If it wasn’t for the portable kitchens designed to follow the moving herds on a cattle drive, then I expect the cowboys would sit at a campfire and eat hardtack and jerky at the end of the day. A hot nutritious meal mended a lot of sore bones. Chuck wagon fare was also designed to keep the drovers healthy on their long trips, not just fed. Their hardscrabble lives on the trail were hard enough.
Nobody wanted to climb off their worn saddle after a long day in it, then sit and look at a bowl of beans — every day, day after day. The “cookie,” one of the many nicknames given the chef managing the chuck wagon, managed to whip up biscuits, bread, pies, cobblers, stews, steaks, and beans. He foraged for wild onions, miner’s greens (wild and edible leafy plants) as well as negotiating with ranchers and farmers along the way for fruits and vegetables, sometimes eggs.
THE CHUCK WAGON
The chuck wagon was always full in the beginning stages with plenty of flour, beans, salt, lard, sugar, some herbs and spices yet by the time the men were getting a bit mean and fidgety on a long trail ride, the cookie could fashion up something tasty to settle them down. They also carried brown sugar, rice, cornmeal, dried fruit like apples, peaches. Staples were baking soda, baking powder, sourdough, and of course, coffee.
You can thank Charles Goodnight for inventing the chuck wagon. He took an old Army surplus Studebaker wagon and modified it with a bank of open shelves and slots to keep everything in its place. Driving across that hardscrabble ground could be deafening so tight storage helped to keep the kitchen pots and utensils from banging around. Nervous steer loved to run when panicked.
That iconic Dutch oven cast iron pot and lid swung from the rear cross-member on the wagon. It was a good place to let biscuit dough rise in the sunny side, and often allowed beans to soak while traveling.
An assortment of canned goods were available but were known as “airtights” since the sealed canned kept longer than most other staples. Those delicacies included: corn, tomatoes, peaches, oysters, and syrup of molasses.
Another hardbound book I found with helpful advice is from the 1860s called The Hearthstone — it too was a collection of necessary tips and tricks to keep a home.
As I studied up on the trail recipes, I found that most chefs and “cookie”‘ didn’t use any cookbooks. Their memory sufficed. It wasn’t until about 1902 that the early printing of general use recipe books came into fashion. Of course, every lady loved the insightful readings of Godey’s Ladies Journal, one of the early subscription magazines. It was filled with recipes as well.
Here’s one pulled from the pages of Civil War Era Recipes as is:
INDIAN LOAF CAKE
One pound of Indian meal, quarter of a pound of butter, two eggs, half pound of sugar, quarter pound of raisins, and quarter pound of currants. Cut the butter into the Indian meal, and pour over it as much boiling milk as will make a thick batter; beat the eggs very light and when the batter is cool, stir them in. Stone the raisins, wash, pick and dry the currants. Mix the raisins and currants together and dredge as much wheat flour on them that will stick. Stir the fruit into the batter and add the sugar. Bake in a moderate oven for two hours. That might translate to 350 degree oven, just guessing.
So that should keep you very happy that our cookbooks of today go out of their way to give you “tested” recipes that are guaranteed to be edible. I’m not sure if i could even reduce this recipe to a small loaf with so many ingredients to feed an army.
Next time I have an army to feed, I’ll let you know.
When I think of my dad telling me he had to walk to school up hill, both ways, in the snow,
it didn’t really mean that. It was a silly saying that meant the going was tough. But when I learned about Snowshoe Thompson trudging through deep snow over the Sierra Mountains of California, I had to stop and consider.
You see, this guy was really doing a service for the mountain communities that were cut off from mail, and supplies, and any other services during the winter months.
At first Snowshoe just did it when requested. Then he did the treks for the U.S. Postal Delivery service. The railroads hadn’t been built yet, and he was more capable being that he was Norwegian and used to deep snow all of his life.
The legendary “Mailman of the Sierra”, John A. “Snowshoe” Thompson, carried mail from Placerville, California, to Ge
noa, Nevada (Utah Territory) for 20 years, twice a month during the winter.
I don’t remember this man and his daring adventures trekking over the Sierras as part of my grade school learning. I loved History in school and I’m sure he was one of those unsung heroes. If you want to learn more about his life of service, there’s an historic group online that has a great resource dedicated to him.
Thompson was born Jon Torsteinson–Rue on April 20, 1827, on a farm called Luraas–Rue gård in Tinn, Telemark, Norway. Jon was the fourteenth and youngest child of Torstein Olson-Rue and the sixth and youngest child of Gro Jonsdatter Einungbrekke.
He was known for carving his own snowshoes in a design from his Norwegian heritage. They were ten feet long. He didn’t use ski poles like most skiers would, but crafted a balancing pole that he would lay across his lap as he cruised. His squatting stance and balance pole allowed him to maintain faster and longer distances with less energy.
Snowshoe traveled light, often with only a small backpack to carry the mail — depending on what he needed to deliver. Otherwise, he didn’t carry a rifle or much else to survive with. I’ve done some cross country skiing and it can be brutal if you wear too much clothing and get soaked in the rain or snowfall. I could have used some of his knowledge.
Thanx for reading my blog. Reprint permission was granted by the historic society that knows everything about the man and have books about his life available as well.
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