Chuck wagon chef

Guideposts|August 2020

Chuck wagon chef
The not-so-lost art of cooking for cowboys

Texas’s palo duro canyon gets mighty cold in December. Especially at 3:45 in the morning. My hands, my whole body, felt frozen as I rolled out of my 1876 Studebaker chuck wagon. I could barely hold a match to the lantern, the wind blowing from the north. “God, let this catch,” I muttered.

The cowboys were still asleep, though they’d be stirring before long. It’s my job as cook to be up first, firing up Bertha—my 385-pound, wood-burning camp stove—and get enough eggs and bacon going to feed a small battalion. An army moves on its stomach, they say. A cattle drive is no different. Without a hearty breakfast…brother, we’ve got problems. It’s all riding on me.

I gave up a good-paying, secure job to become a chuck wagon cook. At the time, it felt like what I was meant to do. But on mornings like this, a warm bed sure did seem inviting. I went to the barrel to get water for coffee, but it was frozen solid. I’d have to chop it to get some in the percolator. Lord, what am I doing here? I wondered. Just then, the lantern blew out.

My whole life, I’d been around cowboys. I was the youngest of four children, and my daddy ran about 250 cows on a small ranch in southwest Oklahoma, some of the most beautiful and desolate land on God’s earth.

When I was eight, I went on my first cattle drive, moving a herd 10 miles. Just like here in the canyon, it was still dark when we saddled our horses and led them out of the pen. We paused, and Daddy said, “Let us not forget we all have Someone beside us, Someone to help us as we ride along. So let’s cowboy up and get it done.” It was a long, hard day, and there were times I wanted to quit, not that I ever let on. The next morning, my entire body was sore. Still, I stood a little taller that day, even if it made my muscles ache more.

There came another day when I awoke and the temperature was barely five degrees, the wind blowing something fierce. Daddy and the other cowboys went about their chores regardless, but my mama held me back. “Why don’t you and I make a chocolate cake today?” she said. I took another look outside, the men bracing themselves against the cold, and quickly agreed.

Mama told me the ingredients I needed to find and began spooning flour and sugar into a bowl. “How do you know how much to use?” I asked. I’d never seen her look at a recipe to cook anything.

“Each ingredient has a purpose,” she said. “It’s like a team that works together. It’s about finding the right balance. You’ll make mistakes at first, but that’s how you learn.”

Soon the house was filled with the sweet aroma of rich, velvety chocolate. The heat from the oven was warm and welcoming.

“You know what comes next?” Mama asked me.


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August 2020