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Chuckwagon Cook-off at Cheyenne Frontier Days

by Tony Bruguiere
Fort Collins, Colo.
Tony BruguiereChuck wagon cook-offs are real family affairs. This young man is tending one of the coffee pots that are present at every camp site.

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The 12th annual Chuck Wagon Cook-Off was a great success at Cheyenne Frontier Days. The ‘invitation only’ event was filled to capacity and included wagons from as far away as Missouri. The contestants included professionals as well as hobbyists. Their common bond was, as 2007 CFD Champion Kenneth Cunningham put it “We are trying to preserve some history and the authentic way it was once done”.

And Cunningham should know ” he has been involved with chuck wagons for over 30 years and is a two time winner of the World’s Championship Chuck Wagon Cook-Off in Amarillo, Texas. Cunningham’s C Bar C chuck wagon team has won all of the major cook-off championships at least one time.

Kenneth and his wife Sue received their first wagon from Sue’s father when he passed away in 1986. Sue’s father was Dick Shepherd, cowboy and chuck wagon cook for the famous XIT Ranch in the Texas Panhandle. Kenneth and Sue restored the XIT wagon and used it for many years. It now has a place of honor on their C Bar C ranch in Hartley, Texas.

Kenneth’s present wagon does not have the historical significance of the XIT wagon, but it is a work of art. The wagon is totally restored. Photographs were taken of the wagon prior to beginning restoration to insure that the pin striping and signs could be replaced exactly as they were originally after the wagon was sanded and repainted.

One reason that so much care is put into the wagons is that the condition and authenticity of the wagons and campsite is a major factor in the overall judging. Chuck wagon owners are constantly on the lookout for authentic articles for their wagons and campsites. They also have to insure that in the restoration, they do not use things like hex nuts, Phillips head screws, and plywood, as none of these items existed at the time when chuck wagons were in use.

Besides the wagon and campsite, contestants are judged on their cooking. At Cheyenne Frontier Days, contestants are assigned five foods and told how the judges want them prepared. This year the foods were chicken fried steak, mashed potatoes, pinto beans, either plain, sourdough, or corn bread, and a cobbler made from dried blue berries.

Obviously, there are no microwaves or food processors allowed. Everything is prepared with period utensils and cooked over an open fire or in a Dutch Oven. Most of the cast iron cooking utensils used by the contestants are over 20 years old and some are over 50.

Kenneth and his wife Sue cook at 12 cook-offs a year as well as doing catering and using his wagon to feed hungry cowboys on spring and fall round-ups. Besides professionals like the Cunninghams, there were also some exceptional hobbyists that competed at the 2008 Cheyenne Frontier Days. The most outstanding hobbyist was 17 year old Tate Bauman of Cheyenne, Wyoming.

Tate has been a non-paid worker at the CFD Chuck Wagon Cook-Off since he was eight and bought his first wagon when he was 11. Asked how at eight, he decided to get into chuck wagon cooking, he replied, “I used to come down here all the time and I started watching these two ladies from Texas and they invited me into their camp and I started washing dishes and helping them cook bread, and the next year they brought me a wagon. At 11 I bought my wagon and started restoring it”.

To perfect his recipes, Tate and his mother, Tammy Bauman, searched cookbooks for appropriate recipes and relied heavily on cookbooks published by the chuck wagon community. Through trial and error he modified these recipes until they were his ‘own’. At the age of 17, Tate Bauman has become a respected member of the chuck wagon community by winning the Cheyenne Frontier Days 2007 Rookie Champion buckle.

Because there are so many trip hazards and open fires, the general public is not allowed to wander through the campsites. However, the campsites can easily be viewed from the Wild Horse Gulch sidewalk and there is always someone who is eager to talk to you about their passion and, in true cowboy tradition, to offer you a cup of coffee and a sourdough biscuit.


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