The name ‘cookie’ was in general use to refer to the chuck wagon cook. He was an immensely important person for a number of reasons and key to the success of the drive.
He had a direct influence on the well-being and the willingness to work of all the cowhands by reason of the food he produced, so a bad one could spoil a drive and cause desertion to other brands. He tended to be of a type. Firstly – stout, because the saying went ‘Never trust a skinny cook’. Secondly he was almost invariably grumpy – at least when anyone broke his rules or caused disruption in his domain, which was the chuck wagon itself and an area twenty yards out in all directions. This ruling of the roost was entirely expected, to the extent of it being said that if a cookie wasn’t grumpy then he was too new to the job.
The chuck wagon cook was paid more than the regular cowboy and was usually second in command to the Trail Boss who would likely put up with more dissent from him than anyone else.
Some of cookie’s power came from the many ways in which he could make life uncomfortable for someone who crossed him, and these might include giving short or burnt portions at mealtimes but could also touch on areas which had nothing to do with food. His other roles included farrier, tailor, barber, First Aid man and doctor, dentist, equipment repairman and even gravedigger. In other words he was a Jack of all Trades but of necessity a Master of them because there was no-one else.
Cookie never took a turn watching at night like the cowboys because his night was short enough as it was. He had to get up at about 3 am, a couple of hours before anyone else, in order to grind the coffee beans and make biscuits. After the evening meal, the cowboys would put their well-licked plates in a bowl of water (food left on a plate was considered an insult to the cook) and cookie then had to wash them and put everything in order in his wagon. The last thing he did at night was turn the so-called tongue of the chuck wagon so that it pointed north. When the Trail Boss was ready to organise the onward movement in the morning, he would check his direction with the chuck wagon.
Cookie in a good mood was cause for glee among the cowboys because he might cook a special dessert for them. He could be doing it simply to build good relations or there could be something that had occurred during the day for which he felt a reward was due. Either way it was another of the influences wielded by a very important and responsible man.