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It’s too bad Riley married somebody who can lasso better than she can cook. It’s not that I haven’t tried, but somehow my best ideas do not turn out. Then Riley gave me his best idea ever! “Here’s what you need to do,” he told me after one particularly trying afternoon (the roast was burnt to a crisp sitting on the stovetop). “What is one thing you can cook—besides pies, of course—that is burnproof and tastes good?”
I pondered for a minute or two, then it hit me. “Trail grub! Beans, slapjacks, fried apples in bacon, beef stew, sourdough biscuits.” I took a breath. “Even doughnuts.”
Riley smacked his lips. “Sounds delicious.”
Just so I don’t ever forget, I jotted down (from memory) some of those recipes during the three-week trail drive when I was just turning fifteen. Cook was a good teacher. He badgered and scowled and made sure I didn’t burn the bacon.
My delicious and successful recipes can be found near the bottom of this journal entry (with photos). Give them a try. They really work and you can’t go wrong.
But first of all, how in the world did the idea of a “chuck (food)” wagon come about? Well, before the chuck wagon was introduced, most cowboys ate “in the saddle” and relied on what they could pack in their saddlebags: corn fritters, dried beef, or stale biscuits. Cattleman Charles Goodnight knew the importance of providing his trail hands with plentiful, filling food. A cowboy could work longer and harder on a full stomach, and a trail drive could easily last two months (some lasted up to five months). If a cowboy knew there was good “chuck” (food) on the trail, he would be more likely to sign on to the drive.
Charles Goodnight got the brilliant idea of converting an old army supply wagon into a kitchen on wheels, complete with a rear-hinged door that laid flat to form a worktable. He added shelves and drawers so the cook would have everything he needed at arm’s length.
The chuck wagon carried food and cooking gear, but it also carried other much-needed supplies: blacksmithing tools for horseshoeing, axes and saws to repair the wagon, sewing needles to repair clothes, first-aid supplies, bedrolls, and slickers, along with the crew’s personal items. A cowboy on the trail needed a good night’s sleep as well as good food, and the chuck wagon provided an opportunity for both by being the cowboy’s supply station.
With so many things to cart around, Mr. Goodnight added heavier running gear (axles and wheels) to keep the chuck wagon moving over hundreds of miles of rough ground. This wagon design became so popular that the Studebaker company created and sold a special “Round Up” model in 1880. Many outfits supplied a large tent canopy that extended from the chuck wagon clear over the cooking area and to the campfire. It was propped up by wooden poles. Very handy during rainy spring days on the prairie.
“Cook” or “Cookie” managed the chuck wagon. He was an experienced person and second in command to the trail boss (along with the ramrod). He received $45 per month, while the other hands earned $25-$30 a month. Cookie was expected to serve as wagon fixer, doctor, referee in case of fights, barber, banker, and letter writer. While the cook was not expected to watch or guard cattle, he had a long day that started about 3 am. He made sure coffee was available around the clock. He cooked a variety of meals in cast-iron skillets or Dutch ovens. He served plenty of beans, bacon, potatoes, biscuits, gravy, and the occasional son-of-a-gun beef stew (if a steer couldn’t keep up).
Cookie found plenty of opportunities to liven up the menu with fresh eggs, milk, or vegetables if the trail boss authorized the trading of one of the steers along the way.
Trail recipes that turn out!
Find these (and more) recipes in books 5 and 6 of the Circle C Milestones.
Cook’s Sourdough Starter
2 cups lukewarm potato water (boil two peeled potatoes,
cubed. You don’t need the potatoes for your starter, but you can save them for another meal.)
2 cups white flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1 shy teaspoon active dry yeast (Optional: to give the starter a quick boost)
In a large glass bowl, mix the potato water, flour, sugar, and optional yeast into a smooth paste. Cover and set in a warm spot until mixture doubles in size, which may take several hours. Stir. Repeat the rise and stir procedure two times a day during the next few days. Store in a cool place to use often or keep in the refrigerator for longer storage. Warm to room temperature before using. To “feed” the starter, remove one or two cups. Replace what was used with ½ cup flour, ⅓ cup water, and 1 teaspoon of sugar. Stir and return to cool storage. This keeps the starter fresh.
Cook’s Sourdough Biscuits
Preheat oven to 375˚.
1 or more cups flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
3 tablespoons shortening
2 cups sourdough starter (stir down before measuring)
In a medium-sized bowl, combine flour, sugar, and baking soda. Cut in the shortening until it resembles small pieces. Make a well and add the sourdough starter. Mix until dough forms a ball. Add more flour if needed. Knead a few minutes. Pat or roll out about ½ inch think. Cut into biscuits using a floured biscuit cutter or the floured rim of a glass. Bake at 375˚ for about 20 minutes or until golden. Makes six to nine biscuits.
Preheat griddle to medium heat.
2 cups white flour
2 tablespoons sugar
2 cups whole milk
1 cup sourdough starter (Stir it down before measuring. You can feed the leftover starter after you remove the cup you need. Feed by adding ½ cup flour, ⅓ cup water, and 1 teaspoon of sugar.)
Mix well and pour a shy ¼ cup batter onto a lightly greased griddle pre-heated to medium. Cook until bubbles form and pop. Watch carefully to keep the underside from scorching. Flip the pancakes and cook until done. (Approximate cook time: 1–2 minutes per side.) Serve with butter, syrup, or your favorite fruit topping. And yes, these are the sourdough pancakes I made last winter, using the sourdough I made from the sourdough starter recipe. They are so light and fluffy!
Cook’s Trail Beans
I use dried beans, but canned beans work well and take much less time. 1 16-ounce can of each of the following (If you want to create it just like I would, you need 2 cups cooked of each):
pork and beans
red kidney beans
1 pound bacon, chopped
1 onion, chopped
½ garlic bulb, peeled and pressed (or use garlic powder)
Combine all the above ingredients in a large crock pot.
Mix together, simmer until sugar is dissolved, and then pour over the bean concoction:
½ teaspoon mustard, ½ cup white vinegar, 1 cup brown sugar
Cook on low for 6 to 8 hours, stirring occasionally, until all ingredients have absorbed the flavoring. Serves six to eight.
Cook’s Quick Doughnuts
Start heating the oil (360˚ is the target temperature. Use a candy thermometer. Or you can use an automatic deep-fat fryer.) In a large bowl, mix together the first five ingredients:
4 cups flour
1 cup sugar
½ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking soda
½ teaspoon nutmeg (if desired)
Next, add the following ingredients to the dry mixture, as indicated:
2 sticks (1 cup) softened butter. Beat into the dry mixture, by hand if possible.
2 egg yolks. Beat until creamy then add to mixture.
1 cup milk (add more as needed). Add milk until a soft dough is formed.
2 egg whites. Beat until stiff and add to mixture.
Roll out, cut into doughnuts with a doughnut or biscuit cutter, and cook in the hot oil for about 30 seconds. Flip with tongs and cook 30 more seconds. Remove and drain on racks. Sprinkle powdered sugar over the doughnuts (if desired) and cool.