Photography: Rick Ferguson cooking with pot rocks at West Split, June 1993/Kathy McCraine

Photographer Kathy McCraine captures the life and food of chuck wagon cooks on a historic Arizona ranch.

It’s unlikely Charles Goodnight had an inkling about the lasting impact his modification of a Studebaker army-surplus wagon into a field kitchen in 1866 would have on Western culture and American life at large. Goodnight’s chuck wagon was a product of necessity meant to efficiently and quickly feed cattle drovers on the trail and on ranch lands. Now, the chuck wagon is used for competitive racing. It’s the subject of festivals and cooking contests. Heck, the cooking rig and the rustic, Dutch oven-based grub that evolved from the chuck wagon’s larder draw people to weekend “cow country cooking” experiences for a nostalgic taste of the old days when horsepower referred to actual horses.

Photography: (Left to Right) Ferguson with a batch of homemade biscuits ready to go in the Dutch oven, June 1993; Lenny McNab was arguably the best wagon cook the O RO had/Kathy McCraine

The chuck wagon at O RO Ranch, though, is driven out of necessity, not theater. “There’s nothing like it,” says Kathy McCraine, who in her new book Orejana Outfit: Arizona’s Historic O RO Ranch 19932013 documents the lives of the cowboys of the O RO Ranch and the men charged with feeding the cowhands. “They have a wagon. They don’t have very good roads. So everything is worked horseback. It’s like stepping back a hundred years.”

McCraine says part of what made O RO special during her visits is that the ranch took on “really good hands,” and that included the cooks. “Some of them were really interesting and some of them were really outlaws.” Take Lenny McNab, for example, McCraine’s favorite wagon cook subject. The classically trained chef had no cowboy cooking background when he came to work the chuck wagon on the O RO in 2006. From head to toe, “he was a real character,” the photographer recalls. McCraine captures McNab in just that way — dressed in what he imagined to be authentic cookie’s garb: a bowler hat, overalls, boots, and a sly grin.

Photography: the old 1940s Power Wagon that Ferguson used to take lunch out to wherever the crew was “nooned out” was called the “hood wagon,” June 1993, at Cabin Tank/Kathy McCraine

“Lenny would come up with all sorts of dishes,” McCraine says. “I once went out there with a jar of dried shiitake mushrooms. Lenny went crazy over that and came up with a Dutch oven prime rib roast with sweet onion-shiitake mushroom sauce.” That recipe made its way into McCraine’s cookbook, Cow Country Cooking: Recipes and Tales From Northern Arizona’s Historic Ranches. Another of the chef’s recipes is featured on our recipes post. McNab moved on, fashioned himself into a colorful cowboy chef personality, and won the 10th season of Food Network Star. (The Food Network scrapped McNab’s award for winning — his own show — when a series of vulgar online comments reportedly made by McNab came to light.)

Still the cowboys and cooks continue working the O RO Ranch, where one can always find a taste of the old days.

Find recipes from Cow Country Cooking here.

From the February/March 2018 issue.

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