By Scott Mechura EBS Food Columnist
One night, after a conversation with a chef friend, I started thinking about the origins of the food truck. So, I began to dig to see what I could stir up.
It turns out, in 1974, a man by the name of Raul Martinez made some modifications to an old ice cream truck and turned it into a mobile taco truck in East L.A. While Los Angeles was indeed at the forefront of the modern food truck, with Austin tight on it’s heels, that still wasn’t the true origin of mobile cuisine.
Then I remembered my first night visiting my best friend in 1997 in Liege, Belgium, when I had fries from a van at 2 a.m.—and my share of waffles from various trailers and vans on that same trip. This was long before we experienced any mobile food as we know it today. Again, perhaps you could find one in Austin or Los Angeles, but those weren’t the first either.
But one night, I was watching an old Western on television. I can’t remember which one, but there was scene where all the cowboys were sitting around a campfire eating, with an old ornery cook in the background, and it suddenly occurred to me.
After the American Civil War, the beef market began expanding, especially in Texas. Cattle herds were getting mobile and many of those new drives included routes and/or destinations that were not in proximity to railroads.
So, in 1866, a Texan by the name of Charles Goodnight saw a solution to feeding the men for weeks on end on cattle drives.
Charles made some modifications to a Studebaker wagon, which were, at the time, surplus wagons used by the U.S. Army. He added a large box with drawers and compartments, a water barrel, and a canvas hammock for transporting firewood.
The chuck wagon, or “field kitchen,” was born. It quickly became the only real way to feed cowboys on the range. And in many respects, was as integral to the success of the drive as a cowboy’s pair of boots.
But the food coming from these wagons was far from the street tacos, doughnuts, and hamburgers you see from today’s mobile units. Most commonly, it was items that were hearty yet easy to prepare and keep, such as beans, cured meats, coffee and sourdough biscuits, as well as the occasional animal that was shot along the way.
And when you were in the area of the chuck wagon, you were in the cook’s domain—and they were the boss. Even the head cattleman didn’t dare cross “Cookie” at meal time. It seems even then that the chef was possessive of his kitchen. But to be fair, most of the men on those cattle drives were teenage boys, whereas the cook was generally old enough to be their father, and often acted as such, giving them advice or reprimanding them when they were not acting like men.
The chuck wagon didn’t have a combustible engine or require a parking permit or food service license, but in my mind, it was the original food truck.
Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is a former certified beer judge and currently the executive chef at Buck’s T-4 Lodge in Big Sky.