidoso Downs World Championship Chuckwagon Cook-Off Ruidoso Downs, New Mexico October 12-14, 2018
Ruidoso Downs Race Track, 26225 U.S. Highway 70
One big, delicious part of the festivities is the World Championship Chuckwagon Cook-Off Competition where cooks (or “cookies” in cowboy parlance, a lingo rich in nicknames) serve up a substantial chuck wagon lunch on Saturday and a full breakfast on Sunday, for $25 and $15 respectively. General admission Sunday is free and kids under 16 are free every day of the event. Also on Sunday, the 12th Annual Real Cowboy Biscuits & Gravy Competition takes place.
Attend and you’ll be assigned a particular chuck wagon for your meals.
The Symposium has several stages for all-day live entertainment included in general admission. Special nighttime concerts this year will include popular musicians Lee Greenwood and Sawyer Brown, among others, and require separately-priced tickets. Gospel music performances on Sunday are free. Other Symposium activities include cowboy mounted-shooting and cutting horse demonstrations, goat-roping competitions, demonstrations of blacksmithing and other western-inspired skills, kid-friendly activities, the inaugural Cowgirls Fashion Show and the Western Expo offering a multitude of Western art, clothing, jewelry, etc.
Insider’s Tip: General admission is free on Sunday, the day of the chuck wagon cook-off.
Pigeon Forge Chuckwagon Cookoff Pigeon Forge, Tennessee March 2, 2019
Claybough’s Campground, 405 Wears Valley Road
Every year the town by the Little Pigeon River that’s nestled up close to the Great Smoky Mountains puts on an impressive display of cowboy culture including a large chuck wagon cook-off.
Next year’s Pigeon Forge Chuckwagon Cookoff will once again take place at the picturesque 50-acre Clabough’s Campground site. According to an event representative, about 20 chuck wagons are expected, which is more than most such events. Once event tickets go on sale, ticket-buyers can select the chuck wagon they’d like to prepare their food.
Photo Credit: Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism
It’s free to visit the campground during the event, which runs from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday. There will be special Buckaroo Roundup Activities. Chuck wagon meals are just $12.50, served at high noon.
Concerts will take place on the Friday and Saturday evenings with separate tickets required. Performers, showtimes and locations have yet to be set.
The Pigeon Forge Chuckwagon Cookoff always closes out with a chuck wagon breakfast for just $5 and the popular Cowboy Church.
Insider’s Tip: Until a dedicated webpage is set up for next year’s Pigeon Forge Chuck Wagon Cookoff, MyPigeonForge.com is your best source of information. Details will be added as they are finalized.
Though all chuck wagon festivals and cook-offs are kid-friendly, Oklahoma’s capital city offers perhaps the most decidedly kid-oriented of them all. The two-day annual weekend daytime event serves up not only some tasty cowboy fare but also cowboy reenactors, rope making, leather stamping, bandana decorating, face painting, live music, square dancing, and more. Most of the activity occurs just outside the museum by the Children’s Cowboy Corral.
Insider’s Tip: While at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum Chuck Wagon Festival, don’t miss the chance to visit the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. It has great exhibits including some interactive history galleries that feature the American cowboy, cowboy gear and Native American culture, rodeos, firearms, frontier military and an impressive collection of Western art, including works by Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell.
Plan A Trip
If you’re interested in attending a chuck wagon cook-off, it’s best to buy tickets early since the events often sell out.
Note that The American Chuck Wagon Association is not a sanctioning body for any competition, nor is any other organization an official sanctioning body of chuck wagon cook-offs—at least not at a regional, national, or international level.