Howdy, and if I could follow that with a handshake I would. I like a good handshake and to look someone in the eyes; in my circle them two mean a lot. I’m a cowboy, a cook, a writer, a dishwasher and a purveyor of words that sometimes rhyme. I’ve cooked for legends and those that were just legends in their own minds. I’ve had a Throwdown against Bobby Flay with my chicken fried steak and been on the chopping block on Chopped. I’ve got more friends than I will ever have money, but I know which to value the most. I’ve been in places you can’t see from the road or even find on a map. I’ve even cooked food I can’t spell.
What is a chuck wagon cook
My kitchen ain’t real typical. It has no thermostat and there are no knobs on anything that might be considered an appliance. I’ve cooked in every condition known to mankind except an earthquake. I’m a chuck wagon cook.
Now you may be asking, “What is a chuck wagon cook?” Well, it sure isn’t glamorous by any stretch of the imagination. There have been times it’s been 1170 outside before I even built a fire, and times it’s been cold enough that you could hang meat. But I’m truly a lucky man because I get to feed cowboys.
The tradition of the chuck wagon
Every time I step out of my teepee to go fix breakfast for a crew, I’m carrying on a tradition and reliving history. The view out my office window doesn’t look on to skyscrapers and you can’t catch a cab where I work. Some people say the tradition of the chuck wagon is dying. In some ways it is, but as long as there are cows there will always be the need for a cowboy. And as long as there are cowboys, they will be hungry and someone will have to feed them… one way or another. There are very few, if any, cooks left that cook off the wagon full-time and even less that cook for working ranches. But for those ranches that are trying to keep tradition alive, you’ll still see “Cookie” baking up some biscuits and wishing them boys well as they ride out in the morning’s light.
Cooking for cowboys
When I cook on a ranch, I prepare three hearty meals a day, typically for 15 to 20 cowboys. Cowboy cooking is designed to feed a hungry crew, so the food I prepare has to be satisfying and filling. Two things are always obvious after I fix a meal for cowboys: 1) they have full bellies and are ready to do battle with land and cattle, and 2) food is by far the best GPS of all – they’ll be straight back in no time for the next meal.
Depending on the ranch, we may set up camp made of teepees and the wagon for a few days, and then pack up and move to another pasture to work more cattle. I’ve moved camp to a different spot as often as once a day. This can be tricky when you not only have to worry about packing but feeding a hungry crew too. I’ve stayed anywhere from one day to five and a half weeks out on a ranch and seen all seasons pass through in one day.
Not only do I feed cowboys but I’ve been blessed to feed folks all across the country who are hungry for a true western experience. I’ve catered everything from Bar Mitzvahs to weddings with that old chuck wagon. I’ve met people from all walks of life from all across the country who are just hankering for some good honest food that doesn’t have to come from fancy gadgets or a Kitchen Aid mixer.
Chuck wagon cooking school
The chuck wagon was instrumental in helping shape the West and I truly believe it is important to keep its legacy alive. People are hankering for a simpler place at a slower pace and that’s why in the spring and fall of each year, my wife and I hold a chuck wagon cooking school.
Located at various ranches in the Texas and Oklahoma areas, students arrive to a scene from an old cow camp. There ain’t no electrical outlets here nor will you find a phone signal. But that’s the beauty of it. From a Wednesday evening to Sunday morning, a typical class of four to six people, will spend the days learning to cook from Dutch ovens, using wood coals and preparing authentic ranch and chuck wagon recipes.
Dutch oven cooking
We cook a lot of breads and desserts because those are the hardest things to master. I tell students, “Anyone can boil coffee and fry meat but once you can bake in a Dutch oven, everything else is downhill.” Out in nature’s kitchen, students learn that different wood makes a different coal and heat source and that sometimes when you thought you were baking, you’re actually microwaving when that good ol’ west Texas wind kicks up. I also warn students when they first arrive to throw away their watches because there are no set baking times. Dutch oven cooking is an art not a science. Anyone can be a good Dutch oven cook it just takes three things… practice, practice, practice.
Life skills and cooking
Not only do we teach cooking, but more importantly, we teach about life. You don’t need fancy gadgets to get through the day. Friends and good food are worth more than anything you can buy. Life is simple, it’s people who complicate it. If ya’ll are ever our way holler, we’ll put on a pot of coffee and watch the sunrise.
Upside Down Pizza
I usually don’t make this right off the bat for folks or for a crew on a ranch. Not because it’s not good, but because it’s so good I get tired of them asking, “When are you going to make that pizza deal again?” This recipe came by way of my Aunt Dortha. It’s not one of those recipes that you look at and say, “Yeah, that looks pretty good, I’ll try it someday.” Aunt Dortha is as good a cook as anyone I know, so if Dortha sends it, you think, “How fast can I make this?”
This recipe blends some classic pizza flavorings together and you don’t even have to be Italian to pull it off. Pizza is always a people pleaser and I can guarantee you there won’t be any leftovers. If you don’t have all these ingredients in your pantry, no matter your means of transportation, whether it’s horseback or horsepower, get to the store and get it done! And when it’s finished, holler ‘cause me and the little woman will come eat.
Prep Time: 20 minutes.
Total Time: 40 minutes.
Makes 6 – 8 servings.
2 lbs. ground beef
1 onion, chopped
1 pkg. dry spaghetti sauce mix
1 ½ cans tomato sauce
1 ½ cups sour cream
1 ½ cups shredded mozzarella cheese
8 oz. can of crescent rolls
½ cup melted butter
Preheat oven to 3750 F.
Step 1: In a skillet, cook beef and onion together until meat is cooked through. Drain grease.
Step 2: Add the spaghetti mix and tomato sauce to the skillet and let simmer for about 5 minutes to combine flavors.
Step 3: Spread mixture into a greased casserole dish.
Step 4: Spoon sour cream onto meat mixture and spread out evenly. Sprinkle on shredded cheese.
Step 5: Unroll crescent rolls and place on top of casserole.
Step 6: Brush rolls with melted butter and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.
Step 7: Cook for approximately 20 minutes or until crescent rolls are golden brown.
Tip: The crescent rolls are an easy topper for this dish but feel free to use canned biscuits, or use pre-made pizza crust.
Cooking with cowboys
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This is a guest post by Kent Rollins. All photos courtesy of Kent Rollins.