Ah, the Calgary Stampede. It has all the things that similar events from county fairs to the Canadian National Exhibition have: various booths set up selling souvenirs and household goods; music performances and variety shows, including dogs doing various clever things; and a midway, whereon, if you are not on one of the rides, you are most likely loading up with food from one of the many portable stands or tents. It might be something deep-fried, or it might be some cheap cut of beef… eat it out of a paper wrapper or off a plate and then chuck the remains in a garbage can.
But the Stampede also has rodeo events. One of its marquee events is the chuckwagon races. Not just any wagons, you understand: chuckwagons. So along with the lumbering, trundling sound of wagon, you get the wooden (woodchuck?), choppy sound of chuck. It has nothing to do with chukker, one of the periods of a polo game, even though chukker comes from Sanskrit for “wheel” and wagons have wheels. And there’s also nothing to do with the act of chucking. To the average Stampede-goer, the chuck in chuckwagon is sort of like Jack – it seems like some guy’s name used just as a meaningless intensifier or filler, or somehow just there and you don’t know why: as in jackknife and jackfruit, the chuck in chukwagon may seem to mean jack squat.
But if you watch the race, you might observe that before the wagons start to go, there are some guys who have to load up a bunch of stuff into the wagon at the beginning (I won’t say they chuck it in, because there’s a penalty for any bit that falls out) and then ride around the course with the wagon. What is that stuff? Well, it’s a tent with poles and a stove. Refugees from the midway? Nope, necessary accoutrements.
You see, a chuckwagon is – or, more generally, was – a food wagon, a chow cart. When you have people travelling, for instance cowboys out on the range, the job of feeding them is an important one, and the guy who drove the wagon with the stove and supplies was a pretty important dude. He would often fill other tasks as well, such as carrying the cash. (My wife tells me that in her days with travelling ice shows, the guy who ran the refreshment cart backstage was a similarly important figure.) The wagon he drove had a tent that would be set up on the end, and a stove that could be loaded and unloaded. And from there he would serve the cowboys their chuck.
So, yes, chuck meant food. And I’m just going to pretend you’re not thinking it got its name from being the reverse of upchuck. In fact, it most likely comes from chock, as in a lump or wedge of something (chocks are used to keep airplane wheels from rolling when the plane is parked, for instance). It may or may not have come by way of chuck meaning the cut of beef between the neck and the shoulder blade, which is modified from chock.
So the wagon with the chuck was the chuck wagon. Now it’s normally written closed up, chuckwagon. And while there are chuckwagon cook-off competitions, the chuckwagons used in the races are not chock full of food. More’s the pity – as already mentioned, the Stampede is a great place for fast food.