BUSTING MYTHS ABOUT FOOD ON THE FRONTIER
Ahh. Nothing like sitting around the campfire under a starry night. You lean up against your saddle, take out your mess kit, and pony up to the old chuck wagon on your tired, bowed legs. You give Cookie a smirk and receive your reward for a rough and tumble day of cow punching– a rusty ladle of beans. Yessiree.
When your team of cattle drovers reaches the nearest town, the cook visits the general store to load up on big burlap bags of more beans, coffee, sugar, flour, and of course, whiskey– the staples of the cowboy diet. Shades of Blazing Saddles, Rawhide, and John Ford westerns? Since this image of cowboy fare is both comical and romanticized, let’s take a look at what really constituted cowboy grub.
Guarding the larder
Cowboy is a catch-all term for those nomadic workhands who herded cattle across the plains of the American west during the mid to late 19th century. Cattle herding and driving, however, had its American roots among the Irish in Boston in the early 1700′s and then in the grazing culture of the South before it moved westward onto the Great Plains. Cities like Baltimore and Philadelphia certainly enjoyed their cuts of beef as drovers brought cattle to slaughter in the mid-Atlantic states (Weaver, America Eats). Following the US government’s mandate to exterminate both Indians and the buffalo after the Civil War, the practice of raising and breeding cattle blossomed along with the conquest of the western plains. Cattle ranching and husbandry were considered a superior pursuit compared to the hunting and gathering life ways of the indigenous peoples. Infamous cowtowns like Abilene, Wichita, Omaha and Chisolm through which Texas herders drove their Longhorns emerged. By the mid- 1880′s, 6 million head of cattle were driven north by cowhands to the railroad hubs en route to Chicago’s slaughterhouses (Civetello, Cuisine and Culture). As the desire for cheap beef grew, laborers on horseback were in great demand.
The cowboy diet was the fare of the working man. No filet mignon for him. For the hardscrabble cowboy, the number one concern was a full stomach for the 2 to 5 month drive. Like most nomads, cowboys carried a lot of their foodstuffs with them in the form of dehydrated beef (jerky) and hardtack, or they were scavengers on the trail. In fact, beef was generally not the central focus since its value was in its sale, and when served, it was often in the form of a stew composed of the less pricey cuts and odd bits– or the “chuck”.
The name “Chuck” derived from 17th Century England…meat merchants who referred to their lower priced goods as “Chuck”. By the 18th Century, the term “chuck” was communicated towards good hearty food. (Chuckwagon Cooking: History, web)
And it wasn’t until after the Civil War, in 1866, that a clever cattleman by the name of Charles Goodnight transformed an old surplus army wagon into a rolling pantry. With the addition of a hinged door that flipped into a table, some drawers and shelves inside the wagon bed for canned goods (like tomatoes and peaches for vitamin C to fight scurvy), and a storage boot for pots and pans, the chuck wagon was born. The manufacturer was Studebaker, and the company went on to produce several more sophisticated models. Who knew that the workhorse larder for the cowpoke was the ancestor of the four-door sedans of the mid-twentieth century American family? After the creation of the chuck wagon, cowboys ate measurably better.
Want to learn how to cook like a modern cowboy? You can go to camp and learn how. Check out the Kent Rollins’ Dutch Oven Cooking School:
What was the typical day for the chuck wagon master like? He didn’t just cook. He cut hair, nursed wounds, did mechanical repairs,and managed accounts along with preparing and rationing foods: grinding coffee, making biscuits, tending the sourdough starter, and carving the salt pork. His tasks included setting up camp, tending the fire, preparing meals using dutch ovens and skillets, and cleaning up.. He was paid well for it– significantly more than the cowboys.
Fresh eggs or vegetables sometimes would be available as the trail boss [would] authorize trading a steer with some farmer along the trail drive… the daily norm was dried pork, beans and bread with the choice of water or coffee to drink. (Chuckwagon Cooking: History, web)
Because the cowboy population was made up of many immigrant cultures, their food reflected the combined and often looked-down-upon culinary habits of the Irish, African, South American, Chinese, and Spanish cultures. Chile was the go-to spice for Cookie. Today when you encounter cookbooks that contain old-timey , genu-ine cowboy recipes, they often reflect the influences of these various cuisines. You might find some great recipes for Rocky Mountain Oysters (bulls testicles), Sancocho de Cola de Res (Ox tail stew), and all manner of corn biscuits and tortilla-based fare, and the ubiquitous frijoles– yes, beans.
Beware cookbooks that hail authentic cowboy meals in the form of a cast iron skillet Chicken Cordon Bleau or Chicken & Cheese Chimichangas because the real cowboys were having none of that. Funny now to see how these delicacies rustled up in an old cast iron dutch oven or skillet are considered authentic and iconic cuisine.
Maybe that miserable meal of beans and burnt coffee isn’t so far off the mark after all. The chuck wagon master probably slept with his Remington by his side many a night after the last tin cup and spider were washed and stored. –MELorden
Time to saddle-up and get out the old skillet and give these cowboy victuals a try. They are sure to put hair on your chest.
For a selection of reinterpreted cowboy recipes, see:
For a look at the more realistic and dismal side of cowboy fare, see: