The Autry Is Celebrating Chuck Wagons, L.A.’s First Food Trucks

How we went from bacon and baked beans to tacos and pad thai

If you moved to Los Angeles in a car, truck, or airplane, your trip here probably took less time than you spent unpacking and settling in to your new place. In the 1800s, moving west was a three- to six-month trek, and travelers had to carry enough food to survive the journey. Starting this month, the Autry Museum of the American West is holding a series of three food events that focus on how people ate on the open range and how chuck wagons lead to the development of food trucks.

Culinary historian Richard Foss worked with The Autry to plan the event. “The most challenging food in American history was what people were eating when they were on the long trail west,” Foss says. “Imagine trying to fit food for three to six months in something the size of a Ford Econoline van. Oh, by the way, you also have to fit your family, your bedding, and all of those other things in there, too. It is incredibly challenging to make even an edible meal, much less an interesting one. They had to go for what would be very storable and packable without any refrigeration, with only traditional ideas about food preservation.”

The first event, Chuck Wagons: The First Food Trucks—happening on Friday, January 26 at 7 p.m.—focuses on the foods people ate on the trail. If you’re wondering what that might entail, Foss offers a few hints. “Traditionally cured bacon has kind of a hard surface on it, and it basically doesn’t go bad. You could have bacon that was three months old and unrefrigerated and still edible. You trim the exterior—where you have travel dust and everything else on it—and it’s edible underneath. They had bacon, they had beans, they had the materials for cornbread and biscuits, and a lot of the time, they had pickles. People couldn’t bring fresh vegetables, but they could bring pickles.”

The Autry wants the event to be as fun as it is educational, so they plan to get creative with the cuisine. Ben Fitzsimmons, the museum’s senior manager of programs, says, “There will be food stations, and the stations will be serving a fairly classic historic chuck wagon menu, which, as I’m sure you can envision, is the bacon, beans, and biscuits type of menu, so people get a taste for what exactly inspires this. Then, there will be other food stations that will be serving an updated version by modern chefs, looking at the idea of what these range cooks might have produced if they were in Los Angeles today.”

United States Forest Service, mess wagon of the Pierce-Reef Cattle Company, Routt National Forest, 1920s-1930s

Courtesy Autry Museum

Fitzsimmons emphasizes that the events aren’t sit-down dinners. He says, “This is very much envisioned as a gathering of like-minded people who have an interest in food and history who want to mix with one another, talk to each other, and learn from each other, just as much as they’ll learn from our various experts and from the menu.”

The Autry’s galleries will stay open late, so that guests can explore them together. Docents will lead a tour that highlights artifacts that have a culinary connection, like the chuck wagon that’s part of the museum’s collection. Foss will present a short program at each food station, and then the guest chefs will explain what they cooked up.

Along with the food stations, the museum will be serving classic cocktails curated by Foss. He says, “I’m using recipes from the very first cocktail book ever written. It’s from 1862, written by a fellow by the name of Jerry Thomas, and called the Bon Vivant’s Companion. At each of these, we will have some drinks that are appropriate for the period. There will be nonalcoholic things available as well. I’ve talked with The Autry’s catering department about having some of the appropriate soft drinks for the period—sarsaparilla and things like that.”

The second event, on Friday, February 23, at 7 p.m., The Urban Chuck Wagon: 100 Years of Food Truck Fare, will look at how chuck wagons inspired L.A.’s first food trucks. Foss says, “Traditionally, one of the ways that immigrants could get ahead if they couldn’t afford a brick-and-mortar restaurant was to start the horse-drawn equivalent of a food truck.” He plans to discuss the history of mobile kitchens, and how they developed into the food trucks we know today. He says, “I have pictures of Model Ts with extra sets of batteries and waffle irons built into them, so they could basically go driving from place to place and making waffles right there.”

While the menu for the first two events will include a few vegetarian dishes, the one on Friday, April 6, at 7 p.m.—From Trail to Table in the 21st Century—is strictly for meat eaters. Foss says, “Since the third one is about the cattle business, there will be beef in everything, including dessert.” He explains that back then, the folks on the trail didn’t have access to the cooking oils that we use today. Olive oil was very expensive, and canola oil hadn’t been invented yet. “From the Medieval Era up until the early 20th century, the most popular cooking fats in the world were lard and beef tallow,” says Foss, who bakes his own bread. “Breads and cakes and pastries made with beef tallow, by any standard, are so much better than the ones you can make using oil and butter.”

Autry Museum of the American West, 4700 Western Heritage Way, Griffith Park. Tickets to the three chuck wagon events are sold individually, and are $65 each. Advance purchase is recommended. A limited number of tickets are available to avoid long food lines.

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