For cowboys spending long days in the saddle on the open range, home base was a wagon laden with dry beans, flour and coffee.
“It was kind of their everything, beyond their own saddle on their own horse. They would throw their bedroll or whatever they carried with them on the chuck wagon, and it was where they went for anything they needed, besides being the kitchen. Pots and pans, supplies, all the food — it was all on the chuck wagon,” says Mari Dresner, curator of education for the Chandler Museum.
The wagons — and the kinds of meals that cooks could produce from them — will be celebrated Saturday at Chandler’s inaugural Chuck Wagon Cook-Off. Four Arizona teams will compete in both wagon and cooking categories. A fifth “host” wagon will churn out cowboy vittles for the public to sample. “These teams are all made up of enthusiasts who really have a passion for this as a hobby, and they re-create everything as best they can. There’s a big push for authenticity, to cook and eat the way it was done back then, from the ingredients to the utensils they use,” says Dresner.
Teams will dig trenches in the ground, where mesquite wood and coals will smolder, cooking beef, biscuits and other food set on metal grates or prepared in cast-iron skillets and Dutch ovens. Each team must prepare five courses: meat, beans, bread, potatoes and dessert, but what they make is up to them.
“It’s a total surprise. It’s very Food Network-y in that way. But, generally, chicken fried steak or pot roast is a safe bet, as they would have created those dishes in the 1880s. And then a biscuit of some sort. And most will make a cobbler or a pie,” says Dresner.
The event will be held at Tumbleweed Ranch, an educational site containing historic buildings, agricultural land and equipment that date from the turn of the century, about 20 years past the age of chuck wagons.
“(The Cook-Off has) been a great way to introduce people to Tumbleweed Ranch,” says Dresner, adding that two buildings will be open to visitors on Saturday: The 1917 McCroskey House and a restored turn-of-the-century grocery store stocked with replicas of goods common in 1912.
“All of the things in there are hands-on. People will be able to use the scale and cash register and grind coffee, just as people would have done 100 years ago,” she says.
Local Western music troupe Pioneer Pepper and the Sunset Pioneers will provide live entertainment, and craftspeople will demonstrate candle dipping and weaving. Mesa’s Superstition Farm will offer hayrides and horseback rides for a nominal fee. A petting zoo will be free. Additional food vendors, such as Gilbert dessert shop Udder Delights, will sell kettle corn, barbecue, tacos and shaved ice.
Chuckwagon teams will be judged Friday on the authenticity of their wagons and equipment. That score will be combined with Saturday’s meal scores to determine winners. Cash prizes of $50-$300 are up for grabs. The event is sanctioned by the American Chuck Wagon Association.
Tumbleweed Ranch is open the second Saturday of each month through May. On those days, visitors will have the opportunity to engage in chores, farm work and other activities residents would have done 100 years ago.
“Over the past couple of years, the museum has really worked to improve the buildings and experiences so you can interact with the property and really get an idea of how people lived in the desert without air-conditioning and electricity,” says Dresner.