You won’t find herds of cattle moving through dusty grasslands. You won’t find a lanky — or maybe stout — cook preparing meals over a cow-pie fire for a bunch of hungry drovers. What you will find is a meal prepared by upwards of twenty teams of competitors in the Lincoln County Cowboy Symposium Chuckwagon Cook-Off, Saturday, October 11.
The Lincoln County Cowboy Symposium will be held October 10 through 12 in the infield of the Ruidoso Downs Race Track, just a little better than a hundred miles from Las Cruces. This year is the 25th anniversary of the symposium and cook-off. Competitors bring their chuckwagons from Arizona, Texas, Colorado, and as far away as Roundup, Montana — as well as from cities and towns across New Mexico.
“These are all authentic working wagons,” says Sunny Hirschfeld, event coordinator. “They’re competing for cash prizes, belt buckles, and — of course — bragging rights.”
Early Saturday morning, competitors are provided beef, beans, potatoes, onions, fruit, oil, butter, eggs and milk. Says Hirschfeld, “We give them absolutely the best food we can find. If competitors have to start trimming a lot of fat and gristle but still have to be able to feed about 40 to 50 people, then they’re not happy campers.”
Each chuckwagon campsite has a pit fire or an iron cook stove, although Hirschfeld says, “Most cook on the ground, but every team has to cook on a wood fire.” They are required to prepare a full meal of meat, beans, potatoes, bread, and dessert.
Some cook-offs, Hirschfeld says only do chicken-fried steak. “We don’t do that. All our food is prepared in Dutch ovens and they can cook anything they want, except for Texas-style chili.” She adds, “A lot of people think this is barbecue, but it’s not.”
As the deadline approaches, teams place samples of their meal in containers marked only with their entry number. The samples are taken to judges, who have been sequestered. They don’t get to see the chuckwagon teams at work; neither do the teams get to talk with the judges.
“Our judges evaluate competitors’ meals on the basis of taste, appearance, texture, and individuality,” Hirschfeld says.
As noon approaches, cooks turn to the task of feeding the hungry hordes waiting for them. For a price of $25 a plate, symposium-goers can purchase a full dinner. Seated at tables in front of the chuckwagon to which they’ve been assigned, they are served healthy portions of what competitors have prepared.
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone going away hungry,” Hirschfeld says.
The chuckwagon cook-off is only one part of the symposium. The entry fee for Saturday is $25, additional to the cost of the dinner. That includes four stages of music, horse and cowboy skills demonstrations, a kid’s rodeo, and other entertainment.
Information about the Lincoln County Cowboy Symposium and the chuckwagon cook-off can be found online at cowboysymopsium.org.