The Chuckwagon – Queen of Ranch Roundups and Trails: Part 2

By Susan Cypert

Before long, the chuckwagon was adopted all over the West. The heyday for trail drives and roundups lasted about twenty years, from the end of the Civil War to the 1880’s, but during those years, millions of cattle were driven thousands of miles with “Cookie” in his chuckwagon following along.

Cowboys respected the cook and called him affectionate nicknames like Coosie or Cookie, Belly Cheater, Biscuit Roller or Gut Robber. They never touched his tools or utensils, or helped themselves to a taste before dinner, or used his worktable or cooking fire for any reason.

Black and white photo of cowboys gathered around rear end of chuck wagon
A chuck wagon, around 1900

Cowboys had their own language to describe food and eating, and there were rules to be followed before and after. Some words, like “airtights” (cans) described how foods were stored or where they came from, such as “swamp seed” for rice, “hen fruit” for eggs and “cow grease” for butter.

Other words seemed to have no relationship to anything except perhaps reminding the cowboy of something. “Texas butter” was gravy made from steak grease, flour and milk (if available); “axle grease” referred to the strength of the coffee, “fried chicken” was bacon rolled in flour and fried, whereas “chuckwagon chicken” was bacon.

Measurements included li’l bitty – 1/4 tsp, passle -1/2 tsp, dib – 1/3 tsp, crumble – 1/8 tsp, a wave at it –1/16 tsp, heap – rounded cupful, whole heap – 2 rounded cupsful, bunch – 6 items.

The cook’s most important concern was to have non-perishable items that could be substituted for other ingredients. For instance, once sugar was gone, he could substitute molasses, honey or syrup in his recipes. “Charlie Taylor,” a substitute for butter, was made from molasses and bacon grease.

For a particularly good meal, a cowboy might say he was “stacked to a fill.” Food left on a plate was an insult to the cook. After dinner, cowboys scraped their plates into the “squirrel can” and put their dirty dishes into the “wreck pan” for the cook to wash.

According to Legends of America, chuckwagon etiquette was strict. No one ate until Cookie called. Once called, everybody came running, as a hungry cowboy waited for no man. Cowboys ate first, talked later. The last serving was for the last man. It was OK to eat with fingers. Strangers were always welcome. Anyone refilling their coffee cup was required to do refills for all if someone yelled “man at the pot.”

Favorite trail recipes included sourdough biscuits, flapjacks, doughnuts, coffee and “mountain oysters.” Once a cook had a good sourdough starter going, it was protected and cherished.

One recipe for sourdough starter included 2 cups of lukewarm potato water, 2 cups flour and 1 tbs sugar. Potato water was made by cutting up and boiling potatoes until tender, removing the potatoes and measuring 2 cups of liquid, mixing all together into a smooth paste and storing in a warm place until it doubled in size. Every night the starter was fed for biscuits in the morning.

A recipe for cowboy coffee (Arbuckles was the favorite) from Legends of America includes “2 pounds of coffee, enough water to wet it down, boil it for two hours, then throw in a hoss shoe. If the hoss shoe sinks, she ain’t ready”.

According to Chronicles of the Old West, next to doughnuts, “mountain oysters” were a cowboy’s favorite food. These bull calf testicles were collected twice a year and were a real delicacy. According to legend, in 1882, the new cook for the T5 Ranch was almost hanged because he threw out “clippings” thinking the cowboys were playing a joke on him.

Next week, memories of central Arizona trail rides and roundups.

Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International (www.prescottcorral.org). This and other Days Past articles are also available at archives.sharlothallmuseum.org/articles/days-past-articles/1. The public is encouraged to submit proposed articles and inquiries to dayspast@sharlothallmuseum.org. Please contact SHM Research Center reference desk at 928-445-3122 Ext. 2, or via email at archivesrequest@sharlothallmuseum.org for information or assistance with photo requests.

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