Cookin’ up Cowboy: Chuckwagons at the National Western Stock Show
A heap of Old West hospitality showed up during the second week of the National Western Stock Show (NWSS). Tucked in beside the main arena near the stockyard, four vintage chuckwagons pumped out inviting aromas and even better conversation during the first annual Celebrity Chuckwagon Cook Off at the historic venue. While local “celebrities” such as Todd Helton (Colorado Rockies), Clint Barmes (Colorado Rockies), Becky Ditchfield (9News), and KYGO’s Catfish Hunter were there to help raise funds for charity, the real stars, for the hundreds of people swarming the event were chuckwagon crews and their tantalizing recipes.
“I think it went great,” said Bill Angell, NWSS Livestock Manager and the man in charge of the January 22 cook off.
“The weather was perfect, (and) we had a great crowd. According to the guys at the wagons, we probably served over 2,500 samples of food.”
Those samples were a big hit, and with good reason. Dutch Ovens over glowing embers and hot coals cooked up fare hearty enough to keep the spirit of the west alive and kicking. Everything from beef roast, beef stew, beef stroganoff, potatoes, beans, biscuits, and mouth-watering varieties of cobbler (peach, apple, apple crisp, etc.) were served up with a smile at each wagon. If you wanted laughter with your smile, it was best to line up at the Rockin’ M Chuckwagon, where Mark Moore and his gang of good buddies offered up hilarity along with some of the best vittles around.
“My wife is affectionately known as the luckiest woman in the entire universe,” announced Lloyd Britton of Kiowa, Colo., the group’s proclaimed bread expert and one of the more loquacious of the Rockin’ M cowboys, as he slapped a hot biscuit on every paper plate within reach. Britton made it a point to leave each guest chuckling.
Spending time around their tent, it was easy to see why the crowd voted those Rockin’ M cohorts as the People’s Choice winners for the event. All five made an effort to look the part of an authentic cowboy trail drive ” with appropriate attire matching weathered faces, a few handlebar mustaches and beards ” and each wore a smile as big as the Colorado mountains. The quintet has been dishing up Dutch Oven fare since Moore added a chuck box to his circa 1900 Montgomery Wards wagon in 2001. Although they mostly cook for friends and family get-togethers, the buddies provide eats for a few brandings and take part in competitions on a semi-regular basis (their food earned first place at the Elbert County Fair for seven straight years until the streak was snapped in 2008).
Just like old-time chuckwagon cooks earned peculiar nicknames, this gang sported a few monikers, and the ones who didn’t had them made up on the spot at the NWSS contest. Apparently, there is no place to hide from each other’s quick wits. When the dust was settled, the names popped out: Mark “I ain’t got no nickname” Moore (Parker, Colo.), “Sourdough” Lloyd Britton (Kiowa, Colo.), Don “No Dough” Herriot (Elizabeth, Colo.), Kevin “HunkaMeat” Hall (Kiowa, Colo.), and Bill “Big Spoon” Vance (Elizabeth, Colo.) They all seemed to have their specialties regarding the menu, and they all enjoy the chuckwagon way of life when they can.
“Number one, I like to eat,” began “Big Spoon” Vance about why he likes to do this, using a big wooden spoon to serve up excellent beans as he spoke. “And unless you’re into raw meat and other raw food products, cooking is an important part of it. Really, it’s the challenge of being able to do the best you can with the Dutch Oven and stuff,” he added with a smile.
Vance is considered by every one of the gang to be their best overall cook, and he’s got a sense of humor to match. “The easiest thing about it is to screw it up, but that’s what Herriot is for,” he joked to the accompaniment of much laughter. “That’s his specialty.”
“Oh, it’s excellent,” said the aforementioned Herriot about how much he likes getting together with his friends to serve up a chuckwagon supper. “Sometimes we don’t cook very well, but we darn sure have a good time. It’s a chance to have some good times, go get to see some of the country and get on some big ranches every once in awhile.”
“We probably do this about a half-dozen times a year, maybe a little bit more,” explained Hall as he prepared tender beef, which the others readily acknowledged was his territory on the menu. “Usually we rotate and go to each other’s place. We’ve been pretty fortunate, for the last five or six years, to go to a gentleman’s ranch up in Montana and cook for his branding, and a few others. But this is fun,” he added about serving up food to hundreds of visitors at the NWSS. “There’s such a cross-section of people that come through here, they probably have no idea that this even existed a hundred years ago, let alone there’s still a few of us today that like to get together and do this.”
“We have a great time doing it,” agreed Moore who, since he owns the wagon, gets the unwanted title of leader for this entertaining set of cowboys. “Most of it is just for fun. We do a little bit of competition stuff, but not a lot. Mostly we just enjoy getting together and cooking.”
Asked about how much they like dressing up in western duds for the occasion, Moore’s reply was instructive as to why the crowds gravitate in their direction. They are the real deal.
“Well that’s kind of the way we are, generally… this is the way we dress,” he shared about their everyday lifestyles. “We’re all history buffs, so it kind of plays right into that for us. We like getting the wagon out… it’s just fun cooking outside and having our own outdoor kitchen. It’s kind of fun to see people enjoy it,” he offered about the many NWSS spectators coming by for a plate of cowboy chow. “People really love coming out and seeing it, and there are some great wagons here.”
“It’s something you don’t see very often anymore,” commented Britton with his usual smile. “And it gives us a chance to get together and swap philosophy and what-not. Something about the campfire brings out our innate intelligence,” he added while his compadre’s laughed along in the background. “Our deeply buried, innate intelligence.”
“It was just a beautiful day and a great success,” summed up Angell about the NWSS chuckwagon experiment for 2009. “We are hoping to do it again. Everybody has already said they want to come back. Part of the reason we came up with this was, we came up with our second week here in the yards, calling it Western Heritage Week and chuckwagons have always been a part of western heritage, so we thought that would fit in real well.”
With such good food and colorful personalities, look for the chuckwagons to be a tailored fit for future stock shows… and be prepared to laugh while you’re dishing up with the cowboys of the Rockin’ M.
Voting Results for Best Chuckwagon Food + Charity Funds Raised:
1 – Rockin’ M Chuckwagon – 60 votes and $144.80 for charity
2 – LVS Trail Wagon – 37 votes and $264.25 for charity
3 – Chuckwagon representing 9News – 37 votes and $88.25 for charity
4 – Chuckwagon representing KYGO – 29 votes and $127.65 for charity.
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