Cowboy's Grub: Come 'n git it

By Dr. Richard W. Slatta, the Cowboy Professor at North Carolina State University

  • GrubCowboys had only a few basic necessities. One was beef, preferably fresh. Another was cigarettes or cigars. A telltale string from a Bull Durham pouch would hang from most cowboy's shirt pocket. Finally, cowboys liked hot strong coffee and lots of it. This usually meant Arbuckle's coffee in the United States or possibly English tea in Canada.
  • Breakfast Call: Fred Ings recalled a typical breakfast during a roundup in Canada in the 1880s: "Breakfast at daybreak was eaten in the mess tent, a hot substantial meal of meat, potatoes, bread, jam, with strong black coffee. Our dishes were tin and we ate sitting around on bed rolls or a box if one was handy, or on the ground."
  • Cowboys in the United States relished similar "chuck" (also called grub or chow). Canned and dried fruit, "overland trout" (bacon), beans, fresh meat, soda biscuits, tea, and coffee. Breakfast might include eggs or salt pork. Eggs, sometimes shipped west for considerable distances, sometimes went bad. According to Winfred Blevins, westerners called an old, spoiled egg a "souvenir."
  • Hands relished sourdough biscuits, which hands favored over those make with buttermilk or baking powder. Ranch cooks baked biscuits in the versatile Dutch oven. Dinner (the noon-time meal) evening and supper often looked very similar, with the addition of beef and beans. As Puny Martin, an Oklahoma cowboy put it, "Beef, beans, taters. That's what you had to have." One source attributed the often bowed legs and lean physique of the cowboy to his calcium- and calorie-deficient diet, although long hours on horseback likely played a bigger role.
  • Chuck Wagon Chuckwagon Cooking: Cowboys owe a hearty thanks to Charlie Goodnight, credited with inventing the chuck wagon. Needing to transport and cook food for a trail crew, Goodnight bought an Army surplus supply wagon and reinforced it. He replaced wooden axles with iron. He built a pantry-like chuck box on the back, strapped a water barrel on one side, and a toolbox on the other. Six oxen pulled his chuck wagon.
  • Coffee Pot The chuck box held cast iron kettles, Dutch ovens, and three to five-gallon coffee pot, even held such luxuries as sugar. The cook also carried medical supplies, including at least on bottle of whiskey "for medicinal purposes." Goodnight's creative invention plus the availability of "airtights" (canned goods) gave cowboys in the United States a more diet much more varied than that of Latin America ranch hands.
  • Over the years, wagon manufacturers refined the original design. C. J. Christianson, who cowboyed in Canada from 1904 to 1909, described an early twentieth-century chuck wagon (My Life on the Range, 1968).
    I want to say a word about the wagons used on a roundup in those days. Don't get them confused with the skeletons used in the chuckwagon races at the Calgary Stampede, pulled around the track by four trained race horses. The wagon used on the range was a heavy ironed-up affair, but light running, high narrow wheels, narrow tires and wide gauge. There seemed to be two favorite makes used in those days, the "Studebaker" made in South Bend, Indiana and the "Peter Schuttler" made in Chicago, Illinois, both made to stand the roughest of use. Those wagons had to withstand a lot. They were loaded to the extend of about two ton at all times. The mess wagon was loaded with the cook stove, cook tent, a mess box, provisions of all kinds, enough to feed from 16 to 20 men for five or six weeks at a time without restocking. The bed wagon had all the bed rolls, rope or rawhide corrals, horseshoes, rope and tackling of all kinds and often wood.
  • Sometimes things could go wrong around the chuck wagon. Coosie would get ringy, the hands would suffer. Dallas Poteet, who cowboyed in the Osage country of Oklahoma recalled on chuck wagon disaster.
    There come a storm that first night we was out. Dang, it blowed everything away. Blowed the chuck box away on that covered wagon. Next morning that old cook, he just went out there and gathered that stuff up, just scooped it up off the ground, because [it] spilt the coffee, the sugar and everything else. So the rest of the way, the next two or three days, we had coffee [that was] half dirt and half coffee, and that old sourdough bread, it was part flour and part dirt.
  • Despite such adversity, Inventive and adaptive ranch cooks created their own special cuisine from the basics of beef, beans, and bread. Cowboys branded cooks with a wide range of inventive names, some of which are fit to reprint: Bean master, pot rustler, biscuit shooter, dough puncher, grub slinger, coosie (from the Spanish term for cook, cocinero),
  • Horseshoe Range Fare: While riding the range, a cowboy's noon dinner might include some dried beef, dried fruit, sourdough biscuits, and perhaps a cup of coffee if he carried a pot in his saddlebags. The bare necessities rolled into a slicker might include a "frying-pan, some flour, bacon, coffee, salt, and, as a substitute for yeast, either a bottle of sour dough or a can of baking-powder."
  • Meals at camp or at the bunkhouse offered greater variety and abundance. Pauline Barham cooked for Chapman-Barnard hands in Oklahoma during the 1940s. She recalled that They were hungry. They would eat everything, and they enjoyed it. Beef roast and beans is the main thing for cowboys, I think. Hot biscuits. We made our own biscuits. And potatoes fixed some way. Always coffee. The coffee pot was on all the time.
  • Syrups and stewed prunes usually served as dessert. Coosie might also made a fruit pie, perhaps a boggy-top (open-faced with no top crust.). A real range cooking artist might even dress up a pie with "calf slobbers" (meringue.) Another challenge was "son-of-a-bitch-in-a-sack" (not to be confused with the stew described below.) Coosie would sew dried fruit and dough into a sack and steam the concoction.
  • On the trail, canned tomatoes helped to quench thirst. Philip Ashton Rollins notes that acidic tomato juice counteracted the ill effects of alkali dust inhaled by men on the trail. Even the greenest cook could whip up a batch of "pooch," stewed tomatoes mixed with bread and sugar.
  • Make Mine Beef: Cowboys everywhere liked fresh beef and lots of it. Steaks, fried well-done in a cast iron skillet, ranked high. A good cook would toss flour into the beef grease, let it brown up good, and serve up tasty gravy (called "Texas butter" or "sop") for the biscuits.
  • Almost any beef cut imaginable went into the legendary "son-of-a-bitch" stew. (In polite company, cowboys would call the dish "son-of-a-gun" stew.) As Ramon F. Adams notes, "you throw ever'thing in the pot but the hair, horns, and holler." Cooks preferred to have meat and parts from an unweaned calf. To the choicest meat, they added sweetbreads, marrow gut from between the two stomachs, kidneys, heart, liver, and tongue. Brains and flour thickened the mix, and onions and chilis sometimes added flavor. This was cowboy cuisine at its finest.
  • Profit-minded ranchers and trail bosses did not always provide a bounty of fresh beef. Granville Stuart, the well known Montana rancher and politician, recorded that cowboys on the trail ate corn meal, sorghum molasses, beans, salt, and bacon. Game, including deer or, while they lasted, buffalo, might add meat to the regimen. As one cowboy remarked, "We could not keep ourselves in fresh meat like a cow outfit does on a roundup for the reason that we had a smaller crew than the average roundup uses, and we had no visitors to drop in for a meal. Another reason was that our animals were of large size, and with the weather so very hot, meat would not have kept fresh." Some ranchers practiced what the old range adage preached: "Only a fool eats his own beef!"
  • Calf Fries: At roundup, cowboys enjoyed another delicacy, variously called calf fries, mountain oysters, or prairie oysters. Whatever the term, these fried or roasted calves' testicles made gourmet eating for cowmen. Obviously, a large number of these prize delicacies could be gathered when hands castrated calves during roundup. Cowboys attributed to calf fries an amazing number of benefits. Some considered it a wonderful elixir or aphrodisiac.
  • Preparation might consist of nothing more than tossing the testicles into a branding fire and waiting for them to pop open, ready to eat. Stella Hughes, in Chuck Wagon Cookin', offers a tastier recipe. She suggests soaking the mess in salt water for an hour then drying them. The oysters are then seasoned, rolled in flour or cornmeal, and fried in hot grease until crisp-- a great end to a long day of branding. Another variant suggest soaking the harvest in buttermilk instead of salt water.
  • Meals provided a welcome break in the cowboy's long, hard-riding day. A good meal went a long way to keeping hands riding for the brand.
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