Monthly Archives: August 2012









IT’S BEST WE DON’T DELAY”  (From Overland 1852)


UNCLE SAM IS RICH ENOUGH TO GIVE US ALL A FARM” –                                   (From a popular camp song)

”You can’t pass a park without seeing a statue of some old codger on a horse. It must be his bravery; you can tell it isn’t his horsemanship. Women are twice as brave as men, yet they never seem to have reached the statue stage” – Will Rogers

(Actually, Will might have been interested in seeing a statue of a pioneer woman with two young children clinging to her, that I saw in South Dakota).

“The longing for Some Place Else grabbed the men again, and pulled them clear across half a continent toward the unsettled and unknown land in the fabled place of Oregon…”   (From WOMEN’S VOICES FROM THE OREGON TRAIL).


“It’s natural for a body to think if you could begin over, your life would be better. You would do it different from any of the people or places where you’d already failed or proved to be just ordinary. Every girl has a dream of being carried off to some better place, by a big handsome feller.

It’s the appeal of being saved, of being born again, as the preachers say. To start a new life and shed the rags of this old one…that’s why the old don’t like to pick up and move on. Some of them come across the water when they was young, and cleared up a new place, and even learned a new tongue. You could say they don’t have the will anymore, or you could say they know better…

The women standing by the wagons had tears of joy, some of them, and others tears of grief. I’ve heard it said men like to up and move on and women want to nest and stay. But I’ve never noticed it was so. I’ve seen just as many women with a hanker to move on, to light out and try a new place. Couldn’t have been so many people settled here if the women didn’t want to come too….” (from THE HINTERLANDS, by Robert, Morgan, published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1994)

While I was elbow deep in researching material for this article, I came across a copy of THE HINTERLANDS at a discount book store one day. It sounded like “my kind of book” so I bought it, not expecting that some of the story, which is a tale of fiction, would provide me with a bit of enlightenment.  For, as the first character, Petel, telling the story to her grandchildren, in the beginning of the book,  explains, “…Couldn’t have been so many people settled here if the women didn’t want to come too”. From the HINTERLANDS by Robert Morgan.

Are you looking at this picture from the wrong end of the telescope? I wondered.  Maybe some women wanted to travel west, to start anew. Maybe the prospect of new land for themselves–and their children–was too great a lure to pass up. Haven’t we all, generation after generation, wanted something more, and better, for our children?

Many historians writing about the Oregon Trail have made the observation that the United States had been mired in deep depression for a number of years prior to the great migration west, beginning in 1837.

Writes Lillian Schlisel in WOMEN’S DIARIES OF THE WESTWARD JOURNEY “By the year’s end, banks across the nation had closed, and by 1839 wages fell 30 to 50 percent.  Twenty thousand unemployed laborers demonstrated in Philadelphia and in New York two hundred thousand people were wondering how they would survive the winter…”

During those years,” writes Mary Barmeyer O’Brien in HEART OF THE TRAIL “the West seemed like a land of promise. Potential emigrants had been told that free land, gold, and a new beginning awaited them…”

Why go West? Asks the Oregon Trail Cookbook. “The hope of promise and undeniable curiosity led many settlers across a wilderness trail that was originally traveled by Indians and later followed by fur traders, trappers and missionaries. The West promised something better–richer soil, bluer skies, a brighter future and a challenge to be met. The American quest for better opportunities and more room could not be squelched by reports of a bleak prairie desert or perilous mountains…the financial collapse in 1837, which caused New York banks to close their doors and agriculture prices to drop, provided farmers with enough reason to look for better opportunities.  Visions of blue skies and clean air moved city dwellers plagued by epidemics such as typhoid, dysentery and cholera to see a healthier life out West…”

“For most of the women who made the westward journey in the 1840s and early ’50s, home was a farm in a Midwestern state–Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri. They were family people. Rural people, Farm people. They were neither rich nor poor. The rich had no need to go and the poor couldn’t raise the money…” (from WOMENS’ VOICES FROM THE OREGON TRAIL)

Between 250,000 and 500,000 people traveled west on the Oregon and California trails between 1843 and 1860, with more than half heading for California. Ninety percent of those who started out made it. However, no one knows how many failed, turned back, or died on the trail, although it is believed that tens of thousands died on the trail itself. Most of the families heading west on the Oregon Trail hoped to start new with free land, promised by the government.

Mary Barmeyer O’Brien, author of HEART OF THE TRAIL also notes that, “Immediately they found the stunning western landscape could be as harsh as it was spectacular.  Hundreds of miles of rugged routes stretched to the horizon crossing rushing rivers and treacherous mountain passes, as well as long barren stretches without life-giving water or food .  The pioneers worked themselves to the bone carving trails through the almost impassible wilderness. But to reach the West, it seemed worth the intense struggle…”

THE OREGON TRAIL COOKBOOK notes that “The Oregon Trail remained in use from the early 1830s until the completion of the trans-continental railroad in 1869. Some pioneers and freighters continued to use the trail into the 1880s but by then, the days of mass migration by wagon train were over…..Originally called ‘The Emigrant Road’ by the early pioneers, the route commonly became known as ‘The Oregon Trail’ and later as ‘The Overland Trail’.  Regardless of its name, emigrants always referred to it as ‘the road’ and not ‘a trail'”.

Hundreds, – if not thousands – of books have been written about the settling of the West. Some of the books are truly wonderful and some are mediocre, but you can learn something from all of them.

People often ask me how I write – how I manage the research (while keeping up with a full time job and a huge house and yard). I can only explain it by telling you that I immerse myself in the subject. If I am writing about cowboys and Indians, I am reading about them. There was a unique store in Burbank, close to my office, called Geographica, which sold maps and travel books. They had a map of the western United States and territories, as it was in 1849. (They did have to dig deep into their stock but were piqued with interest over my request). It now hangs above my computer. If I could take off work for a couple of months, I would travel the Oregon trail, from Missouri to Oregon. No, it wouldn’t be the same as the trip taken by the Emigrants, but I would see much of what they saw, for the famous landmark–Courthouse Rock and Chimney Rock, Scotts Bluff, Emigrant’s Wash Tub–are all still there.  As I read, I often traced the emigrants route on my map. I tried to picture what these people endured. I don’t think anyone, today, really can.

Imagine my surprise when I found a book written by someone who has done just that! Susan G. Butruille is the author of WOMEN’S VOICES FROM THE OREGON TRAIL, published by Tamarack Books in 1993 as well as WOMEN’S VOICES FROM THE WESTERN FRONTIER, also by Tamarack Books, published in 1995.  Susan with her mother as her companion, did exactly what I have longed to do—she drove first to Independence, met up with her mother and then drove west along the nearest proximity of the Oregon Trail. Susan, a 15-year teacher, student, writer and speaker on women’s history, thought it would be fun to trace the trail, learn moiré about it and track down and write about places of interest. (Recently, I discovered there are groups and organizations also devoted to the Oregon Trail. Susan Butruille notes they are “rut nuts” and that there is even an organization called Oregon-California Trails Association (OCTA) located at the National Frontier Trails Center in Independence, Missouri. I also learned that through ELDERHOSTEL, an organization for people 55 and over, you can sign up to take a day trek offered by the University of Wyoming along the Oregon Trail—mind you, travel is on a bus and meals are in college cafeterias and restaurants but it gives you some idea of what our emigrant forefathers and foremothers saw and endured.

WOMENS VOICES FROM THE OREGON TRAIL, published by Tamarack Books, is filled with excerpts from real women’s diaries and is one of the finest books I have discovered on this subject.

“The National Frontier Trails Center,” Susan writes, “is a low-key corner of Independence, a few blocks away from Harry Truman’s place. Here you can take an intriguing journey–three in fact. A huge map on the wall in front of you shows the three westward trails that took off from Independence and changed our history…from the map you can choose from among the three paths through the center that trace the major trails west. Poignant diary excerpts, photographs and paintings tell the traveler’s stories…”

“At the National Frontier Trails Center” Susan explains, “You learn an important distinction. While the people were traveling to their destination to settle, they were emigrants or immigrants, depending on whether they thought of themselves as going or coming). (Once they settled, they were pioneers. That’s why you hardly ever see the word “pioneer” as you travel the Oregon Trail).

The Oregon Trail became known as “the family trail”. The reason for this is that single men, unencumbered by family, were likely to go to California in hopes of striking it rich in the gold fields.

Another clarification was made by a guide at the National Frontier Trails Center The Oregon Trail wasn’t really a trail at all as it crossed the prairie. Emigrants often spread out as much as four or five miles across to stay out of each other’s dust and one would imagine, to better be able to find grass for their livestock. (Some shrewd travelers would cut and dry grass, when it was available, to have feed for their livestock when grass would not be available—without, presumably, any consideration for emigrants who would follow them). They would come together at night at a river or narrow hill or at mountain crossings. This is why you aren’t likely to see trail nuts when you are traveling in prairie country.

(Also – the Indians blazed many trails across the United States, one of which became the Oregon Trail. They called it Big Medicine Trail. The trail climbed from the Great Plains through a break in the Rockies in south Wyoming, which the pioneers called South Pass.)

The trail then followed the North Platte and Sweetwater Rivers across the Great Divide, passed through the Green River Valley, around the Wasatch Mountains and traced the Bear and Snake Rivers into Hell’s Canyon. There it turned northwest over the plateaus and valleys into the Columbia River, which descended into the Pacific. (From the Oregon Trail Cookbook).

“The overland journey was twenty four hundred miles long from the Missouri River” write Lillian Schlissel in WOMEN’S DIARIES OF THE WESTWARD JOURNEY. “The first stops along the road were at Fort Kearney and Scotts Bluff in Nebraska Territory. Emigrants could stop for water, rest and provisions. When the travelers reached Fort Laramie in Wyoming, they had traveled about six hundred and thirty five miles. It was summer. The days were hot and the nights cool as the road climbed to higher altitudes. Inevitably there were hailstorms and virtually no diary omits mention of a fierce pelting with ice the size of snowballs. The road then traveled through Sioux territory and although the emigrants were anxious, they most likely met with no Indians at all save those who wished to barter or be paid for guiding them across the rivers…”

The Oregon Trail Cookbook notes that it was Joe Meek, a mountain man from Virginia, who in 1840 first proved that wagons could be driven across the prairie grass, sand and mountains into the Columbia River Valley.

Susan Butruille describes an exhibit at the Center–a most fascinating collection of artifacts collected by Irene D. Paden, who traveled the trails during the 1930s and wrote THE WAKE OF THE PRAIRIE SCHOONER.

It should be noted—a covered wagon might be called “a covered wagon” or a “Conestoga Wagon” – or a “Prairie Schooner”.

Ms. Paden found tools and utensils–nearly a century later!–of things emigrants had packed to take with them on their journey and later had to discard.  What is particularly tragic about the emigrants on the Oregon Trail is that they often packed foolishly, sometimes relying on guidebooks that had been written for men and sometimes by authors who hadn’t even been over the routes they recommended. In packing for their long journey, they often left behind the very things they would need for survival, in order to take along a favorite piece of furniture, tools, or items that could be replaced.

Notes Jacqueline Williams, in WAGON WHEEL KITCHENS, “If the emigrants did not begin discarding goods shortly after their departures, they usually did so by the time they reached Fort Laramie, where they had to prepare for crossing the Rocky Mountains.  Worn out animals and tired people needed all the relief they could get….Forty-niners often dubbed Fort Laramie as ‘Camp Sacrifice’ because of the massive unloading that took place there by the many wagon trails …”

According to WOMEN’S VOICES FROM THE OREGON TRAIL “…The guidebooks neglected such topics as women’s and children’s clothing, cooking with buffalo chips, personal needs and medicines…”  In the end, treasured pieces of furniture and utensils were discarded on the trail, as the trail became more and more rugged and the beasts of burden laid down and died from exhaustion. (One of the most heart-wrenching stories you will ever read about these beasts of burden is that of Mary Rockwood Powers, in a chapter titled “Chilling Journey”, in O’Brien’s HEART OF THE TRAIL.)

Writes Butruille, “Basic outfitting costs ran close to $1,000 (equivalent to roughly $20,000 in today’s dollars), including the wagon draft animals, food, whiskey, firearms and gear…”

”They called it Oregon fever,” Susan writes, and it must have been.  It was the lure of the land, land described as rich and fertile beyond anyone’s imagination.  Imagine, if you can, a country that had been mired in a deep depression that swept across the country, closing banks.   And there was the great adventure of it all.

To really appreciate the lives and the lot of the emigrants, you should read their diaries and journals. There is a wonderful series of books titled COVERED WAGON WOMEN (subtitled Diaries and Letters from the Western Trails) edited and compiled by Kenneth L. Holmes, (subtitled Diaries and Letters from the Western Trails) published by Bison Books in 1995, told in volumes which begin with 1840-1849 in volume one. There appear to be eleven volumes all together, available through Amazon.Com on the Internet. I bought my copies some years ago at the Western Heritage Museum in Los Angeles.

Kenneth Holmes, professor of history at Western Oregon State College, edited and compiled the Covered Wagon Women series, drawing on archives and private sources. As Kenneth Holmes’s acquisition makes clear, new diaries are being discovered today, almost 150 years after their recording.

As one reviewer so succinctly put it, “the entries from these pioneer women are alternately rich with optimism, stark with tragedy and always laced with the mind-numbing details and foot-blistering discipline required to keep to that inexorable march toward the western horizon”.

Another reviewer observed, “Until about 20 years ago, the Overland Trail story was generally understood as a male adventure epic.  The vast majority of known diaries were by men “rushing” to California after gold was discovered in 1848.  Because of the preponderance of these Gold Rush accounts, the smaller Oregon migration was neglected, and so was the family nature of it. In contrast to the temporary intent of California-bound travelers, families went to Oregon to settle, to farm, and to stay…”

As Mary Barmeyer O’Brien points out, “Women played an extraordinary role in the westward movement, but sometimes their contributions and sacrifices were overlooked. As their covered wagons jolted them over the two-thousand mile long trails, they had to summon every bit of their strength and courage just to survive. They knew they had left friends and family behind, in many cases forever. For most women, it was not their decision to travel off into an unknown land far from the schools and churches they cherished. But of necessity they toiled on, bearing children and raising families on the unrelenting trail…”

From WOMEN’S VOICES FROM THE OREGON TRAIL comes this song, from “Overland, 1852”, by songwriter Linda Allen:

“My name is Emma Logan and I come from Tennessee,

and there I spent my childhood with my friends and family,

I married young John Logan, back in 1844  that day he promised Pa we’d never go far from his door.

The children came so quickly, but my ma was so close by,

she’d help out with the births, and then she’d hold them when they’d cry,

I thought my life was settled ‘til the day John said to me,

Pack the wagon, woman, we are leaving Tennessee.” (from Overland 1852)

In the introduction to the Bison Books series (published by the University of Nebraska University Press), Anne M. Butler writes, “Happily, the concept of a women’s west no longer surprises us.  Women were shaped by the West, but they did their own share of shaping, leaving a female signature on land and lives. It took America several decades to acknowledge this historical reality. The recognition came slowly, but we have moved beyond an earlier perception of the West as an arena reserved for male exploits…Noted historians have turned out revealing and important works about women in the West…(yet)…the more we know, the harder it seems to be to pinpoint the meaning of life for pioneer women in the American West. Did migrant women look to the West with quivering fear or joyful anticipation?”

As explained in the Covered Wagon Women series, “…the woman in the sunbonnet has told her own story. She has painted word pictures of the road she traveled with her family. The words were written right in the wagon on the way west. Sometimes it was in the form of a letter written to the folks back home and sent off from Fort Laramie or Fort Boise, or from the end of the trail in Oregon or California or Utah or some other western locale….”

And throughout it all, danger lurked everywhere.  Would most of those women have agreed to go, or would they have fought harder against it, had they known of the dangers of children getting lost, drowning, falling under wagon wheels, getting sick, starving to death and, in some cases, being taken captive by Indians, (as in the case of the Oatman sisters, recounted in a book called CAPTIVITY OF THE OATMAN GIRLS, by R.B. Stratton, published by the University of Nebraska Press).

Or would it have made no difference to women in the 1800s, who had no rights of their own?  (Can any of us, from the perspective of 2012, truly understand what that must have been like? You have no right to vote. You have no equal say in decisions being made that will affect the lives of you and your children). Another important factor, explained by Lillian Schlissel in her book “WOMEN’S DIARIES OF THE WESTWARD JOURNEY”, is the women’s all-consuming intent to keep their families intact. Their husbands were bound and determined to go. To keep the family unit together, there was nothing to do but go.

In spite of all the mishaps that took lives, both animal and human, disease was the greatest killer on the Oregon Trail. At least 20,000 emigrants–1 out of every 17 that started–were buried along the Oregon Trail: most succumbed to the very illnesses the pioneers were trying to escape. Fatalities on the trail were so numerous, notes THE OREGON TRAIL COOKBOOK, that the emigrants averaged one grave every 80 yards between the Missouri River and the Willamette Valley. Most of the writers of diaries and journals, says Kenneth Holmes, were housewives and mothers.  About ten percent were teen age girls, fulfilling a mandate of friends back home who at a going away party presented them with a blank diary as a gift in which to record the great adventure. Most of the writers had the care of children, often large families with as many as six or eight of them.

But–let’s get back to basics!!

What we really want to know is what people cooked and ate, what recipes they used, and how they managed, whether traveling the Oregon Trail or homesteading on a western prairie.

How did families, limited to about 2400 pounds maximum–manage to pack everything they would need for a journey that might take as little as four months, but more likely as many as six or even eight months to complete?

Susan Butruille writes, “The men packed firearms for protection and for killing animals to supplement the food supply, along they would actually provide little of the food on the trail…Now picture putting everything you will need for six months on the road and setting up housekeeping at the road’s end into a wooden box that measures four by ten feet. It’s a delicate balance. Too little food and supplies and you risk starvation or freezing, or breaking down for lack of adequate equipment for repairs. Too much and you risk breaking down, wearing out the oxen or the wagon, or getting behind schedule and getting caught in winter storms…so how would you know how much to pack?  The staple diet would be bread, bacon, and coffee. Lansford Hastings (author of one of the guidebooks) recommended for each emigrant 200 lbs of flour, 150 lbs of bacon, 10 lbs of coffee, 20 lbs of sugar, and 10 lbs of salt. Women made linen sacks for these staples. Some goods would be packed in barrels that would hold water when empty of food. Add rice, chipped beef, dried beans, dried fruit, pickles, herbs and spices…”

“The emigrants found ingenious ways to pack their wagons,” writes Butruille. “They sewed pockets in the canvas slides to tuck treasures in, kept eggs inside flour and corn meal, and bacon inside bran to keep the meat from turning rancid…”

According to THE OREGON TRAIL COOKBOOK, published in 1993 by Morris Publishing, “Cured pork was also packed in this manner, but did not usually keep as long and had to be eaten up more quickly.  Flour was packed in hundred pound sacks.  To keep sugar from dissolving, it was packed in India-rubber sacks. Butter could be taken along by boiling it thoroughly and skimming off the scum as it rose to the top. It was then placed in canisters and soldered shut.  This method of preservation kept it sweet for quite a long time…”

As for preparing meals, THE OREGON TRAIL COOKBOOK explains “Twice a day, in the morning and evening, pioneer cooks built cook fires and prepared their meals. Cooking conditions were primitive. Pioneer kitchens had the sky for a roof and prairie grass for the floor. Since there was little wood to be found, dried buffalo chips were gathered from the prairie and used to build fires. It is said the chips burned like peat and produced no unpleasant taste.  Since the heat from such a fire was quite unreliable, a cook never knew if her bread would come out burnt on the bottom or uncooked in the middle….”

One emigrant wrote, “Although there is not much to cook, the difficulty and inconvenience in doing it, amounts to a great deal–so by the time one has squatted around the fire and cooked bread and bacon, and made several dozen trips to and from the wagon–washed the dishes (with no place to drain them)…and gotten things ready for an early breakfast, some of the others already have their night caps on….”

Just as they did back on the farm,” writes Butruille, “the women would prepare, store and preserve most of the food eaten on the Oregon Trail. Food at supply stops would be scarce and expensive. Meat from wild animals would be a treat but not to be counted on…for some, chickens would provide fresh eggs, and ‘milch’ cows might accompany emigrant parties clear to Oregon, giving milk daily. Kept in a churn in the wagon during the day’s bumpy trek, extra cream would turn to butter by evening…”

“Breakfast,” states THE OREGON TRAIL COOKBOOK usually consisted of bread with fried pork, bacon or buffalo meat, and coffee.  The noonday meal had to be eaten quickly, and there usually was no time to build a fire.  Typically, the menu consisted of a sandwich and coffee.  The evening meal was usually hot, though not elaborate, and varied from day to day by adding pickles, baked beans, biscuits, or as a special treat, dessert…”

One emigrant wryly commented, “One does like a change and about the only change we have from bread and bacon is to bacon and bread”.

“Baking on the trail,” according to THE OREGON TRAIL COOKBOOK, “could be accomplished in a variety of ways. A sheet of tin arranged around the fire reflected the heat back onto the bread or pies, browning the top crusts while the fire baked the bottom. A better option was a portable metal box with an open side turned toward the fire and two or three shelves, so that several layers of bread, biscuits or pies could be baked at one time. When fitted with a domed top, which intensified the temperature inside, meat could be successfully roasted. If this option were not available, the meat was simply placed on the end of a long, sturdy fork, and held over the coals…”

Virtually all of the books I have read asserted that the most useful cooking utensil to the emigrants was the Dutch oven. THE OREGON TRAIL COOKBOOK was no exception.  “Virtually anything could be baked or roasted in this round, cast iron pot by placing the base on top of the hot coals and then placing more on the lid to provide heat from both the top and bottom.  Its versatility allowed pioneer cooks to experiment with different recipes that would normally be baked in an oven….”

But, as Susan Butruille explains, “Cooking would become more difficult as the emigrants would confront hostile country, little water, and exhaustion of body, soul, and supplies. Some would abandon their prized stoves and some, their Dutch ovens. Most would dig trenches for cooking, often with air tunnels to keep the fire going. Pots would be suspended from improvised scaffolds, placed on rocks over the fire, or on iron bars placed over the trenches….”

When there was no wood or buffalo chips, emigrants used anything that would burn, including sage.  For some, not only food became scarce, but good water as well.

“Even when available,” writes Butruille, “the water could carry deadly poison or disease.  Women were finicky about drinking water, and according to author Irene Paden, refused to drink water with ‘wiggle-tails’ in it. So, they would kill the critters by boiling the water for coffee or tea, unknowingly killing deadly germs as well….” (Imagine drinking coffee or tea made with dirty river water, with creepy-crawlers swimming around in it! ew, ew!)

According to HISTORICAL COOKERY OF THE BLACK HILLS, by Alex Adamson, published by the Mountain Company in Keystone, South Dakota, Hay Box Cooking was practiced extensively by the pioneer women in their covered wagons, as well as by ranch books on the trail.

”A suitable wooden box was prepared by lining it with straw–the pioneer women used flannel–and shavings. A nest was left for the receptacle, which was usually an earthenware pot. A stew was partially cooked at breakfast, and as soon as the wagons began to move, the stew was poured into the earthenware pot, and put into the hay box, and covered with the remainder of hay or flannel.  The meat continued to cook in the insulated box, and at the end of the day a hot meal was ready for immediate serving…”

This was no doubt another early version of the fireless cooker. Yet another detailed description of preparing meals without fuel can be found in other cookbooks. One writer comments, “Our great-grandmothers and grandmothers used a the hay box in the old country and in the armies of the continent this same method of fireless cookery has been used with success for many years..”  They go on to say that the primitive hay box evolved into the “asbestos box” and the “copper double-tank cooker” but go on to explain in detail how a hay box was created.

Dutch oven recipes provide directions for making a Dutch Oven roast and also suggests that “burying” your Dutch oven is a great way to slow cook a dish and will tenderize the toughest game or beans.  Tongue in cheek, the authors tell us never soak or scour your Dutch oven as it will rust (true) and “never blame anyone but yourself if you can’t remember where you buried dinner”. (One time, a friend gave me all of her cast iron skillets, complaining that they rusted too easily–mine have never had any rust on them—but we are always careful how we clean them!).

THE HISTORICAL COOKERY OF THE BLACK HILLS by Alex Adamson  (published by the Donning Company in 1982), also provides a nice assortment of “Hay Box” recipes.

There are two fairly-recently published cookbooks devoted to cooking and food on the Oregon Trail.  One is a nice spiral bound cookbook appropriately titled THE OREGON TRAIL COOKBOOK, published by Morris Publishing Company in 1993. This cookbook is a collection of nearly 400 recipes and remedies, some dating back to the era of the Oregon Trail. The other, by Jacqueline Williams, is titled WAGON WHEEL KITCHENS, subtitled “Food on the Oregon Trail. Also published in 1993, the latter is a University Press of Kansas Publication.

Ms. Williams certainly did her homework – she researched diaries and journals, even old newspapers of the era, finding proof, for instance, that many of the immigrants knew how to dry fruits and vegetables and carried these items with them on the Oregon Trail.  She found an intriguing advertisement in the St. Louis Missouri Republican for people crossing the plains; it was called Meat Biscuit and was patented by Gail Borden, (the same Gail Borden who would make condensed milk popular).  The ad claimed “…one pound of it contains the nutriment of five pounds of the best beef; one ounce will make a nutritious soup…”

Ms. Williams notes that the meat biscuit was apparently similar to “portable soup”, which was made by boiling meat or fowl with the bones in to make a rich broth until the soup was thick, like jelly. This substance was then set in pans and allowed to dry until it was hard and could be broken easily.  By adding the dry substance to boiling water, the traveler had instant soup!

American women often made portable soup, popularly called ‘soup in his pocket’ at home,” writes Williams. “E Smith in THE COMPLETE HOUSEWIFE (1742) had written that the tablets were good for woodsmen against the influxes which they are very liable to from lying too near the moist ground and guzzling too much cold water. Eliza Leslie, who reportedly adopted her work for the period’ provided instructions for making portable soup for the pioneers settling out for the West…”

Meat biscuit was similarly made, with the addition of flour–instead of drying out the gelatin, large amounts of flour were mixed in and the product was baked. (Portable soup had received endorsements from some early explorers, including Lewis and Clark, who purchased 193 pounds of portable soup in Philadelphia).

Williams notes, however, that “we cannot infer that either portable soup or meat biscuit was popular with the ordinary emigrant. Few diarists and letter writers mention either product.  Was it because the biscuits were so ordinary, too expensive, not tasty?…”

Most emigrants followed the advice given by guidebooks, such as the one written by Hastings. Bill Bullard of the National Frontier Trails Center considers Hastings one of the great villains of the westward movement, writing about routes without having traveled them. He wrote about what would become known as the Hastings cutoff, which resulted in the tragedy of the Donner party. (There are a number of books written about this most famous and tragic Wagon Trains, but perhaps one of the most captivating I’ve ever read, years ago, was a book called THE MOTHERS. (*I don’t recall who wrote the book and have been unable to locate a copy—I think it may have been Vardis Fisher).

The women who wrote letters home, or penned lines in diaries, often wrote little about what they ate or how it was cooked, unless they happened to find–as some did–wild berries or currants and were able to make them into pies, surely a special treat.

Williams notes that “Scarcely any diary of a western crossing fails to mention the bonanza of finding luscious berries, such as wild grapes, currants, gooseberries, and strawberries. Like fresh greens, they were a culinary delight and a luxurious substitute for dried fruit…the women served them for tea where ‘they relished well and turned the succulent berries into jams and pies’. When the overlanders found strawberries and if the cows were still producing milk, a special treat of strawberries and cream was served. The surplus berries were dried for later use…”

Williams also notes that gathering berries not only added to the larder, but served as a social event for the young people. (Accounts of berry-picking can be found in some of the COVERED WAGON WOMEN” series…for many young people on the trail, the journey, and foraging for berries, was a lark until they experienced the harsher realities of crossing the Great Divide, the desert and the final exhausting climb over the Columbia mountain range).

The journalists and diary-keepers never wrote about unmentionable subjects, such as how they dealt with bodily functions–indeed, some women were pregnant as they toiled across the plains, sometimes giving birth on the trail or shortly after they reached their destination. The problems of sanitation must have been enormous…but those writing diaries or penning letters back home commented more frequently on the number of graves they counted as they traveled west.

Lillian Schlissel, author of WOMEN’S DIARIES OF THE WESTWARD JOURNEY says that over 800 diaries and day journals kept by those who made the overland journey have been published or catalogued in archives and many more are still in family collections, as proven by Kenneth Holmes when he set out to compile and publish the “COVERED WAGON WOMEN” series.

Schlissel writes, “No one who reads the diaries on the Overland Trail can escape feeling the intensity with which the women regarded loss of life. Cholera, illness, accident–these were central facts in the minds of the women who were the ritual caretakers of the dying and the dead. In the diaries of such women there is an unmistakable tension and sense of resistance to the journey.  These were the women who seemed to judge the overland adventure to be an extravagant expense of human life…”

Susan Butruille notes, “We have few accounts of pregnancy and childbirth from the women who traveled the trail. A woman might write that she feels ‘sick’ and then suddenly a baby will appear. Some historians who have contrasted original diaries with those transcribed by families have discovered that the families have censored out references to pregnancy and sex! So between censorship of self and family, such matters often have been left to the imagination….” (From WOMENS VOICES FROM THE OREGON TRAIL).

“Salting and pickling were the primary means of preserving fresh meat and produce in the mid-nineteenth century” writes Jacqueline Williams in WAGON WHEEL KITCHENS.  “The canning industry was just getting started and not until after the Civil War would it be equipped to supply large amounts of canned goods through the country.  At any rate, cans were too heavy to carry in the prairie schooner…”  (not to mention that the earliest versions of canned food weren’t always safe to eat, either).

Says Williams, “Various types of pickles took up room in almost every prairie schooner…pickles and pickled foods were popular because these foods did not spoil, they added salt and spice to a meal of plain bread and crackers, and most important, many emigrants believe that pickled foods prevented scurvy…”

She says that the emigrants knew that fresh fruits and vegetables prevented scurvy but they did not know why (Vitamin C was not identified as a necessary ingredient in the prevention of scurvy until 1935). And although the emigrants worried about scurvy, no one knows whether this was a disease that actually presented a problem for the travelers, since there are so few accounts of the disease. But then, as Williams points out, emigrants never mentioned pregnancies either, yet many babies were born on the trail or soon after emigrants reached their destinations.

And sickness WAS referred to; diaries were filled with references to people having diarrhea, stomachaches and toothaches, while deaths from cholera are recorded, as Williams notes, “As if the writers were making a statistical survey”.

”The basic list of provisions” writes Williams, “was supplemented by culinary extras that the overlanders brought from home, purchased in the jumping-off places, or found at trading posts along the way. As best they could, families made every effort to have good food on their long journey, at least in the beginning.  By the time the emigrants reached Fort Hall and made the last push to their new homes, the emphasis was more on quantity than on quality…”

What is incredible, as noted by all the authors of books about the Oregon Trail, was the enormous amount of baking that was done. “Incredulous as it may seem,” writes Jacqueline Williams, “during the myriad of daily chores, the cooks found time to prepare apple pies, mince pies, peach pies, pot pies, pumpkin pies, apple and strawberry dumplings, gingersnaps, fruit cakes, nut cakes, doughnuts, light bread (salt rising) and sourdough bread…”

One diarist who knew nothing about baking bread visited a neighbor one night to ask for information. The neighbor not only gave her bread making instructions but lent her a Dutch oven as well. “I did just as my kind neighbor directed and in the morning had two loaves of elegant bread,” wrote the emigrant. She was surprised that “making fires of sage twigs on the lid and under the oven” did any good but noted that the bread came out a beautiful brown. (Proving once again the value of the versatile Dutch oven).

Pies, says Williams, placed a close second in the baking department after bread, with apple pie heading the list. The fruit used was usually dried, except for those occasions when fresh fruit was found. “A spider or Dutch oven” writes Williams, “made an excellent pie pan; pies could be fried or baked…”

Knowing that they always had to plan ahead, emigrants preserved buffalo meat by ‘jerking it’. The emigrants sometimes strung the meat on ropes and hung it on the outside of the wagon cover to dry until it was cured, when it could then be stored for future use. One diarist wrote that the wagons looked as if they were decorated with coarse red fringe. Another method of drying the meat, borrowed from Native Americans, was to build a scaffold and smoke the strips over a slow fire.

In addition to buffalo meat, notes Jacqueline Williams in WAGON WHEELS KITCHENS, the emigrants dined on antelope, sage hens, geese, ducks, rabbits and fish. Antelope meat was often compared to veal and considered juicier and sweeter than venison or buffalo. Everyone in camp rejoiced and feasted when the men were able to come back with fresh game. A meal of fish ranked as high as antelope, says Williams; fish were avidly consumed by emigrants whenever they were lucky enough to purchase or catch them. Although fried fish was the usual way to prepare it, at least one journalist writes about making a fish stew. When the emigrants got nearer to the Oregon territory, they were able to catch or purchase salmon from the Indians. Most emigrants considered the salmon a fine feast but at least one group of emigrants declined buying the salmon, because of its color–they thought it was spoiled!  They wrote that the Indians tried to convince them it was good but that they were as ignorant of the language as they were of the salmon.

Sage hens, if caught, might be roasted or even made into a soup. Ducks and geese might also be made into soup, sometimes with dumplings. Occasionally prairie dogs were eaten and some emigrants found them to be delicious.

Williams observes that “most meal preparations were probably both tedious and difficult”. One emigrant wrote that she baked until 12 0 clock at night–the women on the trail sometimes commented on the enormous energy spent cooking, baking, even washing and ironing.

“Yet in the first months,” writes Williams, “when supplies were still adequate, many emigrants welcomed mealtimes as a break from the hours spent riding or walking.  The aroma from the stewing pot of dried apples and simmering meat and beans surely prompted a sense of camaraderie and encouraged the overlanders to press on and make a new home…”

Emigrants often wrote in their journals or in letters back home about their experiences of dining around campfires, this sometimes being a novel experience for many of them. Writes Williams, “A food writer observing the cooking that occurred during the journey across the prairies and plains easily could have written about the typical travelers’ cuisine replete with foods that would not spoil and dishes that could be prepared by cooks unaccustomed to cooking outdoors. Indeed, if that writer compared the foods used on the Overland Trail with those that might appear in a camper’s pack today, more than a few similarities would turn up.Jerky, crackers, dried fruit, bouillon cubes, lemonade mixes, and flour and baking powder mixes for making bread could be found in the emigrants provision box and in the campers pack.

The emigrants, of course, had to cook outdoors for four to six months; the typical camper might be in the wilderness for only a few days or at most a couple of week. And the camper knows his mixture of flour and baking powder will work; the hardworking emigrant never knew for certain if the flour would be too wet for baking, the crackers a crumbly mix, or the dried fruit soft enough for putting into a piecrust. The emigrant cooks, working under adverse conditions, converted the standard traveler’s cuisine into unimpressive array of crowd-pleasing meals, and the success of these cooks attests to their culinary ingenuity…”

In spite of all the hardships endured, most of the physically and mentally exhausted travelers made it to the Columbia River Valley” states THE OREGON TRAIL COOKBOOK, “finding it was every bit as beautiful as they had heard.  Emigrants soon became settlers and claimed the rewards of their paradise. They quickly settled and began building homes.  Before long, the pioneers covered 250,000 miles of land with wheat fields, dairy farms, sawmills and towns…”

Lillian Schlissel is Director of American Studies at Brooklyn  College and the author of several other books. She holds a PhD in American Studies from Yale
University and is the author of WOMENS DIARIES OF THE WESTWARD JOURNEY, first published in 1982 and reprinted in 1992.

“In the end”, notes Professor Schlissel in DIARIES OF THE WESTWARD JOURNEY, a woman who came through the journey felt she had won her own victory. The test of the journey was whether or not she had been equal to the task of holding her family together against the sheer physical forces that threatened to spin them to the four winds of chance. It was against the continual threat of dissolution that the women had striven. If ever there was a time when men and women turned their psychic energies toward opposite visions, the overland journey was that time…”

Schlissel adds, “In the very commonplace of their observations, the women bring us a new vision of the overland experience; they bring it closer to our own lives. They do not write of trailblazing or of adventure but of those facets of living that are unchanging. In reading their diaries we come closer to understanding how historical drama translates into human experience. Through the eyes of the women we begin to see history as the stuff of daily struggle…”

And, in the preface of Schlissel’s book, Carl N. Degler writes, “…in the end, the sharpest difference between men and women on the Trail was that the great majority of the women did not want to make the trip in the first place. No clearer measure of the power of the nineteenth century patriarchy need be sought. We do not know, of course, how many wives refused to leave their settled homes to create one on the move and in the West, and by doing so prevented their husbands from going.  But we do know that of those women who agreed to head into the New Country, few did so with enthusiasm.  Yet, most of these women survived–many more men died on the trail than women, despite the dangers of childbirth. But they also managed to sustain their families during the ordeal and then went on to create homes in the West.”

–Sandra Lee Smith



It was after I had seen a newspaper cookbook review on Grace Young’s book THE WISDOM OF THE CHINESE KITCHEN, that my curiosity was piqued and I had to have a copy of the cookbook.  (To paraphrase the Duchess of Windsor from the 1930s, Wallace Simpson, you can’t be too rich or too thin…or have too many cookbooks actually – it might interest you to know that Wallace Simpson wrote a cookbook herself, back in the day).  But – I digress, as I tend to do, and I wanted to write today about THE WISDOM OF THE CHINESE KITCHEN as I am a big fan of Grace Young.

I have a lot of Chinese cookbooks in my cookbook collection—there are Chinese cookbooks that are too complicated for the average cook, or else they contain exotic ingredients only available in downtown L.A.’s Chinatown (or perhaps in China)—or else the recipes are too Americanized—somewhere in between there is a compromising middle ground. And, too, I confess to being fascinated with the Chinese culture, which goes back thousands of years.

In her website,, the author writes that she spent much of her early professional life as the test kitchen director for over forty cookbooks published by Time Life Books. In the early nineties after growing weary of producing what had become soulless work with formulaic recipes, Grace developed a yearning to reconnect to the tastes and foods of her childhood. Over the next few years she made numerous trips back to San Francisco from her home in New York to cook with her 70-year old mother and 82-year old father. It took much cajoling and great persistence to convince them to teach her their recipes. At the beginning, Grace’s focus was on a precise recording of the recipes. Eventually, and to her great surprise, as they cooked, her parents who had always been reticent about talking about the past began to share memories of their lives in China and accounts of their early days in America.

This is how Grace came to learn a large part of her family’s history. What started as a little recipe project soon blossomed into a memoir cookbook, The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen. [I can’t help but wonder if, years ago when my grandmother was alive, had any of her grandchildren persisted in asking Grandma about her recipes, if it might not have led to discussing her life in Germany, which—like Grace’s parents—she was always reluctant to discuss].

Grace writes that her earliest memories of food are of the extraordinary meals her mother and father prepared for her brother and herself, and of the efforts they made to ensure that they ate well. Their care was not only a matter of selecting the freshest ingredients, but also for the authenticity with which they replicated the traditional Cantonese dishes of their youth in China during the 1930s and forties. This connection to the cooking of old-world China coupled with the discovery of Julia Child on television (and her “exotic” dishes) shaped Grace’s lifelong affair with food and cooking. At the age of thirteen she began an apprenticeship with Josephine Araldo, a French cooking teacher. Those lessons initiated an exploration of other cuisines and led Grace, eventually, to her career in food.

Grace Young is also the author of STIR FRYING TO THE SKY’S EDGE and THE BREATH OF A WOK—which is going to be the next thing I order from  Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge won the James Beard Foundation Best International Cookbook Award in 2011. On her website, Grace writes that she certainly knows how it feels not to win. Her first cookbook, The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen was nominated for a Beard but lost. She says that she knows how it feels to be overlooked. And, she thought perhaps her second cookbook, The Breath of a Wok was a great achievement but it was not even nominated for a Beard –however, that book won the IACP Le Cordon Bleu Best International Cookbook Award, the Jane Grigson Award for Distinguished Scholarship, and the World Food Media Awards’ Best Food Book. It was also featured in the New York Times, on NPR’s All Things Considered and was selected as one of the best cookbooks of the year by Food & Wine, Fine Cooking, Bon Appetit, and Epicurious.

Now, what I think is interesting is that I want to tell you more about THE WISDOM OF THE CHINESE KITCHEN and someone wrote to me on my blog recently to suggest I read THE BREATH OF A WOK. Awards, I think, aren’t everything—it’s what will stand the test of time with cookbook readers and collectors that will matter most in the long run.

Grace is a native of San Francisco but last I heard, she and her husband and  their cat, Henry-San were still living in New York. Although Grace’s family lives in the United States, they still have relatives in Hong Kong and China; Ms. Young has been to China four times in the past twenty years and has traveled extensively throughout Asia.

THE WISDOM OF THE CHINESE KITCHEN offers 150 recipes culled from a lifetime of family meals and culinary instruction. However, more than that, it is a daughter’s tribute—a collection of personal memories of the philosophy and superstitions behind culinary traditions that have been passed down through her Cantonese family, in which each ingredient has its own singular importance, the preparation of a meal is part of the joy of life, and the proper creation of a dish can have a favorable influence on health and good fortune.

Then I began to wonder – didn’t I just read something with a similar philosophy, much the same train of thought and wisdom? I found it in Rebecca Wood’s THE NEW WHOLE FOODS ENCYCLOPEDIA and Molly O’Neill’s A WELL SEASONED APPETITE.

I wondered if it was only a coincidence that these two occidental authors had written cookbooks with such similar food-and-nutritional philosophical outlooks as expressed by a Chinese cookbook author…or can it be, perhaps, that we, as a culture, are finally awakening to the important of the right kind of food and its preparation, wisdom known by the Chinese for thousands of years.

As noted by the publishers of THE WISDOM OF THE CHINESE KITCHEN, the first part, ‘Mastering the Fundamentals’ deals with “…the instruction on the arts of steaming and stir frying; the preparation of  rice, pan fried, and braised dishes; the proper  selection of produce; and the fine arts of chopping and slicing…”

The next section, ‘The Art of Celebration’ concentrates on “…the more elaborate, complex, and meaningful dishes…such as Shark’s Fin Soup and West Lake Duck…there are usually made with rare ingredients, and sweets such as Water Chestnut Cake and Sesame Balls…”

The final section, one I believe to be the most important, is called “Achieving Yin-Yang Harmony” and it explores the many Chinese beliefs  about the healing properties of ginseng, gingko nuts, soy beans, dong quai* and the many vegetable  and fruit soup preparations that balance and nourish the body…”

(Dong quai is known in English as angelica and, says Ms. Young, “is the well-known Chinese herb for women.  For centuries, women have taken this herb after their menstrual cycle or after childbirth to invigorate the reproductive system…” Young says she learned about Dong quai  not from her parents, but from a massage therapist who recommended a line of synthetic Chinese herbs to her. The therapist praised dong quai’s ability to cleanse the blood, improve circulation and relieve menstrual pain.

The author asked her parents if they had ever heard of dong quai and of course, they had; Grace tells this interesting story in “Baba Mama’s Dong Quai and Restorative Foods…”

What can you expect to find in THE WISDOM OF THE CHINESE KITCHEN that you haven’t already discovered in other Chinese cookbooks? (And I must say, if you don’t have any Chinese cookbooks in your collection, you are really missing out on some great cuisine).  Well, a lot of cookbooks, Chinese and otherwise, are simply a presentation of recipes. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but THE WISDOM OF THE CHINESE KITCHEN goes so much further.  Ms. Young tells the background of the recipes she presents; she delves into the ancient Chinese wisdom behind the presentation of the recipes.

“For my parents,” she writes, “Cooking is a meditation. Because they have informally studied and observed the process of cooking for over sixty years, they instinctually sense when an ingredient is properly prepared and cooked” The author says that she was taught early in life to appreciate “the fragrance of texture, succulence, and taste of a well composed dish…”

In a section titled “Cooking As a Healing Art”, the author explains that “the women in my family have always struck me as being ‘body-fortune-tellers’. They can look at anyone and guess what their body is in need of. They will joke about being a fake doctor (ga yee sung) because a reputable Chinese herbalist performs a thorough exam before making a diagnosis. But my relatives’ expertise is for keeping the body in harmony. It takes my female relatives only a moment to observe your chapped lips, here you complain of insomnia, or watch you cough before they decide what you need to soothe your ills….” She goes on to explain the yin and yang of foods.

“Most people” she writes, “have heard of yin and yang, a Taoist concept that is based on the idea of opposites in balance, whether cold/hot, water/fire, or female/male. Foods are said by the Cantonese to have a warming, cooling, or neutral nature…”

She goes on to explain how it is fundamental to the Cantonese system of eating to keep yin and yang foods (and yin and yang cooking methods) in balance.  For the rest of this story, you will have to read the book!

In addition to the recipes, there is a glossary of dried herbs, spices, and fresh produce.

Photographs are by Alan Richardson, an award photographer and designer. Included as well are charming old photographs of the author and members of her family.

I am reminded of an adage I heard over and over when I first began writing in the 1960s – write about what you know best—and this is exactly what Grace Young has accomplished in all of her cookbooks.

THE WISDOM OF THE CHINESE KITCHEN was published by well-known publishers SIMON & SHUSTER in 1999.  You can buy this book new from for $21.12, new, and be eligible for free shipping, or starting at $5.65 for a pre-owned copy. BREATH OF A WOK is available on Amazon for $21.87, new, or starting at 11.24 for a pre-owned copy. has pre-owned copies starting at $5.68 but also list a copy that is ‘like new’ for $10.48.

You can also visit the author at her website

–Happy Cooking & cookbook collecting!



“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).



“When a Cowboy is too old to set a bad example, he hands out good advice (Teddy Blue, from SOWBELLY AND SOURDOUGH



  1. 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.


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 or

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.

COWBOY DEATH                                                                         

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 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 starting at 2.48 for a pre-owned copy or $19.95 new.

THE OLD WEST BAKING BOOK is available on for $1.90 pre-owned or $11.66 for a new copy.

THE NATIONAL COOKBOOK HALL OF FAME CHUCK WAGON COOKBOOK is available on  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 @   for a pre-owned copy or $21.95 for a new copy.

A TASTE OF TEXAS RANCHING can be yours from for $5.93 for a pre owned copy or $21.95 for a new copy.

A COWBOY’S COOKBOOK can be purchased from  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 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.



For most of my adult life, I have been intrigued by stories about the women who participated in the settling of the West–the women who traveled west in covered wagons, the homesteading women who worked as diligently and as hard as any man to prove up their 160 acres, the women who accompanied their men in a quest to find gold (or the women who stayed behind, at home, to take care of everything while their men went off in quest of treasure); the women who left everything near and dear and familiar to them because of a belief in a prophet or a new religion, or because  of a dream of a new and better world for themselves and their children.

They left traces of themselves in diaries and journals, but we can’t help but wonder – what really motivated these women?  It couldn’t have been easy to pack up and leave your family and friends and all that was dear and familiar –to cross thousands of miles of unknown territory, fraught with dangers…everything from hostile Indians to raging rivers, from inhospitable deserts to nearly insurmountable mountains.

And, along with all of this, thousands died en route, from common diseases, such as cholera, and accidents–such as getting run over by a wagon or struck by lightning (accidents that really did occur).

Did these women go because they felt they had no other choice?  If your husband (or father) decreed, “we’re going west” did that mean there was no room for discussion?  And how does that explain the unmarried women homesteaders—and make no mistake about it, they did exist!). Or did they want to go and considered it a great adventure?  One can surmise some did have a sense of creating history, since so many women left journals and diaries telling of their experiences.

The first time my then-husband and I, with our one-year old son crossed country, (in a car–it took 5 days and we spent the nights at motels), traveling from Ohio to California, these pioneering women were much on my mind.  The first time I flew from California to Ohio, gazing at the endless miles of prairie and mountains below, they were again on my mind. I think the question uppermost in my mind–then and now — has been “How did they do it?”

For over forty years, I have been collecting (and reading) books on this subject, searching for answers. More recently, I found myself wondering how in the world did women (often with young children and sometimes newborn babies) cook meals as they crossed country? What did they eat? How did they cook it? What did they use for fuel? (On a more personal level, how did they deal with the problems of every day sanitation, a topic left unmentioned in diaries?)

All of this reading and speculating has led to “Kitchens West” which is perhaps a bit of a misnomer.  However, “Kitchen” is defined by the Encyclopedia of Cookery as …the room in which the housewife spends a large portion of her working day preparing the family food, and goes on to explain that in any early pioneer culture, the typical house was usually a one room affair with all family activities taking place in that one room…” In this interpretation, then, “Kitchen” is being expanded to mean, in a broad sense of the word, any place in which these various peoples prepared their meals…  because we are going to explore the foods and recipes of native Americans, (after all, they were here  first. We are going to take a make-believe journey across the Oregon trail with the women who made the trip over one hundred and fifty years ago; we will take a look at Cowboy Cuisine of long ago and today, and we will explore the life and culinary times of pioneer homesteaders.

Although this idea has been on my mind for quite a long time, it seems to be an idea whose time has come, because I have been finding research material everywhere I turn—the synchronicity of ideas continues to amaze me–at the present time I have found over fifty books to use for reference. I have discovered a true wealth of material published by the State University presses, and with the help of friends who are on the Internet, have discovered many other books I would not otherwise have known about. It also helps that Oregon celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Oregon Trail in 1993, inspiring a number of writers to write books to commemorate that great event.

Everywhere I turned, this topic seemed to turn up. An issue of Los Angeles Times (in a Sunday supplement) contained a story about the Nez Perce (pronounced Nez Purse) Indians in Oregon. Current issues of Reader’s Digest magazines featured several cowboy/Indian theme stories. In the Los Angeles Times daily paper one day, there was a fascinating story about a Sioux Indian, Chief Long Wolf, who went to London with Buffalo Bill’s show. Chief Long Wolf died and was buried in a remote cemetery in England, and now, a hundred years later, an English homemaker was instrumental in finding his gravesite and helping to arrange for the Indian remains to be returned to his home, mostly because it was the belief of the Sioux that a person’s spirit wanders without rest if they are not buried in their tribal homeland.

Whenever I see and hear about a subject at every turn, it feels as though a giant finger of the Universal Mind is nudging me in the back, telling me “pay attention!” So, here goes:

Let’s start with some definitions.  Webster defines:

SETTLER: as one who settles, a colonist

PIONEER: as one of those who first enter or settle in a region,

opening it for occupation and development by others; one of those who are first or earliest in any field or inquiry…to go before – OVERLANDERS is another name for  Pioneers.

HOMESTEAD:  A home or dwelling, especially a house with the ground and buildings immediately connected with it; a tract of land, especially 160 acres, granted by Congress to a settler for development and ownership.

Covered wagon: a large wagon, with high curved hoops, covered by a canvas top, used to transport pioneers westward during the 19th century. Covered Wagons were sometimes also called Conestoga wagons. Covered wagons cost between $60-$90 and were usually 10’x4′ (about the size of a minivan). The name Conestoga, incidentally, a word which has all but disappeared from the American landscape, came from a town in Pennsylvania, where the first covered wagons were manufactured Covered wagons were also known as Prairie Schooners.

Cowboy: – A man who looks after cattle on a large ranch and does this work on horseback, a man who possesses the skills of a cowboy, especially those associated with a rodeo.

EMIGRANTS: was a 19th century name for the pioneers.  Were sometimes called Overlanders.

The Oregon Trail: a route that encompassed what are today eight states, from Independence Missouri, to Oregon City in the Willamette Valley. It covered 2,000 zigzag miles, from Missouri, on to Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho, Washington, and finally to Oregon or California.  It usually took almost five months (and sometimes seven) to reach the West and the trip was always a race against seasons. Most travelers chose the Oregon Trail because it provided a fairly regular supply of water along the North Platte and Sweetwater Rivers, a dependable supply of grass across the Prairie, and an easy, gradual grade to and through the mountains. The Oregon Trail was sometimes called THE EMIGRANT ROAD and THE OVERLAND TRAIL.

NATIVE AMERICANS are the Indian tribes of North America, specifically what is today the United States. Our focus will be primarily with the tribes in the Northwestern, Southwestern, and Western regions of the United States. As we all know, “Indians” was the name given to Native Americans by Christopher Columbus, who mistakenly believed he had reached India.



One hundred (many) years ago the great Kahkawkonty told how the Great Spirit appeared to a wise forefather and showed him the plant, corn.  The Great Spirit told him to preserve the two ears on the plant until the next spring, and to plant the

kernels.  He should preserve the whole crop and send two ears to each of the surrounding nations, with the injunction that they were not to eat any of it until their third crop.  The wise Indian did as he was commanded.  By this means the corn

was distributed among all American Indians (From INDIAN COOKING, 1973, Nowega Press.)

There is another American Indian fable which tells of a youth who went to the woods to fast to prepare himself for his approaching manhood. He built himself a hut, and wandered about it, praying that the Great Spirit might acknowledge him by sending him a gift for his people who were in great need. Finally, after several days of fasting, he was too weak to move about, and lay on the ground.  On the third day of this idleness, a youthful spirit appeared before him in flowing green plumes. The spirit commanded the Indian to rise and wrestle with him if he wished to get his heart’s desire.  After the exercise, he was exhausted, and before he revived, the spirit left. This was repeated for four days. On the fourth day, the spirit said that he would return once more, on which occasion the youth would overcome him. He should then strip off his green clothes and bury them in the ground. If the mound over the clothes was tended and kept free from weeds, the young Indian would get his desire. The Indian defeated the spirit, and followed his directions. In a few days, a plant grew out of the mound which bore ears of grain which were good to eat. This was the origin of the Indian corn.  (From ENCYCLOPEDIA OF COOKERY, WM h. Wise & Co, published 1948)


Haven’t we all learned, as small children, the story of the First pilgrims, who came to America, but would have starved, to death if not for the generosity and sharing of Native American Indians, how Squanto, a Wampanoag, taught the starving immigrants how to grow corn, and kept them from going hungry?  (Archaeological evidence shows that the horticulture of corn and beans is well over a thousand years old in southern New England and dates even further back in the southern regions–and, according to the ENCYCLOPEDIA OF COOKERY Icelandic sagas mention it as a product of the land to the west, which the Norse sailors discovered in the 11th century).

What you may not have learned in grammar school is that Squanto also taught the English colonists how to make use of the growing corn stalks to support the bean vines by planting the two together. They also learned that corn, unlike other grains which require smooth and well tilled fields, could be grown in patches where trees had been cut down–corn could be raised easily on land that not long ago had been heavily forested.

You also may not have learned in school that a number of families in the early Jamestown settlement were sent to live with friendly Indian tribesmen, so that they might learn to recognize strange varieties of edible roots and how to prepare them. This is how they were introduced to the potato and learned some of the many ways that the Indians used corn. From AMERICAN FOOD, THE GASTRONOMIC STORY by Evan Jones).

Corn is more than food to the Hopi people, writes Juanita Tiger Kavena, in HOPI COOKERY. It is life. At the naming ceremony of the newborn, a special ear of corn is selected as the ‘mother corn’ and is held sacred by the family, until it is used much later as food. Some families also put a taste of blue cornmeal into the baby’s mouth, saying, ‘This corn is your life’s strength. Eat this and grow strong and have a long, happy life.’

“Corn,” says Ms. Kavena, “has been the focal point of Hopi culture and religion as long as anyone remembers and is used In every ceremony…”

This must have been true of all Native American tribes who cultivated corn, since so many legends revolve around this most versatile vegetable.

A Navajo prayer goes like this:

“Truly in the East

The white bean

And the great corn-plant

Are tied with the white lightning.

Listen! rain approaches!

The voice of the bluebird is heard.

Truly in the East

The white bean

And the great squash

are tied with the rainbow.”


Corn is so important to the Pueblo and Navajo Native Americans, says Marcia Keegan, that whenever it is being ground, men come and sing. “In the grinding songs,” she explains, “they tell you almost what to do. And you have to grind to the beat, to the rhythm of the songs…”

A translation of a Taos Pueblo corn grinding song goes like this:

“From the corn we gather the pollen.  The pollen that is like gold, reminds us of the color of anointment of the ancient ones.  Grinding the corn it reminds us of heaven and it reminds us of earth.  It reminds us that Father Sky and Mother Earth will unite forever.  From the corn we learn to live, we learn the life that is ours, by grinding the corn we learn the footsteps of life.  We go through a purification, until we are like dust. The corn came from the dust, from Mother Earth, and it gives life, like from Father Sky.

We are like the kernel that comes from the corn.  With it we bring life, like the seed of the corn. Corn is the fruit of the gods, it was brought to us by the creator, that we may remember him.  Our lives, we must remember that they are holy.  The corn is sacred.  We are sacred.  We hold the seeds of the gods to the future.”  (From SOUTHWEST INDIAN COOKBOOK.)

“Corn,” writes Ms. Keegan, “is the principal Pueblo food. The Pueblos traditionally believe their bodies are basically composed of corn and that as a result they share with the grain a simple essence…” (Sort of another way of saying you are what you eat, isn’t it?)

“During a Navajo wedding” writes Marcia Keegan, “the grandmother of the bride presents the newly married couple with a special basket filled with cornmeal.  The bride and groom exchange a pinch of the golden substances with one another. The tradition is an ancient one”.


Lois Ellen Frank, author of NATIVE AMERICAN COOKING, FOODS OF THE SOUTHWEST INDIAN NATIONS Writes, “Corn is, and has been for thousands of years, one of the most important foods in the Native American diet. Considered to be the essence of life, corn holds a magical sacredness for the people. In fact, many ceremonial dances are held in which prayers are offered to the Corn Mother spirit…”

Ms. Frank also explains how corn was cultivated thousands of years ago in the Southwest, that the first varieties grown did not require irrigation, which made it a perfect crop for people to cultivate in the dry, arid region of the Southwest.

“Dry farming,” she says, “is still used by some tribes”.

Several different varieties and colors of corn,” says Ms. Frank, “including blue, white, red, yellow and speckled—are used by Native Americans today.  Blue corn, which varies in color from pale blue to almost black, is considered one of the most important corn crops. It is used primarily in making baked goods, stews, stuffings, dumpings and beverages. White corn is still a major crop on many reservations and pueblos. It is used in prayer offerings and for making hominy and cornmeal flour, which is utilized in many traditional recipes.  Red corn, ranging in color from light red to deep maroon, is used for baked goods, for stews and traditionally, for dye…Yellow corn is used in stews and is ground into flour or meal for baking…Speckled corn, which is a combination of all the colors of corn, is used for all kinds of cooking…” (If you are interested in trying different kinds of corn, you may want to refer to the Source Guide in Ms. Frank’s book, NATIVE AMERICAN COOKING where you will find a list of company names and addresses where you can obtain some not-too-readily-available ingredients).

I turned to Alvin M. Josephy’s THE INDIAN HERITAGE OF AMERICA to see what he had to say about corn and its origins. (Published originally in 1968, it was reprinted in 1991, by American Heritage Library.)

Mr. Josephy is a distinguished historian and the author of many books, including the OPENING OF THE NORTHWEST and THE CIVIL WAR IN THE WEST. He was (at the time this was first printed in 1998) the first chairman of the board of the National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian Institute.

According to Josephy, Indian maize, or corn, was first cultivated from wild corn in Central Mexico.  “In 1948,”writes Josephy, “tiny cobs of domesticated corn, between 4,000 and 5,000 years old, were found by archaeologists both at Bat Cave in New Mexico and at La Perra Cave in Tamaulipas in northeastern Mexico.

Since then, archaeological work…in two regions of Mexico has thrown important new light on the entire subject of the start of New World agriculture…”  What the archaeologists found was evidence of the cultivation of pumpkin, peppers, bottle gourds and a kind of runner beans–9,500 to 7,500 years ago! They also found evidence of domesticated squash and corn 7,000 years ago in northeastern Mexico.  Most food historians appear to agree that corn reached North America by way of migration from Mexico and South America.

There were so many different Native American tribes that I wondered if I could even begin to compile a comprehensive list; complicating the matter, dozens of tribes, especially those in the eastern part of the United States, became extinct by the nineteenth century.


In ENDURING HARVESTS, E. Barrie Kavasch provides us with a map of the United States which lists all the Native tribes that are mentioned in Kavasch’s book. Of the Great Plains tribes, there are Osage, Arapaho, Pawnee, Cheyenne, Oto, Omaha, Ponca, Sioux, Dakota, Crow, Mandan, Cree, Chippewa, 19 tribes of Pueblo, Hopi, Navajo, Apache, Yuma, Mojave, and many others. In the Northwest were Shoshone, Bannock, Yakitna, Walla Walla, Paiute, Nez Perce, Palouse, Spokane, Squamish, and Coeur D’Alenes, while in the Southwest were tribes of Opata, Suma, Pima and Bajo – and this is not a complete listing!

Another factor, as pointed out in Beverly Cox’s 1991 cook book SPIRIT OF THE HARVEST, is that many Indian people today do not live in the same areas where their ancestors did. “When Europeans appears in the New World,” Beverly writes, “and encountered native peoples, they introduced new ideas and new material goods that changed Indian life—brass and copper kettles for cooking, guns and metal traps for hunting. They also introduced new diseases to which the natives had no immunity, and some settlers established permanent settlements that disrupted native hunting

territories, or took over fallow Indian planting grounds. Many Indian groups, faced with such pressures, signed treaties, giving up part or all of their land. Sometimes they received other land in exchange and were moved to new areas.

The Oneida in Wisconsin, for instance, are descended from people who originally lived in upstate New York. The Choctaw tribe in Oklahoma originated in central Mississippi. The Cheyennes in Montana are probably descendants of people who once lived in the forests around the western Great Lakes. As they moved, these tribes adapted to the new foods found in their new homelands…”

“Stories about the origins of corn,” writes Doctor Clara Sue Kidwell in SPIRIT OF THE HARVEST, “have a common theme among Southeastern tribes. A story from the Miccosuke in Florida and Alabama is representative. A woman feeds her family a new and delicious food that they have not seen before. Her sons wonder where she is getting it, and they secretly follow her one day to find out. They discover that she is rubbing skin from her body and forming it into little balls. Se sees them and tells them that since they have discovered her secret, they must kill her and bury her body in a nearby field. The next spring, corn stalks grow from her grave. The story associates women, corn, cycles of the seasons, cycles of life and death, and fertility, and it makes corn a metaphor with many levels of meaning…”

(*Doctor Kidwell was a Professor of Native American Studies at the University of California at Berkeley at the time this was first published; she has written some of the introductions to various chapters in SPIRIT OF THE HARVEST. David Hunt, in his cookbook THE NATIVE INDIAN WILD GAME, FISH AND WILD FOODS COOKBOOK provides culinary insights and traditions of the following tribes:

SOUTHWESTERN:  Pueblos, Zuni, Hopi

NORTHWEST:  Salish and other coastal tribes

WESTERN: Plains Indians, Blackfeet, Cheyenne, Sioux

SOUTHEAST: Chocktaw, Creek and Cherokee

NORTHEAST: Canadian, Ojibway, and Eastern Woodlands

I found myself wondering, have I bitten off more than I can chew?  How can I adequately describe the food heritage given to us by the American Indian?  I turned again for help from THE INDIAN HERITAGE by Alvin M. Josephy, Jr.

“The Southeastern peoples”, writes Mr. Josephy, “generally had an abundance and variety of food. Villages had gardens in which the Indians raised many crops, including corn, beans, and melons, as well as tobacco. The waters and forests were filled with fish and game, the latter including bear, deer, turkeys, and wildfowl. Nuts and berries grew in profusion and sunflowers were cultivated for their seeds. Favored dishes included bear ribs, root jelly, hominy and corn cakes, and corn soup…”

Later, he explains, “the coming of the white man spelled disaster to the Southeastern tribes.  Many were wiped out, and the Natchez and various Gulf coast peoples all but disappeared by the 19th century. In Florida, the Calusas, Timucuas, and Apalachees became extinct even earlier.

After the middle of the 18th century, refugee Creeks and other Indians from Georgia and Alabama moved into Florida and, intermarrying with runaway Negro slaves and the last survivors of the original Florida tribes, gave rise to a new people…their name was corrupted to Seminole and meant simply that they were separatists, or runaways from the Creeks. With the Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks and Cherokees, the Seminoles formed ‘The Five Civilized Tribes’, a named applied to them in the 19th century because of their adoption…of the white man’s civilization. Many of them raised stock, tilled large farms, built large European-style homes…they dressed like white men, learned the whites’ methods, skills, and arts, started small industries and became Christians…Despite this, calamity struck the Five Civilized Tribes. An expanding nation coveted their lands, and in the 1820s and 1830s, the United States government forced their removal, one by one to new homes west of the Mississippi River, in present-day Oklahoma, which was then thought to be uninhabitable by white men. Their emigrations were cruel and bitter trials.  Some, including the Seminoles, resisted, but by the 1840s, only relatively small pockets of Indians, including some Cherokees in the mountains of North Carolina, remained in the Southeast…” From this great exodus came the name “The Trail of Tears”.

“To talk of Native American cookery,” writes Rayna Green in SMITHSONIAN FOLKLIFE COOKERY “is to talk of the oldest foods and the oldest cooking methods in North America.  It is to talk of food and cooking traditions basely solely in the natural universe, of things gathered from the ground, from trees and bushes, from plants, from fresh and salt waters, from desert sands and mountain forests, from animals as old and older than the people who took food from them.  And to talk of Native American food and cooking is to talk of dynamic change, movement, acceptance of the new and strange,and creative adaptation, like Native American people themselves.

”Once, long ago,” she continues, “as now, there was bear and buffalo, seal, salmon and oyster, cactus, fruit and wild rice, hickory nut and prairie turnip, now and for a while there has been pig and cow, wheat flour and sugar, watermelon and black pepper, even gelatin.  In between what was gathered and hunted long ago and now, there was corn–Corn Mother, which together with beans and squash, became what the Iroquois call the Three Sisters….”  (SMITHSONIAN FOLK LIFE COOKBOOK compiled by Katherine S. Kirlin and Thomas M. Kirlin, was published by the Smithsonian Institution Press in 1991 and is a tribute to many different American folklives, not just Native American Indian).

”Succotash,” writes Beverly Cox in SPIRIT OF THE HARVEST “in its many variations is a basic Indian dish that has long been a favorite of all Americans. Among the Algonquian and Iroquian tribes of the Northeast, food–and especially succotash–was kept simmering at all times, ready for any hungry visitor or family member…”

David Hunt, editor/author of NATIVE INDIAN WILD GAME, FISH AND WILD FOODS COOKBOOK (Fox Chapel Publishing, 1992), writes, “America’s first people were called ‘Indians’ based on the mistaken belief of the explorers that they had reached India.  This lack of understanding and cultural arrogance would be a dominant theme in Native History. The only knowledge many people have of America’s first people is based on the legend of the first Thanksgiving among the early settlers and the fiction of Hollywood movies.  Outside these sources, knowledge of Native Indians and their culture and traditions is sorely lacking.  Few people have an appreciation for the variety and complexity of the different cultures that were in existence in North America long before the coming of the white man.

The different groups of North American native people had developed advanced farming techniques, distinctive craftsmanship and the fine arts and music characteristic of thriving, vibrant societies…”

David Hunt continues, “Native Indians left a great legacy of foodstuffs and cultivation practices.  Corn, now a food staple world-wide was hardly known in Europe at the time of the settlers.  However, Indian tribes had been cultivating corn for centuries and developed a great deal of knowledge and technical expertise.  Early explorers reported sighting corn fields over 18 miles long.  Techniques of breeding pure and hybrid varieties of corn were well-known.  Counting the work of different tribes, Indians had developed over 30 varieties of corn – bred for specific climatic areas and different culinary purposes…Equally advanced processing methods for corn were part of native culture. Only recently have scientists discovered that corn soaked in ashes and water converts into a foodstuff most easily digested by the human body.  This process was practiced for hundreds of years by the Indians of the Southwest.  Many varieties of corn had hulls too thick to eat.  The Indians manufactured lye from wood ashes, using the lye to dissolve the hulls away, leaving HOMINY – a later variation of which became that classic of the American South grits. Along came Dr. Kellogg’s discovery that hominy could be toasted and flattened which formed the basis for the company bearing his name and the modern breakfast cereal industry…”

Mr. Hunt also explains that the Indians first taught white men how to dry and use red peppers, make maple syrup, use wild plants and herbs and appropriate methods of preserving meat.  It is ironic, says Mr. Hunt, “that such famous ALL AMERICAN FOODS such as Boston Baked Beans, New England Clam Bake, succotash, chili, crackerjacks, doughnuts and pumpkin pie are all based on Native Indian recipes”. (And don’t forget popcorn; Sam Arnold author of FRYING PANS WEST points out that strings of popcorn were used over 5,000 years ago in Mexico, in religious ceremonies and that even today, in remote Mexican churches, one sometimes finds the statues of the Virgin or Christ decorated with strings of popcorn).

Writes Mr. Hunt, “In addition to the all-important introduction of corn to the rest of the world, the Indians also demonstrated the value and usefulness of potatoes, tomatoes, squash, avocado, sweet potatoes, tapioca and wild rice to the early settlers…” (Commenting on the cultivation of wild rice by the Indians south of Lake Superior in the years 1670-99, one little booklet published by Ojibway Enterprises expressed surprise that some historians fail to mention this fact, since the possession of wild rice fields was one of the chief causes of wars between some of the Indian nations).

”And those who came were resolved to be Englishmen,

Gone to the world’s end, but English every one.

And they ate the white corn kernels, parched in the sun,

And they knew it not, but they’d not be English again.

( By poet Stephen Vincent Benet)

Europeans from The Old World were slow to accept corn (indeed, as Ms. Rozin pointed out, it was almost universally rejected as proper food for humans and was utilized (in European countries) primarily as animal fodder). You will find Europeans, today, who still feel that way about corn. Author Elisabeth Rozin explains why – that corn is a grain and people were reluctant to give up or accept substitutes for the grains (rice, barley, oats and rye) that they were accustomed to. Europeans made changes to the basic corn grown by Native Indians introducing wheat, flour, eggs, acids (such as those in sour milk) fat or frying and flavoring and dairy products, such as milk, cream and butter – things unknown in the new world with its lack of domesticated dairy animals.

So while your corn on the cob is strictly Native American, the addition of melted butter is really an Old World addition…the same can be said of popcorn – it is a true Indian food, however, the addition of butter is a foreign garnish.

There were, granted, hundreds of different tribes and some of these were nomadic tribes, traveling from place to place. (And even here, I stand corrected, as Mr. Josephy explains, “Actually, for more than a thousand years before the coming of whites, the dominant native peoples of the eastern plains were not nomads, but lived in semi-permanent farming villages. Although hunting contributed to their economy, agriculture was the principal source of their food…”

“To many non-Indians,” writes Josephy, “The tribes of the North American plains have become the most familiar of all the Indians of the Americas, although that familiarity is generally based on a stereotype that shows little recognition of the full scope of the history or culture of the various plains peoples….”  More recent archaeological studies, he says, have indicated the presence (i.e., in the plains regions) of a somewhat stable village life based on an economy that combined hunting and gathering (such as collecting seeds, nuts, fruits and other edible resources, with agriculture.  Remains of corns and beans at these[archaeological] sites are the oldest found so far in the Plains area. Sites dated at approximately A.D. 200-400 have revealed numerous storage pits, small burial mounds with stone-lined graves, and various relics, including pottery and objects of clay, stone, bone, copper and other materials. Around 800 A.D., Josephy explains, Woodland cultures were succeeded by groups that placed more reliance on agriculture and had a more settled way of life and appears to have extended westward onto the plains all along the front…generally, the people grew corn, beans, squash and sunflowers along the bottom-land and sent out hunting parties that perhaps roamed as far west as the Rockies, living in temporary camps during the hunts.  These Plains Village Indians lived in earth-covered or mud plastered lodges, usually square or rectangular in shape, cultivated their gardens with digging sticks and bison-scapula hoes, stored their surplus food in underground pits, and often surrounded their villages with protective stockades and ditches.  Women did the farming and men conducted the hunts. Then, “In late prehistoric times, perhaps around A.D. 1500, many of the more westerly farming settlements were abandoned, possibly because of drought or under the pressure of enemies. People in large parts of the area returned to nomadic hunting and gathering…” However, agriculture persisted in other regions and “intensive and extensive farming communities along the middle Missouri grew bigger, increasing populations became more sedentary, and cultural advancement quickened…”

In the far western plains, however, where the environment never favored agriculture, the economy remained what it had been traditionally, a hunting and gathering way of life which was pursued by small groups of people who lived at relatively low levels of subsistence and cultural development. (From THE INDIAN HERITAGE OF AMERICA).

It appears that most of the Native American tribes were farmers–cultivators.  Writes Dale Carson, in NEW NATIVE AMERICAN COOKING (Random House, 1996), “Nearly 75 percent of the world’s foodstuffs are indigenous to the Americas, where, for millennia, Native peoples of both North and South America have cultivated a vast variety of crops, gathered wild nuts and berries, and enjoyed an abundance of fish, fowl, and game meats.  In fact, Native peoples used more than 1,000 different plants for food, nearly 100 that they had cultivated before contact with Europeans.  The ways of these Native ancestors are well documented, including their economy and ingenuity in farming and cooking…”

E. Barrie Kavasch, author of ENDURING HARVESTS, writes, “Every aspect of life and death is celebrated in some way, with food. For Native Americans, this can take the form of a pinch of cornmeal offered to the wind with prayers for rain and renewal or an elaborate thanksgiving feast, complete with honey smoked duck and stuffed pumpkin, or anything in between. All of these rituals are inspired by passion and respect for life…”

And David Hunt tells us, “Prior to the coming of the settlers, Native Americans obtained meat for their diets by hunting and fishing.  Most tribes believed that animals had souls which could communicate with other wildlife even after they were killed.  Because of this belief, many detailed rituals were developed for the hunting, killing and eating of game.  It was thought that if an animal’s body was treated with respect, it would send positive message to other animals.  As a consequence of this, elaborate ceremonies praised the beauty, valor and goodness of the kill.  Were an animal’s spirit to be insulted, it would warn other game to flee the hunters.  Many hunters asked the Creator for forgiveness before killing an animal.

Since some tribes believed gods appeared on earth in the form of animals such as snakes and rabbits, they were not eaten. Other tribes also believed that young braves could not eat of their first kill without bringing themselves permanent bad luck at hunting…”

I mention some of this to you because I think it is an important factor in understanding the wrath of the Indian tribes, when white men indiscriminately killed thousands and thousands of buffalo, often for the sport of it, or for the tongue or hump, leaving the carcasses to decay on the plains. It had to be anathema to everything the Native Americans believed and held sacred, for the buffalo represented to them food, robes, utensils and tipi covers, and was to be killed only when necessary.



 INDIAN COOKING, Nowega Press, 1973)

From INDIAN COOKING we learn some of the foods of American Indians. Of wild fruit and berries, there were blackberries, cranberries, raspberries, strawberries and huckleberries (to name a few), and they had cherries, plums, currants, persimmons, grapes, pawpaws, and crab apples.  Their vegetables included artichokes, gourds, maize corn, melons, potatoes, pumpkins, squash, beans, tomatoes, and they cultivated wild rice, mushrooms, and sunflower seed.  They were familiar with, and included in their cuisine, acorns, beechnuts, coconuts, hazelnuts, chestnuts and walnuts, hickory nuts, pecans and butternuts. Of meats they had alligator, antelope, bear, beaver, buffalo, caribou, deer, elk, moose, rabbit, goats, squirrel, raccoon, opossum and muskrats. They also cultivated and used flowers and certain leaves, such as skunk cabbage and water cress, and consumed many different kinds of fish. Herbs were used for medicine, flavoring foods or in beauty aids. They knew how to make poultices, such as those made from tea, for burns.

“We walked here once, Grandfather,

These trees, ponds, these springs and streams,

and that big flat rock across the water over there.

We used to meet with you over there,

Remember, Grandfather? And we would

dream, dance, and sing, and

after a while, make offerings.

Then we would sing the traveling song

and would go our ways, and

sometimes we would see your signs

on the way to our lodges.

But something happened, Grandfather.

We lost our way, somewhere, and

everything is going away.

The four-legged, the trees, springs and streams,

even the big water, where the laughing

whitefish goes, and the big sky of many eagles

are saying good-bye.

Come back, Grandfather! Come back!

Thank you, oh, Great Spirit, for all the things that Mother Earth gives! –              Narragansett Indian prayer of Thanksgiving

“During the course of the white man’s conquest of the New World,” explains Alvin Josephy in THE INDIAN HERITAGE OF AMERICA, Indian numbers changed greatly.  Many native peoples were entirely exterminated; many were almost wiped out; others approached the brink of extinction and then ‘came back’.  The Indian population within the United States,(excluding Alaska) declined rapidly until by 1860 there remained only some 340,000. (It was around this same time that the U.S. Government encouraged the wholesale slaughter of buffalo, which Native Americans depended on for food, clothing and shelter, with the idea that–without buffalo for sustenance–the Indians would be crushed into submissiveness.)

By 1910, the figure had declined to 220,000 and the Indian had taken on the popular image of the ‘vanishing American.’ About that time, the trend reversed, and today, with a rapidly decreasing death rate and a high Indian birth rate, Indians are increasing in number at a rate 10 percent faster than that of the overall United States population. (In 1990, the Census Bureau estimated that the population of Native American Indians to be 2,000,000, of which fewer than 400,000 live on reservations (this total includes Eskimos and Aleuts. Sociologists believe that there will be almost 3 million Indians in the United States by the end of the 20th Century–more than half the number in the same area in 1492).

In a rapidly diminishing world,” writes Josephy at the conclusion of THE INDIAN HERITAGE OF AMERICA, “the future of the Indians…is one of accelerating acculturation.  But complete final assimilation is still so remote a prospect as to make certain the Indians’ own pronouncement: ‘We are here, and we will be here for many generations yet to come.”

Let me walk in beauty, and make my eyes ever behold

The red and purple sunset.

Make my hands respect the things you have made and

My ears sharp to hear your voice.

Make me wise so that I may understand the things you

Have taught my people.

Let me learn the lessons you have hidden in every leaf and


I seek strength, not to be greater than my brother, but to

Fight my greatest enemy–myself.

Make me always ready to come to you with clean hands

And straight eyes.                                                                                                                                                                (An Indian Prayer – from OKLAHOMA COOKIN’ copyrighted 1976 Baxter Lane Co).

                          **

If you are interested in learning more about Native American cooking, I recommend  NEW NATIVE AMERICAN COOKING by Dale Carson, published by Random House in 1996. This cookbook contains more than 125 traditional foods and contemporary dishes made from America’s indigenous ingredients. The book also provides a wealth of historical background.

It can be found on pre-owned starting at $1.53.

Look also for ENDURING HARVEST By E. Barrie Kavasch, which contains native American foods and festivals for every season, tells the historical background of the various festivals and also contains a treasure of historical background material. This one can be found on starting at one cent for a pre-owned copy; a new one is available for $25.95.

BLUE CORN AND CHOCOLATE by Elisabeth Rozin, published by Knopf in 1992 can also be found on, pre owned starting at one cent. (You can also buy a new copy of this book for $19.11). (Always keep in mind that shipping is $3.99 for books purchased from private vendors).  I have quite a few of Elisabeth Rozin’s books. She is a fine food historian.

NATIVE INDIAN WILD GAME, FISH AND WILD FOODS COOKBOOK edited by David Hunt and published in 1992 by Fox Chapel publishing Company can be purchased on starting at $1.56 for a pre-owned copy.

SOUTHWEST INDIAN COOKBOOK by Marcia Keegan, published in 1987 was also an R.T. French Tastemaker Award Winner. It is packed with information and can be purchased on starting at one cent for a pre-owned copy.

SPIRIT OF THE HARVEST by Beverly Cox and Martin Jacobs, published in 1991is one of the books I also reviewed on this blog and a pre-owned copy starts at $5.97.

While there are certainly many other books devoted to Native American cuisine, the cookbooks I have mentioned above are fairly recent publications and available on the Internet. I have bought many pre-owned books over the past decade. If there is a choice between “good” and “very good” conditions at the same price, I generally go for the book in the best condition. Eventually you will also become familiar with some of the vendors and get an idea how satisfactory their merchandise is.
It seems appropriate to conclude Part 1 with an Indian farewell:


”Until we meet again may the Great Spirit

make sunrise in your heart, and may your

moccasins make tracks in many snows yet to come”

-From OKLAHOMA COOKIN’ published 1976, Baxter Lane Publishing.


Though it was published in 1985 – and so has been around for a while – TRAIL BOSS’S COWBOY COOKBOOK new to me, the kind of book to catch my           attention as I began to delve into books about cowboys and Indians, pioneers and homesteaders…and more importantly, from our point of view, what they cooked and ate.

TRAIL BOSS’S COWBOY COOKBOOK was compiled and published to benefit SRM, the Society for Range Management. Aha, you say, some of us city slickers don’t know what this means—and so, I’ll explain.

We find this in the introduction to the cookbook: “The Society for Range Management (SRM) is the broadest, most knowledgeable organization concerned with rangeland and its renewable resource products and values. The membership interests encompass ranching, wildlife biology, hydrology, range conservation, soil conservation, students, teachers, and private industry.

The Society was found4ed in 1948 as a non-profit corporation dedicated to a more comprehensive understanding of rangeland, its ecosystems and their use…”

As of 1985, the Society consisted of over 5,000 members and is international in scope, representing 50 states and 48 countries. The objectives of SRM members includes the proper care of the basic rangeland resources of soil, plants and water, and of creating a public interest in the economic and social benefits to be obtained from the range environment.

You may be saying to yourself – I live in the city – why should the conservation of rangelands concern me?

Well, for one thing rangelands are the primary source of our meat supply. Nearly all calves and older animals are born and raised on rangelands. The most efficient and economical way to harvest the renewable vegetation of rangelands is through the grazing animal; and this in turn provides economical, high quality meat for your table.

“Were it not got domestic livestock”, explains the Trail Boss, “millions of acres of land might not be useful for producing any kind of food. Rangelands also provide a home for the sheep and goats that supply meat, wool, and mohair. Livestock hides used for shoes, boots, clothing and other goods are another important indirect product of rangelands…”

“Rangelands,” states the Trail Boss, “provide the vital food cover and water for many kinds of wildlife. Big and small game and numerous birds depend on range during a part, if not all, the year.

Rangelands are one of our greatest sources of water. They provide vast underground storage reservoirs for water used for domestic purposes, industry, and agriculture.  Natural runoff from rangelands contributes water to streams, rivers and lakes…”

And finally, explains the Trail Boss, “Rangelands provide many forms of year-round recreation. Whether your interests are hunting, fishing, rock collecting, hiking, horseback riding, painting or photography. The rangelands have something to offer..”

And here are a few statistics to consider:

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.

TRAIL BOSS’S COWBOY COOKBOOK contains 458 recipes from 24 states and 8 countries, which include Australia and even Africa.  There are recipes for foods in 31 categories, including hors d’oeuvres, sauces and condiments, casseroles, Mexican dishes, breads, cakes, and pies—and of course, meat and poultry. The cookbook contains recipes for traditional dishes prepared for cowboys working on the range, and some of the recipes have been handed down in range families for generations.

Here you will find authentic recipes for Son of a Gun Sew, and its more outlandish cousin, Son of a Bitch Stew, a big bunch of recipes for barbeque—anyway you like it! There is even a recipe for making a pit barbecue for 500 to600 people! (Starts out with 400 lbs of roasts, rolled chuck or rump). There are a variety of recipes for one of my family favorites, Cowboy Beans, and a host of many others, such as Slumgullion*, Spotted dog (no, it doesn’t contain any real dog), and Prairie Fire (made with pinto beans)—that sounds delicious—and another called Storm At I don’t think you are likely to find elsewhere—although I have written on Sandychatter in 2009 about *slumgullion stew! There are also a goodly number of pioneer recipes as well.

There is a separate section just for chili (kind of reminds me of my family cookbook, where we all have our favorite recipe for making chili). Choose from Green Chili, Texas Red Chili, Synar Chili, Male Chauvinist Chili, Pole Line Chili, Pork and Red Chili, and Texas-Style Chili.

Look also for Mock Lemon sauce (made with vinegar!), Pioneer Potato Candy, and Western Pralines, Highpockets Vinegar Cobbler and the old fashioned pioneer recipe for Vinegar Pie.

The book itself has a beautiful cover, from a painting by George Kovach, a Texas artist, titled “COWBOYS TO DINNER” which he painted especially for the Trail Boss’s Cookbook. This cookbook is spiral bound and what I call “an easy read”—lots and lots of interesting tidbits about western life, from chuck wagon chow to lessons on roping calves.

TRAIL BOSS’S COWBOY COOKBOOK is available on for $12.37 new or starting at 2 cents for pre-owned. has copies starting at 99c.

Happy Cooking & happier cookbook collecting!




It’s no secret amongst my friends and family that my favorite club-and-church cookbooks (also known more popularly as community cookbooks) are the Junior League publications – and with good reason!  These are the crème de la crème of cookbooks,.

Needless to say, my interest was piqued when I first learned about WEST OF THE ROCKIES by the Junior Service League of Grand Junction, Colorado.

And what a cookbook it is! From the beautiful water color cover by Shirley Dickinson to the vast selection of interesting and intriguing recipes, you’ll find this cookbook a must-have for your collection.

In its introduction, the compilers of WEST OF THE ROCKIES provide us with a thumbnail sketch of the life and history of their region…” Exposed rock layers bear evidence of the ancestral Rocky Mountains, numerous advances and retreats of seas, deserts, and dunes, rivers with broad flood plains, lush forests, ancient lakes and lava flows. Dinosaurs once roamed through the ancient forests and today the Grand Valley is known worldwide as a paleontological treasure trove of dinosaur remains…the first prehistoric people are thought to have appeared in the area during the Pleistocene Epoch followed by a series of early Indian peoples. “The old ones” as many Native Americans call them, were believed to have appeared around A.D. 700. They abandoned their fields about A.D. 1200, and, as a cultural group, disappeared into the mists of history. Their legacy to us is the mysterious petroglyphs they painted on the canyon walls…”

What follows is a brief history of the people who came after, from the railroad men to pioneers.  “When early settlers entered the Grand Valley, they saw sage, greasewood and a few trees. Irrigation canals built during the late 1800s and early 1900s turned dry desert portions of the Grand Valley into lush green fields and orchards….”

Today, tourism is one of the most important industries in Western Colorado. “The beautiful canyons o the Colorado National Monument and the scenery and multitude of hunting and fishing opportunities on the Grand Mesa and surrounding areas attract hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. The explosion in popularity of mountain biking, river rafting and the current fascination with dinosaurs, have all combined to make the Grand Valley a favorite vacation destination…”

I love the recipes in WEST OF THE ROCKIES, a kind of collection you aren’t likely to find in most run-of-the-mill cookbooks….it’s this very kind of compiling that makes a Junior League cookbook invaluable to those of us who love to cook and try out new recipes. Who could resist a recipe called Warmed Cranberry Brie? Or Lime Garlic Shrimp with Mango Mint Salsa?

WEST OF THE ROCKIES offers a wonderful selection of soup recipes that I have not seen elsewhere—such as Veggie Southwest Soup, Gourmet spinach Soup and Corn Chowder With Shrimp and Peppers. In fact, there are numerous categories designed to catch the attention of cooks everywhere, with clever names such as ANYTHING’S PASTABLE, WAVES OF GRAIN, FROM STREAMS AND BEYOND, FARMER’S MARKET, CAMPFIRE CAFÉ, THE COOKIE JAR and GRAND FINALE.  I was especially enchanted with THE PANTRY, which provides such mouth-watering recipes as ROSE TREE JAM and NOT YOUR AVERAGE MUSTARD. Look also for unique recipes, such as North African Coriander Bread and Pecan and Red Onion Bread,

WEST OF THE ROCKIES a beautifully compiled spiral-bound cookbook is available at, for $17.95 new and qualifying for free super saver shipping, or 21 pre-owned from $1.45, or new from private vendors from $8.00. did not have any copies.

However, when I was visiting to provide you with pricing, I discovered there is another newer cookbook from the Junior Service league of Grand Junction and I just ordered a copy.  More on that one at a future date.

To paraphrase the former Duchess of Windsor, Wallace Simpson, you can’t be too rich or too thin – or have too many cookbooks.

Happy cooking and happier cookbook collecting!





SPIRIT OF THE HARVEST (subtitled NORTH AMERICAN INDIAN COOKING” is another in-depth endeavor by cookbook co-authors Beverly Cox and Martin Jacobs.  This book was published in 1991 by Stewart, Tabori & Chang, Inc.

Explain the publishers, “In SPIRIT OF THE HARVEST authentic recipes, glorious photographs and an informative text present the distinctive cooking of North American Indians from coast to coast.

Before Columbus, before the Pilgrims, Native Americans used indigenous plants, seafood, and game in cooking traditions that are still very much alive. This carefully researched cookbook presents 150 authentic recipes from across the United States, incorporating many indigenous ingredients hailed today for their healthfulness and flavor—wild rice, corn, beans, sunflower seeds, venison, buffalo, fowl, and fish….”

SPIRIT OF THE HARVEST features traditional dishes from the Cherokee, Chippewa, Navajo, Sioux, Mohegan, Iroquois, Comanche, Hopi, Haida, and many other North American tribes.

In addition, the cookbook offers fifty full color photographs, beautifully presented by professional photographer Martin Jacobs.

The name Beverly Cox may be one you recognize. She is the author of thirteen cookbooks and she was culinary director, food editor and director of food styling for Cook’s Magazine. Her articles have appeared in the magazine FOOD & WINE as well.

Beverly Cox is the author of CLASSIC ITALIAN COKING, 365 GREAT 20 MINUTE RECIPES (published in 1995) BEST OF ICE CREAM, COOKING TECHNIQUES/HOW TO DO ANYTHING A RECIPE TELLS YOU TO DO (co authored with Joan Whitman), MINCEUR ITALIENNE, and, of course, the spectacular 1996 cookbook SPIRIT OF THE WEST which she co-authored with Jacobs.  She is a fourth generation Wyoming rancher who grew up on a cattle ranch near Cheyenne. Her interest in the region’s traditional foods and history began in her childhood. Beverly studied cooking, however, in France where she earned a Grand Diploma from the Cordon Bleu in Paris (which explains the Italian influence cookbooks). After years of living in Connecticut, in 1991 Beverly and her husband, Gordon Black moved to her family’s Eagle Rock Ranch located in the Chalk Bluffs region of Northern Colorado.

Martin Jacobs is an award-winning photographer who specializes in food photography and has photographed many cookbooks including the books FOODS OF VIETNAM and SPIRIT OF THE WEST.

Recipes to look for in SPIRIT OF THE HARVEST?  Traditional Native American beans and grains which range from Cherokee Pecan Sop to Corn Pones, from Black Or White Bean Cakes to Cherokee Huckleberry Honey Cakes.  There are recipes for grape dumplings—made with Wild Opossum grapes (I hope my con cord grapes will make an acceptable substitute) to pumpkin soup.

(It may interest you to know that “Blue Dumplings, made from wild grapes, were a favorite dessert of the Five Civilized Tribes.)

“Wild Opossum grapes, “explains the author, “Also called Summer Grapes, grow in the woods along streams throughout the southeastern states. Indian cooks gather these small black grapes and use them to make pies, jelly, and of course, the Blue Dumplings.

These grapes are also dried on the stems for use in winter so that when they are needed, the dried grapes can be picked from the stems, boiled in water and crushed. The strained juice is thickened with cornmeal to make a kind of syrup for dumplings.”

Other recipes to look for might include Natchez Corn Fritters, Fried Tomato Pones (which can be made with either green or ripe tomatoes, Carrot Bread, Cherokee Brunswick Stew, Creek Blackberry Cobbler, Cherokee Corn Cob Jelly (I made Corn Cob Jelly about a year ago, using my son’s homegrown corn—it has a very delicate flavor and is fun to have guests guessing what it was made with).  Choctaw Persimmon Pudding  would be interesting to make when persimmons are in season (I used to have a friend who had a tree….sigh. Now I live too far away from her).  You may want to try Hazelnut-Honey Baked Squash when acorn squash is in season, or Mohegan Succotash when fresh corn is readily available—the beans are frozen lima beans). Algonquian Maple Popcorn Balls would make a nice change from regular popcorn balls when Halloween parties are being planned, and there are many other recipes from which to choose.

SPIRIT OF THE HARVEST won both the IACP AND James Beard cookbook awards.

SPIRIT OF THE HARVEST provides a wealth of information about the North American Indian tribes, along with recipes and beautiful photographs. As an added bonus, a portion of royalties is being donated to the Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C. and New York City.

SPIRIT OF THE HARVEST is available at, new $29.92 and qualifies for free super saver shipping; they also have 40 new copies from private vendors starting at $14.00 and 58 pre-owned copies starting at $5.98. has copies starting at $5.98.

Happy cooking & Happier cookbook collecting!