Chuckwagon cuisine: Charlie Ferguson keeps traditions aliveWritten by Christy Martinez
For the last 16 years Charlie has called Torrington home, but before that he worked mostly in Texas, which gave him his chuckwagon roots and his early experience.
“I’ve always worked for big ranches, even before I got out of high school,” says Charlie. “All the big ranches pulled a chuckwagon, and as I got older I became interested in cooking and became good friends with the cooks. I’d ask questions and watch and learn, and they’d show me a trick or two.”
After picking up some skills, Charlie says he started competing in cooking contests at ranch rodeos.
“I had a knack for it, and people started asking me to cook for them,” he says. “Now everybody knows me as a cook, where I used to just be a cowboy.”
In addition to cooking for ranches, Charlie also does promotions for Certified Angus Beef (CAB) and has worked for Pace Picante Sauce. He also caters, but he says, “I’m basically on a ranch in the middle of nowhere, on roundups.”
Doing it ‘right’
Although a few ranches still pull chuckwagons because of their novelty, Charlie says he works for outfits that find a wagon essential.
“They’re so far from town there’s no way to pack a sack lunch or run into town to eat. Usually there are 20 guys working, and we have all the horses, men and food on location,” he comments. “The work is really efficient that way – much like a military operation.”
Charlie says there are usually a few modern conveniences, but he cooks with a wood fire in Dutch ovens.
“I try to do it as right as possible, without all the extras,” he says. “One time I went to see my uncle, and we went to a restaurant to eat, and I hadn’t sat at a table to eat in four months.”
Food affects morale
Charlie’s favorite part of being the cook is the status a cook holds on a ranch.
“Being the cook, you have a lot of pull on the ranch; you’re second-in-command, and people respect you,” he says. “The food on a ranch can make or break morale, and it’s rewarding when everyone enjoys a good meal, especially after working hard all day.”
Charlie says he tries to vary his menus as much as possible.
“If we’re out for two weeks, I do my best to have something different for every meal. ‘Stew’ has gotten to be a cuss word on a ranch, because some people make stew for every meal. I try a lot of different things, and I’m always looking for different recipes,” he notes.
The quest for the new and different has led Charlie to publish two Dutch oven cookbooks: Recipes from a Texas Chuckwagon and Charlie Ferguson’s Cowboy Cuisine.
Promoting Angus beef
Speaking of his work with CAB, Charlie says it was his connection to Buck Reams that got him started.
“I cook with Buck Reams in Texas, and he’d done work for them, so they called me and asked if I’d do a job at Ashland, Kan., where I cooked for a bunch of chefs from Ritz Carlton as part of a beef promotion for the hotel,” he explains.
Following that event, Charlie cooked at Longmont, Colo. for more chefs, and then traveled to Bend, Ore. Charlie says the responses to meals cooked at the chuckwagon are usually surprised.
“They can’t believe what they’re eating was prepared on the premises,” he says. “When the chefs got off the bus in Kansas I had my grate with coals under it and cooked the steaks in the open, and they had never seen steaks cooked like that. They have infrared burners that sear their steaks.”
Charlie says he brings mesquite wood from Texas to all the other locations where he cooks.
“The mesquite wood makes the meat taste so much better than charcoal,” he notes.
To manage the many locations in which he works, Charlie keeps a wagon in Texas and one at Torrington. He says most ranches have a team to pull the wagon, and if not he has one he can supply.
Of the connections that keep him busy cooking for most of the year, Charlie says they took a while to build.
“Everybody knows me now, and my name’s out there now, and if I can I’ll work them into my schedule. Around Christmas people will call for spring work, and in mid-spring they’ll call me for the fall,” he says.
Cooking in the future
Looking to the future, he says, “More than anything, I worry about the newer generation, and the chuckwagons and the way we work. The Western way of life is beginning to fizzle out, and I hope that people will see that it’s still there, and we still work like we used to. It’s still rolling, and it’s still fun.”
Although he’s had a few people show interest in learning the art of chuckwagon cooking, Charlie says it’s not for everyone.
“A lot of people aren’t cut out for it. I get up at 3 a.m. The cook is the first one up and the last in bed, and they’ve got to keep things rolling and always be ahead of the game. It’s hard work.”