Everybody’s got a favorite cowboy. For Chuck Wagon Master Troy Reddick it’s legendary lawman Wyatt Earp, best known for his role in the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, settling a dispute with outlaw cowboys in the notorious shootout in Dodge City, Kansas.
Dodge City was the heart of the American West and has been the fictional setting for many stories, movies, and TV series. In real life, Dodge had a rail line running through that made it a destination on the Western Trail, a cattle drive route stretching from San Angelo, Texas through Oklahoma to Kansas. Cowboys drove herds of Texas longhorns north to the rail heads in places like Dodge City and Denver for transportation east to Chicago and St. Louis.
Self-taught cattle drive historian, Reddick shared, “In 1866, there was an expansion of former Civil War soldiers to the West. Former Confederate, Charles Goodnight, an entrepreneur, found that both Texas and Mexico had free range cattle for the taking. You could also buy cattle that had been rounded up for $3.00 a head. If you could get the cattle back East, they would bring $30 a head.
“Goodnight wanted to make money, so he rounded up some men to help him drive the cattle north to the rail lines. The men who he recruited weren’t called cowboys, which was a derogatory term in those days, they were called ranch hands,” Reddick said. “They drove cattle north for three months covering 1,000 to 1,500 miles, always from South to North, where they put them on trains.
“Goodnight had to feed, house, and clothe the ranch hands on the trail. So, he took a Studebaker wagon and put a chuck (cowboy slang for food) box in back. He used a surplus Civil War wagon, and is therefore credited with being the inventor of the chuck wagon.
“With partner Oliver Loving, Goodnight started out on what became known as the Goodnight – Loving Trail to Pueblo and Denver, Colorado. During the drive, Loving was shot by Indians and died en route. He told Goodnight before leaving on the drive, ‘If I die, I want you to bury me in Texas.’ Goodnight carried Loving’s body back to Texas for burial.
“If this story sounds familiar, it’s because Larry McMurtry took the history of the chuck wagon and incorporated it into his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Lonesome Dove,” said Reddick.
It’s the re-creation of the trail drive chuck wagon experience that inspires Reddick. “We’re not selling food, we’re selling an authentic experience,” he said.
A commercial realtor in the Vidalia area, Reddick and wife Cindy, an interior designer and owner of retail shop, Accessorize it! were affected by the economic downturn of 2007. Looking for another business opportunity, they started catering at special events and on weekends. “We tip-toed into it and were overwhelmed by the response,” Reddick said.
“All my life I loved to eat and cook. As a kid I watched Mama and Grandmama. I cooked for myself in college. My college friends and I liked to hunt, fish, and camp. We still do it a couple of times a year. I always got to be the cook – grilling and cooking in a Dutch oven,” he said. “We kept growing and as years went on, Cindy and I would get asked to cook for church groups, etc.”
One of the Reddick’s friends told them, “Man, you’re doing the cowboy cooking, why don’t you get a chuck wagon?”
Reddick found one in Florida, brought it home, and rebuilt it from the wheels up. He added a custom chuck box on back for food, and other period fixtures like an Arbuckle Coffee box, and a coffee grinder.
For Reddick, this attention to detail in outfitting his chuck wagon is part of bringing the genuine experience to the public. “We began looking for ways at each event to improve cooking methods, recipes, and equipment,” he said.
According to Wyatt Earp, “Accuracy is everything.”
Over time, Reddick’s commitment to providing the authentic chuck wagon experience led him to start a business with his enterprise, which he named Skillet & Spurs. He gained membership in the Southeast Chapter of the American Chuck Wagon Association (ACWA) which requires “our members and supporters to project a realistic portrayal of the chuck wagon as it was used on cattle drives. To the public, a chuck wagon cook off should be an informative, an educational, and an entertaining experience.” (www.americanchuckwagon.org) Reddick is now president of the chapter.
The ACWA holds regular chuck wagon competitions each year. The wagon camps are judged in two areas: authenticity of the wagon/camp and the food quality. Camp is set-up starting Friday morning, with the wagon on full display for judging by 3:00 p.m. The set-up is judged for functionality, appearance, and authenticity in two areas – the camp and the wagon/chuck box. The Reddicks are scored on their period costumes as well. All cooking utensils, pots, supplies, skillets, Dutch ovens, wagon hardware, and the cook fire must meet ACWA standards and are awarded points for historical accuracy.
Ingredients for the food segment of judging are handed out to the wagons by the event host Saturday morning and must be cooked on site. There are five courses to prepare: meat, beans, potatoes, dessert and biscuit/hoecake. Enough is prepared for the judges by 11:45 a.m. and for 50 more people by noon. Tickets are presold to the public for each camp’s meal. Reddick’s reputation for superior cooking means a sell-out everywhere he goes.
The Reddicks are four-time Grand Champions and three-time First Runners Up, in just four years of competing.
Often asked for recipes, they have developed a food product line to augment their catering. “We have our own brand of barbeque sauce, rub and salsa, plus Chuck Wagon Chili Mix, and Cowboy Coffee. We sell it at events off the wagon and in Cindy’s store,” he said.
According to Cindy, “It’s strenuous work, but we enjoy doing it and have some good friends that help out.” Brian and Phyllis Frederick attended one of the Reddick’s catering events and later offered to assist.
“They help now with 90% of our catering events. Brian is a good talker and Phyllis is a great worker. Cindy and Phyllis prep for me while Brian entertains the crowd and answers questions. We work to create a good atmosphere,” said Reddick.
Reddick will load his wagon on a big trailer and go anywhere in the U.S. for a catering event or competition. Son Austin, 24, helps out occasionally while son Colt, 11, “isn’t really a cowboy, yet,” according to Dad.
In their seventh year of chuck wagon catering, the Reddicks are still striving to improve. “We always want to take it to the next level,” Reddick said.
“We have won four categories at one time,” Reddick said, “our goal is to win all six.” Reddick is currently working on building another wagon to use just for ACWA events. “That way we’ll have one for catering and one for the competitions,” he said.
But, it’s not all about the winning. “We were working hard two competitions ago and one of the other cooks came up and asked me, ‘Why do we do this?’” Reddick said. “We do it because we want to get people out of their environment and into the chuck wagon, cowboy world. That’s what motivates us.”
“When we ring that triangle and yell, ‘Come and get it!’ You can see the stress leaving people as they get in the grub line, sit around the wagon and the campfire enjoying the outdoors, the fellowship, and the great food,” he said. “If we can make people happy and they enjoy it, then that’s our greatest reward.”