Cooking,  Culinary History,  Food History,  History,  Travel,  West,  Western

Cowboys and Chuckwagons

Cowboy culture really is a thing and it started on the dusty, lonely trails of the cattle drives. Whenever many people think of the American West, the cowboy on his horse herding cattle on an open range comes to mind. The life of a cowboy or trail hand could be a hard and rough one though with long hours, late nights, ornery cattle and contrary weather. But if you were a young man looking for a little adventure before you settled down somewhere, it was the perfect job.

America’s taste for beef brought about the need for the cowboy and the trail hand. The very first cattle drives started around the 1840s and reached their peak in the 1860s. These cattle drives followed trails from deep in the south of Texas north to places like St. Louis, Missouri and Abilene, Kansas. From those locations, the cattle would then be shipped back east to the meat packing factories in Chicago.

These trails, with names like the Goodnight-Loving, Chislom and Sedalia, were very long. It could take weeks to get to the destination and you had to go at the rate of the cattle. The cowboy and trail hand signing on knew he was joining up for several months.

And because these trails were so long and it could take forever it felt like to reach you destination, another job came about. The job of the chuckwagon cook. There were towns along the way on most of the trails, but they were few and far between. The chuckwagon and its cook operated like a moveable kitchen to feed the sometimes ten to twenty hungry cowboys for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The chuckwagon cook had to work harder and later and longer than most. He was well respected among the trail hands who often gave their cooks the nickname “Cookie”.

And what did these traveling chefs cook on these dusty trails? The chuckwagon was usually enormous and carried barrels and barrels of food. Often there was a water barrel and a stock of fire wood too. There was not much fresh food on the trail, but the food was plentiful. A diet of beans, sourdough biscuits, meat and coffee was standard fare.

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