11 March 2009

Food & Drink: Chuckwagons and Buffalo Chips

By Jacquie Rogers

As anyone who has ever worked with young men in their late teens and early twenties knows, food is an important part of keeping them happy, healthy, and productive. The early days of the cattle trails were hard on these men. Generally, they'd roll meat in tortillas and stuff the food in their pockets. This led to spoiled food, discontent, and let's face it, difficult recruiting for the trail bosses.

Charles Goodnight and his fellow ranch owner Oliver Loving had a huge herd to push north to the train station in Kansas. He needed good men, and to get them, they wanted good food. So Mr. Goodnight bought a Studebaker wagon and fitted it with a box with several compartments, lots of hooks and places to stash things, an arched top covered with oiled cowhides, and an nice fold-down worktable on the back. The wagon carried flour, molasses, salt, bacon, maybe a string of garlic, lots of pots and some dutch ovens. It had a lard bucket, a water barrel, and a tarp on the under-carriage to hold firewood or buffalo chips for the fire.

When we think of a cattle drive, we think of a chuckwagon, a dozen cowboys, and a herd of cattle, all moseying along the trail. But that doesn't even make sense considering it took a half an hour to set up, get the pans and food out, get the fire started (probably had to gather firewood or chips), prepare the food, which could include sourdough biscuits, beans, and maybe a slab of meat--elk, venison, or maybe beef. And of course the coffee, which was the first thing prepared after the set up.

That's a lot of work--at least two hours worth. What this means is that the wagon had to get there two or more hours before the herd did, and that means some fancy driving. So the real story is, once the breakfast dishes were done and the wagon was packed up, a Cookie drove hell-bent for election to the next watering hole or stopping spot. This required sturdy animals, which is why chuckwagons were often pulled by mules--they're stronger, take less food, and can tolerate a greater range of heat than horses can.

The job of a cook was not an easy one. Not only was his work back-breaking with long hours, he was also the doctor, barber, secretary, and banker. Around the chuckwagon, his word was law and even the trail boss yielded to his often temperamental demands. There are three reasons for that: 1) the best cooks drew the best hands; 2) he might spit in your beans if you're not careful; and 3) he had a tough job and no one wanted to be railroaded into it. On the other hand, the cook made twice as much money as the drovers, but they knew he earned it.

Want a few trail recipes?

Sonofabitch Stew
Mock Apple Pie

And here's my own recipe for sourdough pancakes:
2 cups starter
1 Tbs. oil
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp sugar
1 egg

Mix up and fry on a greased medium skillet--these days, that's 350 degrees, but in the old days, it was when a drop of water skittered across the skillet.

To make the starter if you don't have one:
2 cups flour
2 cups water
2 Tbs yeast
1 tsp sugar

Mix up with a wooden spoon and store in a crock for 2 days.

Mix, add:
1 cup flour
1 cup water

Mix and let sit another day or two. And voila! you have a starter.

Some tips and tricks:
1. Never use metal for either stirring or storing.
2. Always keep at least one cup of starter for next time
3. If you're not going to make anything with it for more than three days, store the starter in the refrigerator, but be sure to get it out the night before you plan to use it next.
4. If you care for your starter properly, it will last indefinitely, and get better with time. I know of starters that are 200 years old.

Chuckwagon Central
Handbook of Texas Online
The West
Trails West (a list of trails)
Hard times in the old West: cattle drives
The Wild West

May your saddle never slip!


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