Let's Reminisce: The original food truck
By Jerry Lincecum
Jun 11, 2018
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Food trucks are very popular these days, but it hadn’t occurred to me until recently (when I watched a John Wayne western) that they have been around for more than 150 years.  I’m talking about chuckwagons. The name, by the way, comes from a cowboy slang term for food.

The invention of the chuckwagon is credited to rancher Charles Goodnight, who introduced the concept in 1866.  It was a case of necessity becoming the mother of invention.  After the Civil War, the market for beef from Texas expanded greatly. Some cattlemen began herding cattle in parts of West Texas that did not have railroads, which meant their cowboys needed to be fed on the road for months at a time.

Goodnight modified the Studebaker wagon, a durable army-surplus vehicle, to suit the needs of cowboys driving cattle from Texas to sell in New Mexico. To the back of the wagon he added a "chuck box" with drawers and shelves for storage space and a hinged lid to provide a flat cooking surface. A water barrel was also attached to the wagon and a canvas sling was hung underneath to carry firewood. A wagon box was used to store cooking supplies and cowboys' personal items.

On cattle drives, it was common for the "cookie" who ran the wagon to be second in authority only to the "trailboss," and he was paid accordingly. The cook, usually played in western movies as a stern, eccentric character, would often act also as barber, dentist, and banker. 

Chuckwagon food typically came from easy-to-preserve items like dried beans and salted meats, coffee, and sourdough biscuits. Other food would also be gathered en route.  No fresh fruit, vegetables, or eggs  were available, and meat was not fresh unless an animal got injured during the run and had to be killed. Thus most of the meat they had was greasy, cloth-wrapped bacon and salt pork.

Although they were surrounded by cattle, the cowboys rarely got beef to eat.  Killing a beef on the trail was a great waste, since only a small part of the meat could be eaten before it spoiled.  If an animal had to be killed, the cook would broil as much meat as the men could eat. 

For a somewhat longer-lasting dish, he could also boil up a batch of the gourmet concoction known as “son-of-a-bitch stew.”  According to Grayson Wyatt’s book “The American West,” there were many recipes for this dish, but it was most likely to contain the animal’s tongue, heart and liver.  Its flavor was sometimes enhanced by “marrow gut,” the partially digested contents of the tube connecting a cow’s two stomachs.

When the herd was passing through settled country, the cook might be able to vary the menu by bargaining with farmers.  If the herd spent the night in a farmer’s pasture, it would leave behind a good supply of cow chips for next winter’s fuel.  In exchange the farmer might provide some eggs or fresh vegetables.  If the farmer was very lucky, a cow in the herd might choose his pasture to drop her newborn calf.  Since the calf wouldn’t be able to keep up with the herd, it would have to be killed if not left with the farmer.  His gratitude for this addition to his livestock would likely be expressed in as much garden produce and as many eggs as he could spare.

The next time you approach a food truck to place your order, I suggest you stick to the basics rather than asking for something as exotic as son-of-a-bitch stew.
Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches classes for older adults who want to write their life stories.  He welcomes your reminiscences on any subject: