“Every cowboy thinks he knows more than every other cowboy. But the only thing they all know for sure is when’s payday and where’s grub – L.L. Royster, Amarillo, Texas, 191 (From COWBOY WISDOM rounded up by Terry Hall, Warner Books, 1995).
”A MAN’S GOTTA DO WHAT A MAN’S GOTTA DO” – Alan Ladd in “SHANE”, 1953 (FROM COWBOY WISDOM)
“TALK LOW, TALK SLOW, AND DON’T SAY TOO MUCH” – John Wayne (FROM COWBOY WISDOM)
“When a Cowboy is too old to set a bad example, he hands out good advice (Teddy Blue, from SOWBELLY AND SOURDOUGH
RULES OF THE RANGE
THE ROY ROGERS RIDERS CLUB RULES
- Be neat and clean.
1.2. Be Courteous and polite.
1.3. Always obey your parents.
1.4. Protect the weak and help them.
1.5. Be brave but never take chances.
1.6. Study hard and learn all you can.
1.7. Be kind to animals and care for them.
1.8. Eat all your food and never waste any.
1.9. Love God and go to Sunday School regularly.
1.10.Always respect our flag and our country.
(FROM ROY ROGERS, FROM COWBOY WISDOM)
Jan and Michael Stern, (whose names you surely recognize from the many cookbooks they’ve written, including AMERICAN GOURMET, ROAD ROOD, SQUARE MEALS, THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF BAD TASTE and one of my favorites A TASTE OF AMERICA assisted in the writing of HAPPY TRAILS, The life story of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, and explain it this way, “Roy Rogers and Dale Evans were simply the most popular cowboy and cowgirl the world has ever known. Their West as a magical American landscape full of promise and hope in which goodness was always rewarded and bad guys always got what they deserved. They reigned at a time when the cowboy ideal seemed to signify everything decent about a nation in which all things were possible if you were a good guy with a solid handshake and a sense of honor. They were, in the words of H. Allen Smith, “purity rampant” at a time when we Americans wanted heroes pure and yearned to believe that dreams come true. They fought fair and didn’t swear or even grumble when the going got tough…”
Like the song title, my heroes have always been cowboys, starting way back when, with Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy,and Gene Autry, and the Saturday afternoon movie matinees. Even though we all knew – didn’t we? – that this was not the real West?) My younger brother, Bill, was so determined to become a cowboy that he did — I have no idea how many horses he has today…all three of his daughters learned to ride, starting at the age of six months, propped onto the saddle in front of mommy or daddy. My niece, Jenny, their oldest daughter, has wall to wall ribbons from competitions she has won and became a jockey.
The nearest I have ever come was a guyfriend who actually did ride in the rodeos and gave me his rodeo jacket, which I still treasure, while my friend Mary Jo went and -can you believe it? -actually married a cowboy and rode off (in a car, not a horse) to Arizona to live with him. One other treasure in my collection of stuff (you can never have too much stuff), is an autographed photograph of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans.
When we were kids (my siblings and the neighborhood children, engaging in imaginary play), we often fought over whose turn it was to be the horse. This was a greatly coveted role to play; usually, who ever could whinny the best got to be Trigger, Buttermilk, Topper or Champion. Hardly a Christmas went by that my two younger brothers, Biff and Bill, didn’t ask Santa for (and receive) cap guns-and-quick draw holsters. The guns shot caps which sometimes provided a wisp of smoke.
Much of our image of cowboys, of course, is the Hollywood variety-and if you are ever in my neck of the woods, visit the Gene Autry Museum of Western Heritage in Burbank, California,, where you will learn a great deal about cowboys, both the Hollywood version and the real thing.
So, what’s the real story? What were–and are—cowboys really like?. And more importantly to us, what did they cook and eat, on the range? Isn’t this, perhaps, how the west was really won? Luckily for us, there are quite a few wonderful cookbooks available today, on this very subject–though most old time cowboys would have laughed heartily over the notion of “cowboy cuisine”.
We need to step into the past–and work our way forward—and fortunately for us, there are any number of excellent books to lend us a hand.
“When cowboys first rode onto the prairies, they could travel for days without seeing another human being. Parched lips and tongue, a sand-filled scalp and a stiff back were the cowboy’s way of life. They beat their shirts between rocks to kill bugs and ate breakfast in the saddle to loosen up after sleeping on the hard ground. Through hundreds of miles of cattle drives, they created new trails for the homesteaders heading West…”A roundup cook is a sort of human that was kicked in the head by a brindle cow or a cross-grained mule when very young..Nobody with good sense could be a roundup cook…takes a special talent to wrangle Dutch ovens and feed fifteen or twenty men that eat like walruses all hours of the day or night, right through wind, dirt, snow, cold, rain and mud…They’re temperamental as wimmin too. Also, they is very cranky”. (This was written by a writer from the Prescott Courier, reprinted in A TASTE OF THE WEST FROM COORS, produced by Meredith Publishing in 1981).
And if that isn’t enough to dispel any romantic notions we may have had of the Old West and cowboys, listen to what B. Byron Price has to say in NATIONAL COWBOY HALL OF FAME, CHUCK WAGON COOKBOOK, published by Hearst Books in 1995: “Long before the great roundups and trail drives of the nineteenth century, small squads of cow hunters working cooperatively fanned out each spring and fall to gather their herds for branding or market. Participants in these events carried meager provisions with them on their saddles, either slung over the horn, stuffed in saddle pockets, or rolled in coat or slicker and tied behind the saddle cantle. Most men packed a few days rations in a ‘wallet’, a cloth or canvas sack with two compartments separated in the middle by a wide mouth. An early cow hunter’s fare was simple: a little flour or cornmeal, chunks of corn bread or biscuits, some salt, perhaps a little sugar, and coffee. Many also carried a hunk of salted side meat whose fat tended to discolor the wallets, thereby earning their owners the colorful, if unappetizing, label ‘greasy sack outfits.’” Ew, ew. Still think the life of a cowboy was romantic?
Scott Gregory, author of SOWBELLY AND SOURDOUGH describes the American cowboy this way: “…They were a tough bunch. They worked long n’ hard and never knew when they might get trampled or thrown, let alone shot or snake bit! They slept on the ground, washed from a bucket, and owned only what they carried horseback. For their skills, they demanded fair wages ‘n good food. Chuck as they called it. If the chuck was no good, then the outfit wasn’t worth riding for!…”
(Cowboys never referred to their food as grub, says Gregory. Grub was the term miners used for their groceries).
When we think about cowboys, the chuck wagon quite naturally comes to mind, but, in the very early days, each cowboy cooked for himself. Utensils were sparse–cowboys on the range had no use for toting hefty iron skillets around with them; they usually cooked their meat and bread dough on sticks over a fire.
“During longer roundups,” B. Byron Price tells us in THE NATIONAL COWBOY HALL OF FAME CHUCK WAGON COOKBOOK, “Cow hunters often lashed more extensive provisions, cooking utensils, and bedding on pack animals, forming a train of mules and horses. While in the field, roundup outfits often entrusted their packs to neophyte cowhands, some of them as young as ten years old.
The use of pack trains for feeding trail and roundup crews persisted in rough, isolated regions of the West well into the 20th century, especially in those areas where dense vegetation, broken terrain, narrow passages, and the absence of roads and bridges discouraged the use of carts or wagons…”
“The primitive forerunner of the roundup,” says Ramon Price, author of COME AN’ GET IT, THE STORY OF THE OLD COWBOY COOK. “consisted of neighboring stockmen getting together to look over each other’s herds for strays. Such neighborly gatherings were called by the various names of ‘cow hunts’ or ‘cow works’, ‘works’, ‘cow drives’ or were spoken of as running cattle’. Each man ‘packed’ his own food in a saddle pocket or a flour sack tied behind the cantle of his saddle.
Food in those days was simple and scanty. Each man carried a small supply of roasted coffee, salt, and cold corn bread or a hard biscuit. Sometimes, if the bread supply ran short, a man would be sent to a neighboring ranch to request the ‘lady of the ranch’ to bake some biscuits…Each man brewed his own coffee to suit his individual taste and there was no ‘cussing the cook’, a privilege enjoyed by later-day cowhands…”
But by the 1850s, writes Price, 2-wheeled ox-drawn carts or wagons were taking the place of pack animals in the open country along the Texas Gulf coast. These were easier to manage than mule trains and had a greater carrying capacity. The era of the ox cart didn’t last long and were soon replaced by heavy duty freight wagons pulled by 2 to 6 horses, depending on the weight of the load and the difficulty of the trail…”
Says Price, “Most historians credit freighter-turned-rancher Charles Goodnight with creating the prototype chuck wagon in 1866. His model was a simply a wooden cupboard made of…Osage orangewood that was bolted to the rear of an army wagon. The design of this “chuck” or “grub” box, as it became known, perhaps drew inspiration from the portable writing desks of the period and the compact mess chests then popular with travelers, campers, and soldiers for cooking and dining in the field….”
“Chuck boxes, by contrast,” says Price, “were usually much larger, standing about four feet tall, and were made to a cook’s or rancher’s specifications. Some were rectangular and of uniform depth, while the backs of others sloped rearward from top to bottom to give the cook maximum access to their contents. Whatever its shape, a chuck box usually houses a labyrinth of shelves and compartments.
Within the upper reaches of the box the cook stowed a variety of tin cans and wooden containers bearing items in more or less constant use–staples, spices, tableware and other small utensils, and perhaps medicines. Larger and heavier items like earthenware crocks, wooden kegs, and iron pots and pans were kept on the lower shelves of the unit.
Most chuck boxes also accommodated several often ill-fitting drawers that opened by means of finger and hand holes or metal, leather or ceramic pulls…a hinged lid, secured by a hasp, covered the face of the chuck box while in transit…”
“There were certain unwritten but well-understood rules in camp,” Elmer Kelton writes in the introduction to A TASTE OF TEXAS RANCHING. “You never rode a horse up close enough to stir dust around the wagon. The working hands ate first, visitors afterward. When you finished eating, you scraped your plate clean and dropped it and your utensils in the cook’s ‘wreck’ pan so he did not have to scour the area looking for stray hardware. You rolled up your own bed, and if the camp was to be moved, you dragged it close to the wagon or even loaded it to help the cook and his swamper*, if he had one. You never loafed around the cook’s fire. In wintertime, the cowboys built a loafing fire of their own in the evening, a little way from the wagon…”
(*a swamper was an unskilled helper)
Trail driving, says Price, “reached its zenith between 1866 and the mid 1890s”. This was due to a huge demand for beef and the absence of adequate and economical railroad transport. At its height, says Price, it involved millions of cattle, thousands of cowboys and hundreds of chuck wagons. An average outfit consisted of eleven men, including a trail boss, eight drovers, a horse wrangler, the cook and chuck wagon, sixty horses and anywhere from 2500 to 3000 head of cattle.
It was after the Civil War, in 1865, that many Georgia soldiers returned home to find no home at all and headed for Texas to start a new life, explains Tom Bryant in A TASTE OF TEXAS RANCHING. “Fathers and mothers in Georgia,” says Bryant, “often complained that Texas was taking their babies as more and more young boys left to join the burgeoning cattle industry that was gearing up in South Texas and would make history for the next twenty years with its long drives up North…”
The amount of food a cook might use could be staggering–depending on how many mouths he had to feed. And, despite the great demand for food, cooks were sometimes handicapped by a lack of utensils.
The chuck wagon cook had to be up long before the cowboys, -usually by 3:30 or 4:00 a.m. When cook called, the camp stirred. One poetic chuck wagon cook penned the following:
“Bacon in the pan,
Coffee in the pot,
Get up and get it,
Get it while it’s hot”
Another wrote: “A man who has had a hand in the work and eaten chuck wagon food, while sitting on a pail, is not quite the same again. He has been his own man and lived free”. (From SOWBELLY AND SOURDOUGH).
Some outfits, says Price, finished breakfast as early as three or four in the morning, and by daybreak were already in the saddle and beginning their morning circle. Before riding away, their bedding would have been rolled and tied and left near the chuck wagon, or they risked having the cook leave it behind.
By 5:00 a.m., cook and his helper would have washed and stored their dishes, loaded the bedrolls and other gear, and harnessed the horses for a move of several miles. There might be a race to get to the next stop, for the first one there would get the best location. As soon as he reached the next campsite, cook and his helper would pitch camp and begin preparations for the next meal.
“A little flame is seen flickering in camp, and the cook’s call is heard “Roll out!”. You jump up, but before you have time to dress and pack your bed the second call is heard, “Breakfast!” (Holm Dobson, from SOWBELLY AND SOURDOUGH.)
Most cowboy cooks, says Price, relied on the versatile Dutch oven, a piece of kitchen equipment that has spanned centuries. (Most overland travelers relied on the Dutch oven, too) If you aren’t familiar with a Dutch oven (which a friend of ours used to call, for some obscure reason, a Murphy pot), it was a large round cast iron pot with stubby legs and a light fitting lid that was slightly domed with an outer ride, designed so that coals could be placed on top of it, which applied extra heat and helped food cook faster. When the lid was turned over it doubled as a grill. “The Mexicans” writes Sam Arnold in EATING UP THE SANTA FE TRAIL, “had many recipes calling for entre dos fuegos (between two fires) which meant heat both below and above. (There are many modern-day Dutch ovens but they are without the stubby legs and the rimmed lid.)
It may interest you to know that Lewis and Clark listed the Dutch oven as one of their most valuable pieces of equipment, when they traveled west. Cowboys (and Emigrants traveling West, also), quickly recognized the value of the cast-iron Dutch oven, in spite of its weight, for it could be used to make biscuits, cook beans or a stew, fry a steak or even bake a cake or cobbler. It was used for baking, steaming, boiling, stewing and frying. When the lid was turned over, it doubled as a grill. Dutch ovens could be purchased in a variety of sizes, in the old days, up to 16 inches in diameter.
James A. Hansen and Kathryn J. Wilson, authors of BUCKSKINNERS COOKBOOK published in 1979 by The Fur Press in Chadron Nebraska, offer the following hints for baking breads and pies in a Dutch Oven:
1. Place Dutch Oven and lid separately in the fire.
2. Get oven moderately hot, lid very hot but not red.
3. Grease bottom and sprinkle flour over it.
4. Put in bread, biscuits, pie, etc.
5. Rake out a thin bed of coals, and set oven on it with lid on.
6. Cover lid thickly with more coals.
7. Replenish as needed.
8. Use pot hook to check progress of cooking.
Alex Adamson, author of HISTORICAL COOKERY OF THE BLACK HILLS, explains that ranch cooks often managed cooking with Dutch ovens and food carried in “hot boxes” (or a hay box.) Says Adamson, “Cooking was done with Dutch ovens and food carried in ‘hot boxes’. The cook would start his roast in the Oven after supper. Night riders changing shifts kept the fire going. When the chuck wagon was loaded in the morning the partially cooked roast was stowed in a box packed with hay, and finished off in the oven again in time for supper…”
(Bryant and Bernstein, in A TASTE OF TEXAS RANCHING tell us that under the wagon body, the cook and his helper had a “cooney”, which was a dried cowhide used to carry firewood when it was available, or buffalo or cow chips when necessary).
One most unusual use of the Dutch oven is described in SOWBELLY AND SOURDOUGH “The cook would turn a Dutch oven upside down and put his alarm clock on it, so when it went off, the oven worked like a sounding chamber, waking up not only him, but every sleeping creature in the land!”
Scott Gregory, author of SOWBELLY AND SOUR DOUGH provides an answer – finally! – to my question, how the Dutch Oven got its name. “These cast iron pots,” writes Gregory, “Got their name from the old Dutch traders who peddled housewares from their wagons. It is said that Paul Revere is the real developer of the Dutch oven. The ovens are nothing more than a large, cast iron pot with a lid and a bail handle. Today
you can find the ovens made from copper, cast iron and aluminum. The cast iron version is by far the oven of choice…”
Latter day Dutch ovens such as the one I have been cooking with for over forty years, don’t have the stubby legs and the lid is no longer ridged to hold coals. I have even seen some cast iron Dutch ovens with glass lids (which seems sort of sacrilegious). It still remains a most versatile cooking pot, whether you go camping or cook with it in the luxury of your modern day kitchen.
A really versatile cook, says B. Byron Price, could even make-do without a pot. He would dig a hole, line it fur-side out with cowhide, then heat soup or stew with heated stones.
Cooking with heated stones is also the way American Native Indians often cooked a soup or stew in tightly woven baskets. Beverly Cox, in SPIRIT OF THE HARVEST notes that cooking with heated stones was so popular amongst Plains Indians that the
Dakota word for the Assiniboin Indians translates to “those who boil with stones.”
Hanson and Wilson, in the Buckskinner Cook Book, also describe Stone Boiling. “A very old Plains Indian technique for cooking was to dig a hole in the ground about a foot or more in diameter. Then a fresh stomach (i.e., from an animal, such as a buffalo) was used to line the hole and pegged around the top, and the stomach filled with water and pieces of meat. Red hot stones were dropped in one at a time, and in an amazingly rapid time, the contents were cooked. You could even eat the kettle when the first course was gone….”
Breakfast and dinner (the mid-day meal) were eaten hurriedly, with little time for conversation, while supper was a more leisurely meal. The cook was careful to save any edible leftovers to serve as a snack or a future meal.
”A good cook,” writes Ramon F. Adams, author of COME AN’ GET IT; THE STORY OF THE OLD COWBOY COOK, “kept the coffeepot on the hot coals during the night, so that men going on night à guard could help themselves to this needed stimulant and men Coming in could drink a warming cup to take the chill of the night from their bones.
One of the cook’s last duties of the night was to turn the wagon tongue toward the North Star so that directions could be taken from it the following morning. It served as the trail man’s compass. On the end of the tongue a lighted lantern was hung to guide the night shifts back to camp…”
A cowboy’s life on the range or trail centered around campfires and the chuck wagon, and some observers considered the life of a cowboy to be dull.
Music was often a part of camp life; says Price, “Many hands, including cooks, were proficient musicians, playing such instruments as guitars, banjos, fiddles, Jew’s harps and accordions. (This makes sense to me, as we have such a rich heritage of old-time Western songs and ballads). Storytelling and poetry sessions were also popular activities.
Eventually, along came cook-tents and portable wood burning stoves, and then not long after, portable mess tables with folding legs and a few chairs. One longtime drover described such an outfit in 1882 on a drive between Colorado and Montana.
If the chuck wagon couldn’t carry all of the cowboys’ gear, a second wagon, known as a bed wagon or hoodlum wagon, might be used.
But more important to us (since we are primarily concerned with food and its preparation), is what the cowboys ate and how it was cooked.
”Prior to 1870,” says Price, “a few basic staples dominated the menu of all cow camps. These included coffee, bread (in the form of biscuits, cornmeal or hard crackers), meat bacon, salt pork, beef–fresh, dried, salted and smoked—and game, salt and some sugar and sorghum molasses…”
The quantity and quality depended on numerous factors, including the region, sources of supply and the ability of the cook. Over the years, explains Price, southwestern ranching outfits gained the reputation of being unimaginative and miserly with rations, while in the northern plains, ranches were considered more generous and progressive. Perhaps the changing weather of the northern plains was a factor?) In any case, cowboys were often induced to stay with northern plains ranches due to the luxuries–canned fruit and cane sugar, for example!
Although cowboys were herding cattle, fresh beef was not as plentiful as you might imagine. For one thing, most ranches kept careful records of the cattle being herded. Sometimes, smaller outfits killed fat calves or yearling heifers. And when a crew was unable to consume all of the fresh meat bearing in mind, they had no refrigeration), they sometimes bartered with local farmers for butter, milk, fruit, or vegetables.
According to Price, a typical plains cow outfit slaughtered beef every two to four days, depending on the number of men in camp and the climate for preservation. Cowboys in the Southwest or along the Gulf Coast, says Price, enjoyed fresh beef less often, perhaps once a week. In the Southwest, where meat could spoil quickly, much of it was made into jerky, a word derives from the Spanish CHARQUI.
To make jerky, the cook usually dipped strips of beef into a hot brine or a layer of salt, then hung the strips to dry. They could also make jerky from deer, antelope, and buffalo. Dried buffalo meat, says Price, was cheaper than bacon. It could be transported easily and could be eaten ‘as is’ or fried in tallow. “Some cooks” says Price, “made a tasty dish called ‘jowler’ by boiling pieces of jerky in water thickened with flour or an egg (if available) and seasoned with plenty of salt and pepper”.
And, properly prepared, says Price, “prairie chickens, geese, ducks, quail, and wild turkey made delicious eating and were especially sought after for Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts…”
Until refrigeration and automobiles came along, vegetables and fruit made up less than 10 percent of a cowboy’s diet. Cowboys generally consumed only dried or canned products, such as beans, rice, hominy, prunes, currants and apples, with perhaps a few fresh potatoes, onions, pickles and wild fruit added at times for variety. (Make a note of this—you will find that early emigrant diets were often very similar).
“Beans,” says Price, “were by far the most common food in western cow camps”. These were usually pinto beans, also known by cowboys as “pecos strawberries or “prairie whistles”. Beans challenged the cook’s ingenuity because they took a long time to cook and the chuck wagon was often on the move. Cooks compensated by soaking their beans overnight and by boiling two meals worth at one time. Sometimes a cook put A pot of beans on the fire while making the evening camp and let them simmer all night.
When potatoes were available, cooks would serve them boiled or fried, often with skins on. Generally, the only time cowboys encountered fresh fruit was when dried apples or apricots were shipped into camp. By the 1880s, most major ranches stocked thousands of pounds of dried apples, prunes, apricots, peaches, raisins and currants, to be eaten raw or used in sauces, cobblers, puddings and pies.
Although the invention of the tin can in 1823 provided canned meats, fish, vegetables, fruit and milk, these items weren’t readily available to cowboys on the range. As late as the 1880s, says Price, canned food (called ‘airtights’ by the cowboys), was still uncommon on the Western ranges.
Although the price of canned food became more affordable in the wake of the Civil War, one can surmise that weight was a primary factor keeping it from common use in the West; dried peaches or apricots weighed less, and took up less space, than its canned counterpart. (This was also true for Oregon Trail emigrants, limited by weight and space what could be taken with them in a covered wagon that was about the same size as today’s mini-van. Picture, if you can, a mini-wagon for husband, wife, and perhaps two or three little children, packed with all the dried beans and other foodstuffs that could be packed for the journey. There had to be some quilts for everyone to sleep under, and some cooking utensils and mama’s Dutch oven).
As some canned foods became more available, interestingly, canned tomatoes became a favorite of the cowboys, who sometimes preferred the canned variety to fresh (possibly because of the thirst-quenching juice and, I would imagine, a craving for Vitamin C). Cooks often flavored beans with canned tomatoes, or would mix canned tomatoes with cold biscuits to produce something called “pooch”. An innovative chuck wagon cook, lacking fruit, would mix canned tomatoes with sugar to make a passable fruit cobbler (bearing in mind that the tomato is actually a fruit and not a vegetable!).
Cowboys became fond of canned peaches and pears, too, when they were available. A cowboy’s sweet tooth is legendary, say Bryant and Bernstein.
Even though fresh meat wasn’t always available, and vegetables were virtually unheard of on the open range, one kind of food was a mainstay–bread.
“During the heyday of the open range in the late nineteenth century,” explains B. Byron Price, “most ranch cooks served hot bread, usually sourdough biscuits, at every meal…”
Cowboys also enjoyed hot corn bread, thin tortillas soda crackers and hot loaf bread. If he had nothing else to cook it with, a lone cowboy on the range might mix some flour and water, a bit of baking soda, if he had it, and shape it into a ball. This would be speared onto a stick and toasted over an open fire. Cornmeal might also be turned into corn pone, hoecakes, johnnycakes, corn dodgers and hush puppies. Various kinds of bread made with cornmeal were more likely to be served up by chuck wagon cooks in the South or Texas, while sourdough products were a product of range life on the High plains. (There is an amusing description of what was surely a sourdough starter, described in Willa Cather’s novel “My Antonia”, originally published in 1918. Some of Ms. Cather’s books focus on pioneer life on the Nebraska Plains. Antonia’s mother also treasured some dried mushrooms that she’d brought to America from the old country. Jim’s family, the recipient of the mushrooms, had no idea what they were or what to do with them and threw them away, and were equally unimpressed with Antonia’s mother’s use of sourdough starter).
“Some chuck wagon cookies,” says Lon Walters in his book THE OLD WEST BAKING BOOK “became so adept at quick biscuits that they didn’t even dirty any pans when assembling the mix. They would simply tear open the sack of flour, make a deep well, and blend in the baking soda, salt, and lard. After they added a little water to the fresh biscuit dough, it was ready for the Dutch oven…”
(Although baking powder was invented in 1856 and commercial yeast cakes became available by 1868, many chuck wagon cooks continued to make their own homemade leavening by combining cream of tartar with bicarbonate of soda, flour, or cornstarch. Sourdough was made from a starter which combined warm water, some cooked potato, sugar, flour and yeast. After a couple of days stored in a warm place, the starter was ready to use. As the name suggests, you keep some of the original and add to it after every use, to keep it going. In the 1970s, homemade sourdough starters became popular once again, and it was not unusual to see a jar of one fermenting away while it set on someone’s kitchen counter). Most cooks, Price tells us, “stored their sourdough in earthenware crocks holding from one to five gallons, depending on the amount of dough required”.
”Most cowboys”, says Price, “expected hot bread at every meal. Resourceful cooks would use sourdough starter to make cakes, dumplings, pie crusts and pancakes. However, by World War One, sourdough cooking was already a lost art in some regions of the West”.
There are a number of fine books devoted to cowboys of the Old West. One of the finest is the oft-quoted NATIONAL COWBOY HALL OF FAME CHUCK WAGON COOKBOOK by B. Byron Price, published in 1995, by Hearst Books. I also treasure THE OLD WEST BAKING BOOK a lovely spiral-bound cookbook with many illustrations, written by Lon Walters and published in 1996 by Northland Publishing Company. A more recent publication is Beverly Cox and Martin Jacobs SPIRIT OF THE WEST published in 1996 by Artisan, a division of Workman Publishing Company and available at bookstores and through the Internet. I am also partial to NEW COOKING FROM THE OLD WEST by Greg Patent, published in 1996 by Ten Speed Press and A TASTE OF TEXAS RANCHING by Tom Bryant and Joel Bernstein, published in 1995 by the Texas Tech University Press.
Once while visiting Old Town in San Diego, I found SOW BELLY AND SOUR DOUGH by Scott Gregory, published by the Caxton Printers, Ltd., in Caldwell, Idaho. Well written and interesting, it contains many great recipes and a lot of cowboy history.
Other recommended reading (though not necessarily cookbooks),are THE LAST COWBOYS by Connie Brooks, published by the University of New Mexico Press, which deals with the closing of the Open Range in Southeastern New Mexico, and A TASTE OF RANCHING, also by Bryant and Bernstein, published in 1993.
“There are still cooks upon the cow range,” says Ramon Adams, in his book COME AN’ GET IT. THE STORY OF THE OLD COWBOY COOK, which is devoted to the chuck wagon cook, “for men have to be fed. But they are of a younger generation and like the cowboy, have been tamed. There are no more trail drives, nor open-range roundups; the color of the wagon cook’s calling has faded with the advancement of modern progress…”
Before we saddle up and leave the old-timey cowboy, let me share with you a poem I found, by Tex Taylor, (from COME AN GET IT which is dedicated to the Chuck Wagon of long ago:
“The wagon is headquarters and old Cookie runs the show;
Four dun mules to pull it, crack the whip and let’er go.
The wagon is a good one with bows and tarp on top,
and a coonie underneath it carries ever’thing we’ve got.
The wagon bed is full of rolls, duffle bags and feed,
and hangin’ all around the bed is ever’thing we need.
On the front of this here wagon is a spring seat and a box,
where the boys kin keep their hobbles and a lot of other stuff.
On the back end of this wagon there’s a box plumb full but neat;
it’s got tools for us an’ Cookie an’ a heap of grub to eat;
There’s sugar, salt an’ pepper, knives an’ forks an’ spoons;
A great big box of soda an’ some apricots an’ prunes.
There’s a can of bakin’ powder, box of matches, sourdough yeast,
cans of milk, Arbuckle’s coffee, liniment for man or beast.
There’s a sack of flour an’ cornmeal, can of lick, soap an’ lard.
Flour sacks hangin’ in the sun an’ Cookie standin’ guard”.
One of the tragedies accompanying the breaking up of the big ranches was the passing of the chuck wagon and its cook,” writes Ramon Adams, whose book was published by The University of Oklahoma Press.
”If ever there was an uncrowned king on the cow range,” says Adams, “it was the wagon cook. He was monarch of all he surveyed, the supreme sovereign of his jurisdiction”—and Cook’s word was law.
And Gregory writes, “The cook is portrayed in the movies and stories as a crusty, ill-mannered ol’ goat, who was half-drunk; to be sure, some were. But the fact is, the cook was a major part of any outfit. The rancher had plenty of problems just raising or trailing a herd, and he darn-sure didn’t need his cook adding to it! Besides, if he wanted to keep his cowhands satisfied, he had best have a feller who could handle the cookin’ irons! A cook was often paid more than the cowboys themselves. As a result he figured that gave him a prominence amongst the men. A cook took his orders from the owner, or trail boss. Never would he take an order from just any saddle-warmer that was standing in his chuck line!…”
And although the old-time cowboy and the Chuck Wagon cook are gone, this is not to say that we don’t still have cowboys! Not only are there many cowboys alive and well today (in addition to the Hollywood variety), they have blessed us with a number of cookbooks. B. Byron Price, author of the National Cowboy Hall of Fame Chuck Wagon Cookbook was executive director of the National Cowboy Hall of Fame at the time I originally put this article together in 1998-99.
Modern cowboy cooking, says Price, blends simple, down to earth flavors with current tastes for a style that retains a distinct Western flavor. To prove his point, his cookbook contains a wealth of recipes from modern day cowboys and cowgirls. There s even a nineties kind of homemade beef jerky, made with a combination of spices and liquid smoke, and baked in the oven (I like to make mine in the dehydrator; the only difficulty is keeping filching fingers out of it until it has all finished drying…when London Broil was on sale, we’d buy as much as the budget would allow, and make up a big batch of beef jerky).
For an updated look at cowboy grub…er,.. chuck, you might want to check out Montie Montana, Jr’s COWBOY CUISINE, published in 1996 and dedicated to all the performers and friends of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. And speaking of modern day microwave ovens, Arlo Dunbar, Chief Chuckwagon Cook of the Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show says “Microwave ovens are okay for popcorn or reheating something you’ve already cooked the right way, but we prefer Dutch ovens and a real fire…” proving once again that the versatile cast iron Dutch oven is still king of the range–whether it’s the open range or the one in your kitchen.
Montie Montana’s cookbook is great fun, filled with recipe contributions and photographs, cartoons and plenty of cowboy wit & wisdom. And although there are recipes such as you would never find on an old-time cowboy’s plate, (such as Parmesan Pasta salad and Mousakka), you will find plenty of authentic cowboy recipes, such as making sourdough starter and jerky. You may be as surprised as I was to find a recipe for War Cake, wearing another hat, called Wind Cake. The contributor says he grew up in Nebraska and when everything was rationed, including butter and cheese and sugar, his mother made this cake which I have written about in HARD TIMES.
COWBOY CUISINE provides a recipe for making apple pie in a Dutch oven, as well as an interesting-sounding concoction called Vinegar Cobbler, which also called for the versatile Dutch oven, and pineapple upside down carrot cake (Dutch oven needed!). COWBOY CUISINE contains lots of celebrity contributions, too, recipes from such legendary western heroes as Gene Autry and Roy Rogers and Dale Evans.
Speaking of celebrities reminded me of another compilation by Ken Beck and Jim Clark, called THE ALL AMERICAN COWBOY COOKBOOK, published by Rutledge Press in Nashville,Tennessee in 1995. What great fun this book is for all cowboys and cowgirls, wannabees or otherwise! (This cookbook was recently reviewed on my blog).
“If all the world’s a stage,” the authors state in the introduction, “the American cowboy is perhaps its most legendary rider…” Along with food favorites from all of our favorite cowboys of the Silver Screen, such as Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, and TV western stars such as James Garner and Chuck Connors, there are recipes from singing cowboys and world champion rodeo cowboys.
Some recipes are tongue in cheek, such as “Here’s a recipe for cowboy coffee: take a pound of coffee, add water, boil for half an hour. Throw in a horseshoe; if it sinks, add more coffee”.
Another modern day cowboy cookbook is TRAIL BOSS’S COWBOY COOKBOOK, published in 1985 by the Society for Range Management . This is a society, founded in 1948, by a group of people concerned with the preservation of rangelands, whether in the United States or abroad. Rangelands occupy about 47% of the earth’s total land area. They are the largest single land category in many countries, including the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Rangelands provide approximately 75% of the worldwide forage needs for livestock, food and cover for wildlife, water for many uses, and open space for beauty, recreation, environmental balance and diversity.
So, even though you and I may be city slickers, the rangelands, and their conservation, are just as important to us as they are to our country cousins.
In my search for new and different cowboy cuisine, I found a little spiral bound cookbook called RANGE RIDERS COOKIN’ created by Bob Kerby’s Longhorn Studio and published in 1989. Mr. Kerby has devoted a lifetime capturing the action of the American West and portraying the life of the contemporary cowboy. After growing up in Colorado, he went to work on large cattle ranches in Northern New Mexico. He now paints exclusively in oils and has exhibited in western art shows, with his work being featured on magazine covers and reproduced on postcards, collector prints and Christmas cards and calendars. One special treat in this little book are the many color illustrations and drawings by Mr. Kerby. There is a wide variety of recipes, many I have not seen elsewhere (Red Lodge Bear Kidneys, Deer Trail Marinated Mountain Goat!)
While browsing at the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum gift shop, I found A COWBOY’S COOKBOOK by T.L. Bush. This cookbook features more than thirty early twentieth century photographs from the collection of acclaimed photographer Erwin E. Smith.
The author is a cowboy, rancher, saloon-keeper and former restaurant owner, who has a definite knack for keeping you entertained when you are reading his cookbook. His chapter €titled “Ol’ Fooler” is hilarious. The recipe are great, the photographs spectacular. A COWBOY’S COOKBOOK was published by Gulf Publishing Company.
My most recent trip to the Western Heritage Museum gift shop turned up a little soft cover recipe booklet titled – guess what? DUTCH OVEN COKING by John G. Ragsdale. This little book was published by Gulf Publishing Company. The recipes offer a wide range for Dutch oven buffs–everything is included, from cooking up a pot of pinto beans to baking cobbler and gingerbread.
Another recent “find” was a soft cover cookbook called A TASTE OF RANCHING by Tom Bryant and Joel Bernstein. The publisher of Cowboy Magazine, Darrell Arnold, describes the book better than I can, stating, “Bernstein and Bryant teamed up to write one of the best cowboy cookbooks yet produced. They’ve combed the West talking to camp cooks, ranch wives, and cowcamp cowboys, and they’ve herded together a whole corral full of rangeland
recipes. This is the food that has fed an entire lifestyle for generations…”
Jimmie Wilson, Past President of the National Cattlemen’s Association wrote the Foreword for “A Taste of Ranching” and perhaps Mr. Wilson should have been a poet, for he writes, ”Ranching has a way of grabbing the imagination. There’s something about sitting on a horse and looking over a green meadow dotted with cows and calves that pulls at the heart strings and keeps ranches out in the blistering heat and the frigid cold tending stock, tending dreams, tending an American tradition….”
If you want to get a true feeling of today’s cowboy, this is the book for you. While there ARE recipes, recipes aren’t the true focus of the book; ranchers, ranching, the West and the people who live in it, are.
A TASTE OF RANCHING was published in 1993 by Border Books. I bought my copy at the Western Heritage Museum gift shop but I imagine many of you with access to the Internet could find a copy through Amazon.com or Alibris.com.
A few years later, Tom Bryant and Joel Bernstein teamed up again, this time to compile “A TASTE OF TEXAS RANCHING” (published in 1995 by Texas Tech University Press).
Bryant and Bernstein traveled throughout Texas, visiting with ranchers, cowboys, cowgirls, and cooks, on big outfits and small ones. Bernstein says they all had one thing in common, hospitality, a willingness to help him, and enormous pride in being Texans. If you are really interested in learning how modern-day ranching operates, this is the book for you. Bryant and Bernstein visited over two dozen Texas ranches in order to put together this portrait of the modern day cowboy–a far cry from old times, when the cowboy was usually a single man and a loner; today’s cowboy is usually a family man and has his family growing up alongside him on his ranch.
If ever there is a good time to delve into cowboy cuisine,(old timey or present) this is it! There is a wealth of material to be found in bookstores and through the Internet book store sources. For all of us, this is an integral part of our American heritage.
When life is over and my race is run,
When death shadows gather and my time has come,
When I’ve rode my last horse and have turned my last steer,
When my soul has winged its way to that celestial sphere,
When my grave has been dug and I’ve been laid to rest,
Please let it be in the far, far West.
(J.E. McCauley, Seymour Texas, 1924, from COWBOY WISDOM).
And Teddy Roosevelt once said, “Ranch life is ephemeral, I for one, shall be sorry to see it go; for when the cowboy disappears, one of the best and healthiest phases of western life will disappear with him”. (From SOWBELLY AND SOUR DOUGH).
Scott Gregory, at the end of his fine cookbook, writes “The soft glow of a sagebrush camp fire no longer warms the darkness of the cattle trail;. But the spirit in which those men lived is still alive and well. We should all periodically take a step back to share in the simple joys of their lives; the morning chill broken by hot cup of coffee in a tin cup, the shade of a tree on a hot day, and a hearty meal built from scratch, with basic ingredients. It may, if only for a while, help us to understand the character of the American West”. (From SOWBELLY AND SOUR DOUGH” by Scott Gregory)
Some of these titles are readily available through the Internet.
COWBOY CUISINE is available on Amazon.com starting at 36c for a pre-owned copy, or $8.88 for a collectible copy (which is less, oddly enough, than a new copy)
THE STORY OF THE OLD COWBOY COOK is available on Amazon.com starting at 2.48 for a pre-owned copy or $19.95 new.
THE OLD WEST BAKING BOOK is available on Amazon.com for $1.90 pre-owned or $11.66 for a new copy.
THE NATIONAL COOKBOOK HALL OF FAME CHUCK WAGON COOKBOOK is available on Amazon.com for .60c for a pre-owned copy or $9.99 for a new copy. (Hard bound copy, very good price)
SOWBELLY AND SOUR DOUGH is available on Amazon.com @ for a pre-owned copy or $21.95 for a new copy.
A TASTE OF TEXAS RANCHING can be yours from Amazon.com for $5.93 for a pre owned copy or $21.95 for a new copy.
A COWBOY’S COOKBOOK can be purchased from Amazon.com for $2.94.
THE ALL AMERICAN COWBOY COOKBOOK can be purchased pre-owned starting at 48 cents
P.S. – it’s only fair to mention this—when I was surfing Amazon.com checking on the available of cowboy cookbooks and the price ranges, you could have knocked me over with a wooden spoon when I saw how many relatively NEW books about cowboy cuisine have been published since I first put this article together in 1998-99.Look them over! You may be pleasantly surprised. This doesn’t detract in any ways from the books I have written about—I think it only proves that the interest in cowboy cuisine has grown in leaps and bounds since I first tackled writing about them in 1998-99.