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Cowboy Jam Session: Feeding a crew from a chuck wagon

by Jeri L. Dobrowski
For the May 28, 2011 edition of Tri-State Livestock News.

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More than two inches of rain fell in this part of the country over the weekend, much of it driven by 25-mile per hour winds. We had house guests and planned a Dutch-oven cookout. Given the mud and the challenge of getting a fire to burn, we opted for grilling on the deck instead.

Pity the frontier chuck wagon cooks who didn’t have an option. They had to contend not only with rain and wind, but with scorching heat and blowing sand, snakes, insects, marauding varmints and mischievous cowboys. Dry firewood and potable water were never guaranteed. Their pantry contained a precious few shelf-stable ingredients, and meat was kept without the benefit of refrigeration. Quite likely, they moved camp between meals, driving a team of half-broke horses. No wonder Cookie had a reputation for being cranky!

Tagged with handles as colorful as the characters filling the position – grub spoiler; biscuit roller; pot rustler; cocinero; lizard scorcher; stew builder – they customarily drew twice the wages paid to cowboys. A proficient hash slinger could satisfy a crew that worked from before dawn until near dusk or send them searching for a job with better grub.

Texan Charles Goodnight is credited with crafting the first chuck wagon in 1866. I’ve thought a lot about the challenges of feeding a crew from the back of one since participating in Kent Rollins’ Red River Ranch Chuck Wagon Cooking School in early April. Quite the opposite of the weather pattern we’re experiencing, temperatures in northwest Texas that week were more than 100 degrees, and the grass was tinder dry. (Watch a video on the school at http://kentrollins.com/media/cowboy-cooking-camp/)

The most comfortable part of the day sped by while preparing coffee and a hearty breakfast for the 20 cowboys who arrived before sunup. In the predawn hours, the fire stoked in the cook stove was appealing. By midmorning it had lost its charm, but no matter, there were two more meals to prepare.

Refilling water barrels with a garden hose hooked to a stock-water hydrant was a comparable luxury, as were ice chests that kept perishable foods cold. If those creature comforts threatened to dilute the chuck wagon experience too much, sleeping in a cowboy tepee added a bit of realism. Coyotes, armadillos, scorpions, fire ants and spiders scurried about the campsite. Kent cautioned us to turn our boots upside down before putting them on in the morning, in case one of the latter had settled in overnight. For more on the camp, contact Rollins at 303-219-0478; http://kentrollins.com.

Some of my favorite books are about old-time ranch cooks and the simple but ingenious fare they served. Here is a short list of the best from my library:

Come and Get It by Ramon Adams; illustrations by Nick Eggenhofer. My copy is a 1952 hardback edition published by the University of Oklahoma Press. However, the 170-page book was reprinted as a paperback in 1976 and 1984. It is readily available from used booksellers at Amazon.com.

Adams was a prolific author who wrote extensively about range cowboys. This volume, with its colorful stories and engaging drawings, describes the role of the cook who went out with the roundup crew or signed on with a cattle drive. It details what he fixed and how: mostly fried meat, dried beans, sourdough biscuits, stout coffee and occasionally, dessert. It was a fortunate crew whose cook made sweets with any regularity.

Authentic Recipes from the Ranch and the Range, National Cowboy Hall of Fame Chuck Wagon Cookbook, by B. Byron Price (Hearst Books New York, 1995, 301 pages, recipes, photos, hardcover, ISBN 0688129897). Footnoted and with an extensive bibliography, it is easily the most thorough study of the chuck wagon.

As the former executive director of the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, Price drew on the extensive resources of the famed western heritage museum. Part One contains dozens of fascinating vintage photos coupled with cowboy lore; Part Two contains 100 ranch-style recipes. It is a treat for both the eyes and the palate. Look for it in western museum gift shops or from used booksellers.

Chuck Wagon Cookin’ by Stella Hughes (University of Arizona Press, 1974, 170 pages, paperback, ISBN 978-0816504329). A skilled cook in her own right, Hughes relates stories and recipes from other cooks and former cowboys. Their combined experiences and tales of ingenuity and mayhem make for a deliciously entertaining read. Consider the 100-plus recipes and home remedies a bonus! It is available from Amazon.com.


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