On the earliest of Cattle Drives each trail hand carried his own provisions in a sack. Until 1866 that is, when Texas cattleman Charles Goodnight bought an old Army wagon and converted it into a Chuck Wagon, Chuck being slang for food. It seems there was a shortage of cowboys and trail hands for the large cattle drives. Goodnight decided to improve the quality of meals on the Trail as a means of recruiting. It worked and being so practical of an innovation was soon copied by other ranchers and soon manufacturer version became available. Mr Goodnight’s version had a chuck box. A storage box that a door that folded down to create a work space.
A typical Chuck Wagon would have water barrels strapped on, tarps to cover the cooking area and a sling (called a possum belly) for carrying “prairie coal ” or dried buffalo chips for fuel. Meals were usually not that awesome or varied, so the food stuffs carried where usually coffee, (strong enough to float a horseshoe)flour and salt for biscuits, red beans (prairie strawberries) and steak. Sometimes Cookie would make Son of a Bitch stew. Son of a Bitch stew was a concoction of cow innards and what ever was at hand.
Speaking of Cookie. The cook was the despot of the plains. He was usually an old cowboy who was typically paid twice the salary of the other men but who also worked longer hours than the others. Cookie was usually up before dawn to make breakfast and the last to go bed. He built his cook fire about ten feet or so from the wagon and those ten feet was considered the kitchen and no cowboy would dare to invade it without permission He usually had coffee always ready, but again, courtesy demanded the cook’s invitation before a hand helped himself.
At the call of “Chuck away come ‘n get it” The hands would ride up downwind side ( no dust should envelope the food), leave their mounts at least 30 yards away, and washed up at a basin. The “eaten irons” (forks and spoons)plates and cups were taken from drawers on the Chuck Wagon and the men served them selves. When they were finished the put the dirty dishes in a roundup pan (washtub).
The men also relied on Cookie to mend their clothed, bandage their injuries, dose them with whiskey for snakebite. Cookie was a chef, doctor, mom, shrink all rolled into one. The most amazing thing is that since the hours and the conditions on the trail were so horrid that many cooks would quit in the middle of a drive. In that case, The cowboy who made the best biscuits, was promoted to Cook. That is all the qualification it took. It might also explain why cookies were known as serving up the worst food or the best food on the prairie. Never was it ever mediocre.