Riding the grub line across the U.S.

Apr 28, 2011

The average chuck wagon cook in the 1800s served up beans, meat, bread and taters. Dessert was as scarce as a day off. The "wagon," following the cowboys and cattle across rangelands, was home.   

Today, Charlie Ferguson from Torrington, WY, is the archetype of his wagon cook predecessors. Rising at 3 a.m., he gets his fire rolling, starts coffee, arranges biscuits in Dutch ovens, then fries bacon and eggs. Cowboys are fed by daylight. The rest of his day is spent getting the other meals on the lid. By "dark-thirty," it’s time for sleep.

Next morning at 3 a.m.? Ferguson repeats the same routine. The only difference might be the menu. He stays in his teepee and brings his chuck wagon when cooking for ranches who supply the wagon tarps and horsepower. Spring and fall are spent cooking for ranches and he has stayed at the wagon up to six weeks.

Despite his traditional routines, cooking fares and fundamentals, Ferguson differs from many chuck wagon cooks. There is a wider variety of offerings on his "wagon cook for hire" menu than yesteryear’s range chef. Items on his "plate" vary from teaching Dutch oven cooking classes to catering special events. Each year adds a new culinary feather to his hat.

One such event Ferguson has cooked for was at the Angus Beef Council’s promotional tour for 25 Ritz Carlton master chefs. These chefs came from all over the world. Ferguson didn’t know who his guests were to be until their bus arrived at his chuck wagon.

"Many of these chefs had never eaten outside. It took them a while to figure out the food was prepared right there at the wagon. They thought I cooked elsewhere then hauled the meal to the chuck wagon and served it in Dutch ovens. They asked all kinds of questions about my marinades and rubs used on steaks. My bread pudding with whiskey sauce especially interested them. They didn’t want to get back on the tour bus and leave," remembers Ferguson.

Ferguson has traveled between Wyoming and Texas having cowboyed and cooked for ranches in most western states. After high school graduation, he began working on ranches. He eventually turned in his saddle for his cooking gear about 20 years ago.

"I learned to cook for a crew out of self preservation. I was working at a ranch with a lazy cook so I’d get up and make coffee every morning and soon, more of the breakfast cooking," said Ferguson. "I also figured out cooking pays better than cowboying."

"For about 15 years now, I’ve been cooking for the same three outfits in Texas: Spades, Tongue River and J & J. That pretty well takes up the spring and the fall. I’ll cook for some ranches further north that brand later and wean earlier," explains Ferguson, who keeps one chuck wagon in Texas and one in Wyoming. And just as the wagon cooks of days gone by, he cooks regardless of the conditions.

"The coldest weather I ever cooked in was at Haythorns in Nebraska. Lids stuck to pots, my fingers too frozen to knead dough. We had pancakes. The hottest? Cooking for Moorhouses.The bank clock read 112 degrees! Rain’s my worst enemy. Wet firewood and flooded kitchens. Ranches having a good fly and curtains means a lot," said Ferguson.

Ferguson gets about six hours of sleep after his day is finished. Occasionally, sounds of weaned calves or a bell horse milling around camp create "early wake-up calls." Interrupted sleep isn’t obliging.

"Every once in a while, cowboys get to staying up real late, playing cards and swapping stories. It’s surprising how noisy pots and pans can be at three in the morning after I’ve missed sleep," jokes Ferguson. "But I run a lax camp, no special rules, cowboys are respectful. When folks cross the ‘imaginary line’ between the chuck box and the fire before the food’s on the lid, it’s mainly because they don’t know better. Reasons behind this ‘chuck wagon etiquette’ are keeping dirt from getting kicked into food and staying out of the cook’s way when he’s going to the fire."

Insofar as the cowboy’s favorite meals, "It doesn’t get better than a grilled steak. Mesquite wood’s plentiful in Texas and I’ve hauled it up north. Compressed mesquite chunks make good coals, but only last about 15-20 minutes," explained Ferguson.

A chuck wagon cook’s reputation is often preceded by their bread. There’s no "wampum" biscuits, the kind from a can that you "womp" against the counter, in Ferguson’s chuck box. He prepares sourdough bread in Dutch ovens. Making cinnamon rolls at the wagon is "no big deal." He doesn’t keep his recipes secretive and has published two cookbooks.

"Chicken fried steak and peach cobbler are big favorites in the South, but I’ve had requests for fried green tomatoes, squash and catfish in Wyoming. A lot of cowboys like spaghetti," Ferguson added. "A lady asked me ‘do you mind cooking lasagna with water chestnuts for a pack trip?’ She brought her recipe and special spices."

"A unique request I’ve had was cooking enough birthday cakes in Dutch ovens for 100 people at a family ranch. One of the owners turned 75. She was a special lady and we had her birthday party at the wagon. Her family had it all decorated up with balloons," recalled Ferguson.

Unique food requests are not the only thing Ferguson has seen transform since he began cooking. These days, some ranches he cooks for haul in trailers more. Cell phones and texting at the wagon are one of the biggest changes he’s seen.

"It’s unreal to see some of these cowboys finish eating and then start texting," he lamented. Besides changes, 20-plus years of wagon cooking have supplied Ferguson some extraordinary memories. "A few years ago, I felt a lump moving in my bedroll. I got out so fast my teepee poles collapsed. But I didn’t find anything. Came to find out a skunk was in camp and bit one cowboy on the nose and another in the armpit. The skunk turned out to have rabies, so they had to go to town daily to get shots."

For the last four years, Ferguson has spent February at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo helping feed up to 3,000 visitors a day. Pace Picante sponsors four chuck wagons to dish out stew, beans, sourdough bread and "as many cobblers as they can stand to make at a time."

"Before Tom Perini knew me to recommend for the Pace job, he asked if I was a ‘Dutch oven cook’ or a ‘cook that puts food in a Dutch oven.’ I guess I passed the test."

After the Houston gig and spring branding in Texas, Ferguson cooks his way back north. Summers are spent in Wyoming, a time of year to slow down and be with family. It’s also county fair time and his daughter shows horses and pigs. Ferguson brags that she’s "a pretty good cook" with many entries in the food divisions. His son’s focus is "mutton bustin’," rather than jams and jellies.

With all the travel and work, who does the cooking at home? "I do," emphasizes Ferguson. "I like cooking. That’s fine with my wife who cooks when I’m gone."

If Ferguson’s pressed to answer the question: What’s a favorite thing you have ever been served? "Beef tenderloin cooked on a hibachi at a good Japanese restaurant. But there’s not many of those in Torrington!"

Crediting wagon cooks who have shared their knowledge over time, Ferguson’s advice to anyone wanting to be a chuck wagon cook is "work for good cooks and learn from them. And expect to work long hours."

A chuck wagon cookbook author once claimed to have proven "if you want to get a cowboy to work, promise him something to eat!" If his testimony lies somewhere between fact and fiction, perhaps the proof is in the pudding. Amazing bread pudding, with whiskey sauce, in Charlie Ferguson’s case. — Ginger Elliott, WLJ Correspondent