Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Way to a Cowboy's Heart

Barbara Scott
 by Barbara Scott
Copyright © 2011 Barbara Scott

An army travels on its stomach. Whether or not Napoleon was the first to say this, it is a long accepted truth. A truth that could be justifiably applied to the cowboy on the cattle trail. The wise cattle owner recognized this and gave just as much consideration to the hiring of the cook as he did his trail boss. In fact, next to the owner and the trail boss, the cook usually got the highest salary often as a share of the herd's sale price.

For that pay, the cook generally came with his own chuck wagon. This vehicle, an invention attributed to Charles Goodnight, was specially built on a standard wagon base with room for supplies in the front and a trail kitchen in the back. Equipped with a fold down table, drawers and shelves for utensils, cook pots, plates and the all-important Dutch oven, the chuck wagon was the center of the cowboys' life while on the trail. Many cooks served as not only the creator of meals, but as first aid doc, postal clerk, and steward of the campgrounds.

The cook was responsible for acquiring supplies. He started with a list which included beans, flour, rice, salt pork, syrup, spices, prunes and dried apples, "skunk eggs" (onions), and coffee served hot, strong, and always. He kept a supply of dry wood and cow chips for fuel slung in a cowhide tarp (called a possum belly) under the wagon. Cowboys were told to be on the lookout for fire wood to add to the store. As the season wore on, the prairie was scoured of fuel sources, so cow chips became the fire maker of necessary choice.

With so much meat on the hoof, beef would be a staple of the trail diet. Or so you would think. However, many an owner and trail boss balked at depleting the moneymaker.  Consequently, the steers were relatively safe from slaughter on the trail unless one proved troublesome or a straggler. Then he was ripe for the picking.

Even then, the cook would waste no portion of the animal. A popular or infamous recipe of the trail was som'bitch stew with ingredients including heart,  liver,  kidneys,  brain,  sweetbreads  and everything except the moo. Seasoned with salt, pepper, and chili flakes and cooked as long as practical, the stew was better than it might seem from its contents.

The best cooks were known for their sourdough biscuits. Sourdough starter was carefuly restocked and guarded. On cold nights the prudent cook took his starter to bed with him to be sure it stayed warm enough to raise his biscuits. Biscuits. beans, and Arbuckle's coffee  made up the bulk of the cowboy's trail diet.

Here's a quick historic trail recipe you could try today:

Mormon Johnnycake

2 c yellow cornmeal
1/2 c flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
2 c buttermilk
2 tbsp molasses

Combine cornmeal, flour, baking soda, and salt. Stir in buttermilk an molasses. Pour batter into a greased pan and bake at 425 degrees for about 20 minutes. Cut into 16 squares.

To make a lighter cake, add 2 beaten eggs and 2 tbsp melted butter to buttermilk and bake about 25 minutes.

Som'bitch Stew

If you're in the mood to try Som'bitch Stew here are some helpful instructions:

Kill a young steer. Cut up beef, liver, and heart into 1-inch cubes, slice the marrow gut into small rings. Place in a Dutch oven. Cover meat with water and simmer for 2 to 3 hours. Add salt, pepper and hot sauce to taste. Take sweetbreads and brains and cut into small pieces. Add to stew. Simmer another hour, never boiling.

Win a Prize Package of Great Stuff!

All you have to do to enter to win a goody bag containing TWO books and other surprises, is leave a comment on one of Barbara's posts this week.  One lucky winner gets it all!  Be sure to leave your email address or we'll have to draw another winner.


  1. Hi i am such a funny eater i think i would never had made it back in the old days. I can't believe the terrible way women had to live. I guess they need to teach more of this in school. Thanks joannie jscddmj[at]aol[dot]com

  2. I didn't realize that the cook was amongst the best paid on the trail, but it sounds like he had quite a lot of responsibility. I'll try the cornbread when next we have beans, but I love the som'bitch recipe! Next time a steer comes through my suburban neighborhood I'll be ready!

    melorabrock {at} gmail {dot} com

  3. With fewer choices and fewer meals, I think we'd all be a whole lot less picky, Joannie. :)

  4. LOLOL - everything but the MOO! I needed that belly laugh. Thanks!! I knew the cook was the most important person on the trail, but it's always great to learn new details. If the cook wasn't good, the cowboys would definitely put up their own SOM'BI***ing. LOL

  5. Thanks for your comments. Trail cooking is still practiced for round ups on modern ranches. Ranch owners still take pride in offering delicious and hearty fare to their workers, often including friends from neighboring ranches.
    I remember the fun of cooking by campfire in the Girl Scouts. Tuna Wiggle anyone? However, the idea of depending on such scarce variety as biscuits, beans, and coffee for more than a few meals would make me run for the closest Applebee'.
    In West of Heaven, I eliminated that lack of choice with Hans Weiss, my would-be German chef turned trail cook.

  6. Thank you, Jacquie for your invitation to this blog. You found some great pics to illustrate my writing today.


Romancing The West welcomes you to show your appreciation of our guest blogger by leaving a comment. If there's a contest, don't forget to leave your contact information. Thanks!