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.