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Mention cowboy fare, and most of us think of beans, beans and more beans. Most of the assumptions (by some of us who know nothing about the cowboy way of life) about the old days and the “mess” dished up by “Cookie” (the name given some of the chuckwagon cooks) assume the isolation of range camps would ensure the lack of variety in the menu. Many a story told by old-timers reinforces this image, but most of the chuckwagon cooks hired to go on the trail with the herd knew what they needed to do to keep the hands happy.
Most cooks only prepared meals for breakfast and supper. The crew had to make do with cold biscuits or a piece of bacon until they made camp in the evening. Making meals on the range required a well-stocked freight wagon, with the necessary staples and cookware available. It was essential to have large supplies of flour, cornmeal, rice, beans, dried fruit, hardtack, dried beef, molasses, vinegar, sugar, salt, pepper, baking soda, tea and coffee. In addition to a cast-iron Dutch oven and skillet, it was important to have a metal coffeepot. A typical meal might include biscuits or corn bread, wild game or beef, gravy, and beans. The dessert was often a fruit cobbler of some sort.
According to the authors of “The Cowboy Cook Book,” Bruce and Bobbi Fischer, “Cowboys walked delicately around Cookie, no one dared to cross him. As the saying goes, ‘Cussing a range cook is as risky as branding a mule’s tail!’ During the roundup, Cookie always made sure he had a jug of sourdough to make hoecakes and flapjacks.”
Each chapter in the book features a special type of range recipe and offers introductory remarks to help cooks become familiar with this type of cooking. They mention that food was an important thing to cowboys on the range, as before signing on to a “wagon” cowboys usually wanted to know what kind of “chuck” was being served.
Quite a few years back an interview with local old-time chuckwagon cook Dusty Rhodes addressed this. His descriptions of hauling around the heavy Dutch ovens, making meals for a big crew, and cooking over an open fire were fascinating. His experience didn”t include much cowboying, as after he hired on to cook for a big “cattle outfit” he found himself doing grueling work from sunup to sundown. While Dusty only worked as a trail cook for a few years, his memories of the job requirements stayed clear. He prided himself on using the same sourdough starter for most of the jobs, as he kept it stored in a small crock to be used whenever he wanted. Cowboys and sourdough starter are said to have three things in common: they require regular feeding, get better with age and need to stay warm on chilly nights.