Chuckwagon Cookoff brings Old West to life
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The smell of fresh-cooked food wafts through the crowd, turning heads and enticing taste buds.
The chuckwagons at Cheyenne Frontier Days are impossible to miss, as they line the sidewalk between Old Frontier Town and the Indian Village.
All of the chuckwagons are entirely authentic, from the cooking utensils to the dress.
The annual CFD Chuckwagon Cookoff features some of the best wagons in the country and their crews, and they compete for prize money, buckles and bragging rights.
The winner of the Chuckwagon Cookoff this year was the Curly Cue Camp, based out of Las Vegas, Nev. The cooking crew comes out of New Mexico.
Even though they live in different parts of the country, that all have one thing in common: family.
The wagon is owned by Clint Combs, and his cooking crew consists of his sister’s family, the Stallards.
Together they travel across the country to various competitions, sharing their expertise and funny banter with anyone who wants to know more.
This was the family’s 11th trip to Cheyenne, and their third time winning the competition.
“It’s always exciting to win. It’s nice because that kind of cooking is always a challenge,” said Tina Stallard, the head cook.
For the competition, the family has to prepare chicken-fried steaks, potatoes, beans, biscuits and cherry cobbler.
Each dish was assigned to a family member to prepare and attend to, and at noon on the day of the competition, each dish was judged.
The family started their day about 6:30 a.m. that morning, when the fires were first built, and the cobbler was prepared and cooked. “We start the cobbler first because it takes more time to cook, and it will stay warm for a long time in the pan,” she explained.
The beans also take time, and the biscuits and steak are the last items cooked.
“It’s a lot about timing. We need to have it all ready at just the right time, and have the food be consistent,” Stallard stated.
Stallard’s daughter, Sarah Stallard, has been going since they began, but recently joined the cook team.
This year, she was responsible for the potatoes.
“I really like just working on my own dish. I like trying to figure out how to make it taste the best and getting the crews feedback. It’s crazy how complicated even potatoes can be,” she said.
The fourth cook is Gerald Kogel, a family friend.
The biggest challenge to cooking on an open fire is temperature. “Getting the fires right can be hard. I have the best fire guy in the circuit,” Tina Stallard said.
Her fire guy is her husband, Mike Stallard.
He makes sure the fires are just right for each dish, and adjusts them as needed throughout the day.
Sarah Stallard agreed.
“The biggest difference I would say is control heat which is difficult, but thankfully my dad’s a pro,” she said.
They bring their own wood for the competition, and prefer to use harder woods that last longer.
“It gets complicated because some of the food is on fire and some of it is on coals. We built a deeper, narrower pit for our fire because it’s more efficient. The wind and the weather can really change the temperature of the fire in a hurry if it’s shallow,” she explained.
The cookoff competition is focused mainly on the food, but there is more to it.
They are judged on each of the five dishes, and are judged on taste as well as presentation.
They are also judged on authenticity, which includes the wagon, all items and even the dress of the cooks.
To win takes a complete package, which makes the win that much better.
“It was amazing. It’s always great to place well, but Cheyenne is my favorite event so it makes it even more special to win, especially since I’m new to the cook team,” said Sarah Stallard.
Tina Stallard added, “it’s a people show like no other. I love interacting with them. It’s a historic event. We also get buckles for winning, and that is pretty cool. We are pretty proud of those.”
The family originally got into the chuckwagon business 13 years ago, when Combs had the opportunity to buy one.
“I have a love for the horse-drawn vehicles. I grew up in the Western lifestyle and was naturally drawn to them,” he explained.
One year, while attending the National Finals Rodeo, Combs met a women who restored old wagons and had one for sale. Once she sent him the pictures, he knew he had to have it.
“It was a love at first site. I originally had no intention of doing competition cooking, but the women I bought it from encouraged me to try it and explained that the wagon was built for that for authenticity,” Combs said.
After attending their first competition as spectators, they decided to give it a try, and Combs enlisted the Stallards to be his cooks.
“It seemed like a natural fit. We do it all together. The last couple of years we have been refining it and doing really well,” he stated.
Now, the family meets three to four times a year to compete.
“It’s fun. It can get a little stressful at times, but in the long run I think it’s a great bonding experience, and it gives us a purpose to get together. It makes for great stories and memories,” said Sarah Stallard. ❖