Magazine article Sunset

Cowboy Cooking

Magazine article Sunset

Cowboy Cooking

Article excerpt

THIS WAS COWBOY COOK PHILOSOPHY EXPOUNDED a half-century ago, and it hasn't changed. Food fashions come and go, but good "chuck"--plain, honest, rib-sticking food--is still appealing (and surprisingly compatible with current rules of healthy eating). Today's city slickers yearn for that taste of the Wild West as they flock to dude ranches, pack stations, and cattle drives, eager to play cowboy. They savor the homespun flavors and comfortable simplicity of rough-and-ready meals cooked outdoors.

Whether you're on the trail or in your backyard, you can enjoy good chuck. We asked the cowboy cooks featured on these pages--from California ranchers to Oregon pack trip leaders and Wyoming dude ranch cooks--to share their favorite recipes. Keep in mind, a good part of the magic that makes these foods taste mighty good is fresh air and hunger bred by strenuous labor.

To a cowboy, food means survival. On the trail, he might get only two meals--one well before dawn, and supper after the day's work was done.

Today's cowboy cooks are perpetuating the Western role of "Cookie," the cook who accompanied the cowboys on the trail. Cookie of yesteryear was king of camp, and he earned his crown; he was charged with keeping a crew of independents functioning as they tended the demanding needs of roving cattle herds.

It took good grub to attract good workers. Cattlemen, recognizing the worth of a skilled cook, paid him well, with wages equal to the top hands'. In Texas in 1890, payment might have amounted to all of $40 to $45 a month, and Cookie deserved every penny.

Besides cooking, Cookie washed, cut hair, settled disputes, and patched broken bones. He pampered, threatened, and coddled a rough and tough breed who had barely earned respectability. Cowboy and cattle rustler were almost synonymous until after the Civil War, when vaquero, the accepted Spanish name for cattle herder, bit the dust in favor of cowboy.


Another change took place after the Civil War: in 1867, the railroad reached Abilene, Kansas. Texas ranchers, eager to profit from a beef-hungry nation, made long drives to the railroad to ship cattle to Eastern markets.

Outfitting chuck for this lengthy trek became crucial. In anticipation, Texas cattleman Charles Goodnight came up with an ingenious solution a year before the railroad was due to arrive in Abilene. Starting with a government supply wagon, he put together a portable kitchen--the original chuckwagon. On the end of the wagon was a compartment-filled box to securely hold cooking utensils, food staples, dishes, and medicine. The hinged lid flipped out to make a convenient worktable. Later models had running water: a barrel with a spigot hitched to the wagon side.


Cookie worked long hours. Rising before the crew, he had the breakfast fire blazing and coffee on by 3 or 4 in the morning. As soon as the meal was cleared, he packed and rode on ahead to make evening camp and had supper ready when bone-weary cowboys straggled in.

The chuckwagon was Cookie's domain and the heart of a cowboy's home on the trail. Cookie set strict rules for activities around the chuckwagon. Cowboys did not disturb the cook's work area; it was forbidden to eat on the chuckwagon table. Buckaroos dined, squatting or seated on a log, a rock, or the ground, with plates in laps.

An unwritten procotol persists. Lela Joslin, of Spanish Springs Ranch in California and Nevada, enlarges upon the code of manners: "There is definitely cowboy etiquette around the chuckwagon. You never ride your horse through the kitchen; you don't tie your horse to the chuckwagon; you ride past the chuckwagon downwind so as to not send dust through the kitchen. The cowboy always waits to be invited to eat (no picking at the food!)."


Basic equipment for camp cooking hasn't changed much since the earliest days. …

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