Dutch Ovens and Campfires: How The West Was Fed

Annual CFD chuckwagon cook-off shows tourists what cooking for cowboys was like in the 1890s

A behind-the-scenes view of the Rocking VX chuckwagon shows the historical accuracy required of each wagon entered in the annual chuckwagon cook-off at Cheyenne Frontier Days. (Wyoming Truth photo by Elizabeth Sampson)

By Elizabeth Sampson

Special to the Wyoming Truth

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — As Michael Engelbrecht of Cheyenne Wells, Colo., lifts the cumbersome lid from a cast iron pot, he is greeted with the lively crackle of hot cooking oil. He calls to his wife, Tammy, who brings over the breaded meat she has been tenderizing with an authoritative whack on the chuckwagon a few paces away from Michael’s campfire. Using a long metal hook, he grabs the first steak and gingerly drops it into the waiting pot.

Michael Engelbrecht of Cheyenne Wells, Colo., stirs his cooking fire at the chuckwagon cook-off. (Wyoming Truth photo by Elizabeth Sampson)

As Michael keeps a pile of steaks sizzling and heaps coals on a dutch oven near his fire, Tammy, clad in a long skirt, spins back to the chuckwagon and continues prepping the side dishes that will accompany the chicken fried steak—beans, biscuits, potatoes and blueberry cobbler.

Gazing beyond the Engelbrechts’ campfire and the 1890s wagon in their campsite, it’s easy to imagine the grueling work that a camp cook might have faced on an late 19th century cattle drive. But the sounds of the afternoon rodeo in the distance and the steady stream of tourists walking by their wagon were reminders that this is, in fact, the chuckwagon cook-off at Cheyenne Frontier Days (CFD).

The Engelbrechts joined eight other chuckwagon teams from around the country for all 10 days of CFD, which ends Sunday. The Saturday cook-off is an annual part of the western heritage celebration, with judging based on the tastiness of each team’s camp cooking, as well as the historic authenticity of their wagon and campsite.

When their meals are ready, the competitors send one to the judges’ table, where each food category is evaluated separately by two judges.

“Everybody is fighting for dessert and the steak,” said Jarrett Keller, CFD chuckwagon assistant. “I feel sorry for the person who gets stuck with the beans.”

From there, the competitors prepare about 33 more meals per wagon to fortify the CFD chuckwagon volunteers—and those lucky enough to nab one of the limited meal tickets.

Bonnie Hume, 63, of Lamar, Colo., who has attended Frontier Days every year since age 18, was excited to sample the food for the first time. She noticed how labor intensive it is to cook over a hot fire.

“It’s a lot of work I’m sure,” she said. “I admire them. It’s a dying art.”

Hume’s long-time friend, Sonja Olsen-Fowler, 56, of Green River, said this was her first time eating the chuckwagon meal, even though her daughter participated in the CFD youth chuckwagon cook-off for several years.

Tammy Engelbrecht stirs potatoes at her historic chuckwagon as she prepares to help feed hungry CFD attendees. (Wyoming Truth photo by Elizabeth Sampson)

“It’s as authentic as I think they can get it,” Olsen-Fowler said, while waiting in the shade for her meal. “Even just standing on the other side of that buck rail fence you can feel the heat.”

Charles Cook, 60, and his wife Denise, 59, of Wilburton, Okla., enjoy primitive camping on horseback, so they know how to cook in a dutch oven. Charles said they recognize the difficulty the competitors faced cooking with coals instead of charcoal.

“It’s harder to do with coals out of the fire—you need to be more experienced to get your heat,” Charles said. “You just have to feel and guess at it from experience.”

For the Engelbrechts, learning the ropes of cooking the old chuckwagon way took practice. They started out by helping other people and learned the ropes from there.

When Michael and Tammy began attending events about 10 years ago, they set up tables and chairs, and the next thing they knew, someone needed help cooking meat. Michael said he didn’t know what he was doing, but things went well and the Engelbrechts haven’t looked back since.

Two and a half years ago, the pair decided to outfit their own wagon and call themselves the Rocking VX, a nod to Michael’s grandfather’s brand. Tammy said when they started running their own wagon at competitions, she remembers lying in their tent Googling recipes. Now Michael jokes that even if their food isn’t good, it’s hot and they’ve got a lot.

The Engelbrechts take their cooking seriously, though, and each time they leave a chuckwagon event, they debrief about what worked and where they can improve. This year, the pair won third place in the breads category. In addition to cook-offs like CFD, they also cater cowboy-style events, such as weddings, when they’re not working their day jobs; Tammy is a secretary, and Michael farms, owns a leather shop and is a farrier.

Even though the event is a competition, the Engelbrechts said there is a lot of camaraderie with the other wagon crews. And they help each other out any way they can.

“In today’s day-and-age, we don’t knock on the neighbors door so much and borrow a cup of sugar,” Tammy said. “[At the cook-off] we’ve given away at lot of sugar…and we’ve borrowed a lot of sugar.”

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