It’s 2:45 a.m., and I’ve already dressed and put on my boots as the alarm clock sounds. I don’t recall in all my years as a chuck wagon cook that it ever did wake me up. I guess my biological clock always had it beat.
You might be wondering, “Why so early?” Well, cooking for cowboys on ranches isn’t as easy as walking into the kitchen, switching on the light, and turning the knob on the stove. A cook on a chuck wagon isn’t what I would call a glamorous job, but the pay is well worth it. I’m not talking pay in money, but I’m paid generously in scenery, peace, and friendships.
For those of you who might not be aware of what a chuck wagon is, to put it simply, it’s the first meals on wheels for cowboys. It was, and still is, a way to feed cowboys on traditional ranches when they are working cattle, with a mobile kitchen.
My wife Shannon and I cook for cowboys three meals a day over periods from five days to five weeks, on ranches that range between 40,000 and 300,000 acres. We’ve rustled up vittles for ranches across the Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming areas. The reward is not only feeding cowboys in places so remote that there ain’t no map to take you there but also to carry on a tradition that has been around since the mid-1800s.
Surprisingly, the task hasn’t changed much from when an old wagon cook went down the trail back then to now. There’s no electricity in camp, just my wood-burning stove and a propane lantern, and the only running water comes out of a 25-gallon barrel harnessed to the side of our 1876 Studebaker chuck wagon. We cook in cast iron that has been seasoned well by hundreds of meals, from sizzling bacon to buttery sourdough biscuits.
Mornings are my favorite part of the job. I’m the first one up and my tasks include stoking the fire, putting on water for coffee, and making homemade biscuits. But before I begin the morning’s chores, I pull a worn-out canvas chair up to Bertha, our 385-pound wood stove, and soak in some of her warmth.
There is peace in the world as I listen to the hum of my old lantern. In the distance, I can hear the yodel of a lone coyote as he, too, greets the morning. Hooter owls call out to their mates, nestled in cottonwood trees. The sagebrush symphony has begun, and I always have front row tickets.
Soon, I hear teepee zippers as the cowboys begin to stir. The ringing of spurs gives warning that the boys are making their way into camp. Two one-and-a-half gallon coffee pots sit atop the stove, always full of smooth, boiled cowboy coffee. Pouring a cup is the first stop for any cowboy who enters under the fly (the tent of the wagon), before morning’s light has broken. Bertha is popular in the morning, not only for coffee but for stealing a little of her warmth, too.
As the rest of the crew begins to drift in, it’s time to cook biscuits. There’s no conventional oven out here, and all the baking is done in Dutch ovens with wood coals along the bottom and on top. There are no temperature controls, just years of trial and error.
In an outdoor kitchen, you’re always at Mother Nature’s mercy. She can throw you a curveball whenever she gets a hankering. I’ve cooked in gully-washing rains, hailstorms, heat waves, and a near hurricane. But the end goal is always the same: feed those fellers before they go out to do bovine battle.
Tending the Fire
After a hearty breakfast, the boys place their empty plates in the wreck pan, tip their hats, and say, “Thanks for the meal, Cookie.” We watch them mount their horses and ride off single file. Hoofbeats and dust fill the air, and then we watch as cowboy silhouettes slowly fade out of sight.
I’ve been behind both fires, the branding fire and the cooking fire, so I know they have a long day ahead of them full of thick sagebrush, deep draws, and ornery cows. However, I don’t believe any one of us would trade our worst day in a pasture for the best day on pavement.
Shannon and I finish washing up the dishes and we’ve got a little downtime before preparing the next meal. Our priorities are to always keep them fed and to make them feel welcome.
Our lifestyle, the folks we’ve fed, and the sights we witness from our kitchen window are true blessings. We’ve been passed a torch that was lit 150 years ago, and we have a great responsibility to those who came before us to keep it burning.
Someone once told me, “Your kind is a dying breed.” I just grinned and said, “No, we ain’t dead; you just can’t see us from the interstate.”
Kent and Shannon Rollins live in southwest Oklahoma, and travel across the country cooking for working cowboys, events, and festivals with their historic chuck wagon. You can enjoy their weekly cowboy cooking shows at YouTube.com/CowboyKentRollins.