A chuckwagon is a vehicle which carries food, water supplies, and kitchen utensils. The concept is most closely associated with the American West, where it was pioneered in the 1800s, although chuckwagons can be found in other places as well. In addition to carrying stores, a chuckwagon traditionally carries a cook as well, and the cook is an important figure in the hierarchy of the travelers who are using the chuckwagon.
The concept of a wagon carrying goods and supplies is quite ancient. Humans have been traveling in groups to herd, trade, and make war for thousands of years. It stands to reason that they would also need a reliable stock of mobile supplies. The supplies can supplement locally purchased and gathered food, or they can be used as a sole source of food in hostile environments.
In 1866, a Texan rancher named Charles Goodnight began to design a wagon which snugly and efficiently held non-perishable supplies and kitchen equipment. The wagon was supposed to be a mobile kitchen, with spaces for a cook to work, set up meals, and so forth. Once food was prepared for cooking, the cook could step outside the wagon to access a fire for cooking and then serve it. Goodnight named his invention a chuck wagon, after the Western slang term for food. In some cases, a chuckwagon is also accompanied by a secondary wagon which carries additional supplies for very long trips.
A chuckwagon cook needs to be extremely talented, since he or she often works with limited ingredients. Beans, dried meat, basic sourdough biscuits, cornmeal, salt, oil, and some fermented and canned foods are generally stocked on a chuckwagon. It is assumed that the cook will be able to scavenge for fresh greens and other ingredients, but putting meals together in a way which will appeal to a hungry group is an art form. Therefore, the cook tends to be a figure of respect, not least because he or she also often acts as banker and medical professional as well.
Cowboys and chuck wagons are very much linked in the popular imagination. On long hauls, a chuck wagon always accompanied cowboys, to ensure that they would have a steady supply of food. This kept the cowboys healthy and active, of course, but it also kept them loyal to the task at hand. Variants on chuckwagons may also accompany long hiking and cycling trips, so that travelers do not need to carry their own supplies.