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Cowboy cooking.

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. The well-outfitted kitchen includes a big coffee pot; long-handled spatulas, forks, and spoons; a trusty knife; and an assortment of cured, cast-iron pans--frying pans, pots, and particularly the Dutch oven, indispensable for baking.

The Dutch oven has a rimmed lid to hold coals for baking; usually it has legs so it can stand over hot coals. Pans without legs sit on a portable grate or hang on hooks from an iron horse, a bar that spans the fire with supports at each end.


According to trail cook Lela Joslin, "The old chuckwagons usually had flour, sugar, dried fruit, dried beef, salt pork, coffee beans, pinto beans, salt, lard, baking soda, vinegar, molasses--and whiskey. Some had the luxury of canned milk and canned tomatoes. Everything that was cooked on the trail used these ingredients, along with fresh beef or wild game."

"The most important aspect of cowboy cooking, even now, is that it is filling," explains ranch cook Sunie Lou Thompson of Whitlash, Montana. "Cowboy work was, and still is, physically demanding, so they need food that will stick to the belly and keep their strength up until the next meal. Lots of meat, potatoes, baked or boiled beans, bread or biscuits is typical cowboy fare with, of course, coffee."

Joslin says the appetites of working cowboys and greenhorn guests don't compare. "Pan-fried steak and biscuits and gravy were the standard breakfast one hundred years ago. Nowadays, guests ask for granola in the morning and eschew the high-cholesterol diet that the cowboys do chew. Of course, cowboys figure maybe you aren't working hard enough if you can get by on birdseed."


The first thing a cowboy demands in the morning is a cup of hot coffee. The same is true when he rides back into camp. He might even down a cup or two before hitting the hay--caffeine jitters are for city slickers.

"When you pour yourself coffee, you always pour for everyone around the fire also," says Joslin, "but you never crowd the cook out when standing around the cooking fire. When the coffee pot is empty, you bring the empty pot to the cook and help refill it."

Cowboys make their coffee plain and simple--no battery-operated grinders or filter paper on the range.

"The cowboy likes his coffee strong and black, and it tastes better made outdoors over an open fire," Sunie Lou Thompson advises. "To make real cowboy coffee, add about a half-cup of coffee grounds to a quart of cold water and boil it for several minutes over the fire. Then throw in a little more cold water to settle the grounds, and keep the coffee warm over the coals. Tip: if it tries to keep boiling, cut a green willow stick and lay it over the top of the pot so it won't boil over."

There may be fewer cowboys today--some are even women--and their duties are more diverse, but the lifestyle is equally demanding. Bert Prindle, a fourth-generation cowhand from Wyoming, observes, "A real cowboy is a jack of all trades. He has a little grease on his hands from fixing equipment, he is a fencer, a veterinarian, and a philosopher. You have to love it because you'll never get rich." Prindle says he wouldn't do anything else in the world. "We are still out in all kinds of weather taking care of the cattle. And we are still awfully independent."

And they still demand good chuck and plenty of hot coffee. Just ask Cookie.

McGee Creek Pack Station Sierra Breakfast

AS JENNIFER ROESER GREW UP AT HER FAMILY'S MCGEE CREEK Pack Station in the California Sierra near Mammoth Lakes, she learned the art of trail cooking. She now applies this training skillfully while transporting guests to the High Sierra.

Her specialty is sourdough baking. "I have a sourdough starter that was given to me by a good friend," she says. "It had been started by the ranch owner's great-great-grandmother in Kansas in the 1870s. It has quite a distinctive flavor, slightly sweet and buttery. It makes the best bread, biscuits, and pancakes."

Sourdough Pancakes

Fresh Berries

Crisp Bacon or Country Sausages

Cowboy Coffee

Guidetti's Round-Up Barbecue

IN EARLY SPRING, JOE GUIDETTI CALLS FELLOW RANCHERS AND friends to help him round up calves for branding and vaccinations at his ranch in San Luis Obispo, California. As a big thank-you, Guidetti, a master at his open-pit barbecue, feeds the crew a hearty lunch.

While the team drives the calves into the corral for work, Guidetti prepares the meats with his blend of salt, pepper, and garlic salt. Then he expertly grills them to succulent perfection: slow-grilled pork spareribs, 3-inch-thick sirloin steaks, and double-cut pork chops.

Pass-around appetizers of crisp grilled sweetbreads and sausages start the meal. Another choice is marinated beef tongue, contributed by Guidetti's sidekick, George ("Whitey") Whiting, a chuckwagon cook. Guidetti's daughter, Jonell Price, provides salsa (from her mother's recipe), beans, and pies for this handsome spread.

Grilled Sweetbreads and Sausages

Whitey's Pickled Beef Tongue

Grilled Spareribs, Sirloin Steaks, and Pork Chops

Ranch Beans Jan's Salsa

Mixed Green Salad Garlic Bread

Homemade Apple Pie

Cowboy Coffee Beer

Wyoming Camp Supper

WHEN HELEN VACEK CAME BACK HOME TO MONTANA IN 1987, she discovered a new career--camp cook. Now she works enthusiastically as a vagabond ranch and trail cook. "I like cooking, people, and the outdoors."

At the Brush Creek Ranch near Saratoga, Wyoming, Vacek rises before the sun, stoking the fire for breakfast. After the meal, she heads out on a 3- to 4-hour ride to set up camp and start the supper stew simmering.

Son-of-a-Son-of-a-Bitch Stew Green Salad

Helen's Whole-wheat Beer Biscuits

Cornbread Butter Jam

Peach Cobbler Cowboy Coffee

Blitzen Gorge Supper

HAVE PAN WILL TRAVEL. LEROY PRUITT, TEACHER OF CAMPFIRE cooking, travels with his portable cast-iron kitchen ready to cook on the trail or the river. One of his favorite destinations lies in the Blitzen Gorge of the Steens Mountain Range in southeast Oregon.

Pruitt invented his rhubarb-peach cobbler here, when he harvested the remains of an abandoned garden. As he tells it, "Back about 1900, or soon after, two women staked out homesteads in this beautiful, unique canyon. Their boundaries had one common border on purpose so they could be neighbors in this very remote region. One lady put in a rhubarb patch. She planted the rhubarb right next to the cabin on the west side to take advantage of the afternoon sun to warm the ground."

Rhubarb cobbler became tradition until the patch began to give out. Pruitt combined the last survivors with canned peaches for "a dandy first-time peach-rhubarb cobbler."

Buckaroo Spanish Rice

Green Salad Leroy's Campfire Biscuits

Blitzen River Cobbler

Cowboy Coffee
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Title Annotation:includes menus
Author:Anusasananan, Linda Lau
Date:May 1, 1993
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