Lincoln County Cowboy Symposium Chuckwagon Cookoff

Authenticity plays a key role in the judging
Authenticity plays a key role in the judging.

Put on your cowboy hat and working pair of boots to celebrate the Old West’s restaurant on the range — the chuckwagon. Betcha there will be no microwave ovens in the infield of the Ruidoso Downs Race Track on New Mexico Highway 70 where 40 cowboy cookin’ teams will compete over open fires for a large purse for their beef, beans, potatoes, biscuit and dessert creations. Judges points are swayed by authenticity. This competition is the hottest in the West.

While others are held in convention centers and parking lots, this Chuckwagon Cookoff is located outdoors in a natural high desert racetrack infield. It’s part of the Lincoln County Cowboy Symposium, held the second weekend in October.

Conditions are rugged — no electricity, no running water, no amenities, period. Overhead there is plenty of clear blue sky, the sun beats down all day, and the stars and moon create another one of New Mexico’s enchanted evening.

Slow food may be a recent trend in cuisine — but it has been around for a long time. Exemplified by turn-of-the century methods, using cast iron implements over wood fires and coals, chuckwagon cuisine is one of today’s most difficult methods. This is more than the thrill of the grill.

This is not an upscale foodie event with exotic, trendy ingredients, long descriptive names, and high points for plate appeal. This is real stuff, where the integrity and honesty of the old west is preserved, revered and celebrated. You get smoke in your eyes, sit under the beating sun, and listen to cowboys reciting poetry and singing with their guitars.

There is no mystery in the food basket supplied to each team. It is good old dried pinto beans, a sack of potatoes, and 20 pounds of beef. The supplies should feed forty.

The judging is based on the authenticity of the wagon and culinary equipment as well as the food quality. Every piece of equipment must have been available before this century began, but reproductions are permitted. The Lodge brand of Dutch ovens and skillets are the Mercedes of this competition. These are the 12", 14" and 16" ovens that guarantee a good upper body workout to lift the lid. Well-seasoned black ones are the best - the ones that are never washed, just wiped out with a paper towel.

You should not care if the beef is tough and the biscuits are burned, but usually it is not. Any smart cook knows how to cut the burn off a biscuit and promote blackened beef. Out on the trail you ate what was served and loved it. Many of these crafty old cooks convinced the hands that if the biscuits had a bit of black on them, that was the way it was supposed to be and that they could eat them or go hungry.

Any questions?

The Hubbard Museum of the American West
P.O. Box 40
Ruidoso Downs, New Mexico 88346
(505) 378-4142
Fax (505) 378-4166

The Food Network also has some great coverage of this event.  For more information on viewing times, visit their web site: