Beef before brutality: a Western fantasy
By Leslie Bilderback 04/01/2011
It seems that lately I can’t get enough of cowboy movies. I’ve also taken to wearing boots, and I find myself using words like “howdy” and “yup.” I think I should have been born in the olden days. (No, kids, I am not referring to the 1980s.) Oh, how I long for the Old West, before Sigalerts and TSA agents and high fructose corn syrup, when a fresh orange or a pretty ribbon was worth celebrating. Yes, life was harder in the 19th century, but compared to the 18th century, it was a piece of cake!
Even if I had ventured west in the 1870s, the chances I would have become a cowgirl are slim (although I am the Calamity Jane type, and I do like me some pants). Most girls who came to the Wild West ended up in prostitution, which is not the kind of romance I’m looking for. Yes, it was a lawless time of gunslingers, muddy streets and the subjugation of women. But it can’t all have been like that. After all, it was also the time of Darwin, Tchaikovsky and the Brooklyn Bridge.
Yup, I would definitely have followed the hordes west in search of my fortune, although the thought of being knee-deep in a Sierra creekbed with a gold pan is about as appealing as the prostitute thing. You see, I am a woman who likes to be in charge.
I need control. I need to be the master of my domain, and, from what I can gather, if you wanted absolute power in the Old West you had two choices: become a railroad tycoon or a chuck wagon cook.
Now we’re talkin’.
Chuck wagons were used by people on the move — folks on wagon trains, loggers, miners — but they were first created for cowboys. The chuck wagon cook was the king of the cattle drive. They called him “Cookie” or “Cousie,” after the Spanish word for kitchen, cocina. In addition to meals, Cookie was the go-to barber, doctor, dentist, banker, mediator, postmaster, morale officer and referee. Responsible for the smooth functioning of the camp, he ruled with an absolute hand. (Sounds a lot like what I do now.
They should have called him Trail Mom.)
An average cattle drive moved 2,000 to 3,000 head from 500 to 1,000 miles. To keep the cows at optimal weight, they were never rushed, traveling a leisurely 10 or so miles a day. The entire drive could take upwards of five months. In 1866 an enterprising cowman named Charles Goodnight, while preparing to drive 2,000 head of cattle from Texas to Denver, realized his cowboys couldn’t carry everything they needed in their saddlebags. So he bought an iron-axle army-surplus Studebaker wagon and converted it into a rolling kitchen. He added a box to the back with a sloping lid that opened up on two hinged legs to become the kitchen counter. There were cubbyholes and drawers to hold supplies, and the canvas top could be rigged overhead as an awning. Another canvas was slung under the wagon to hold fuel (otherwise known as cow pies).
On the trail, Cookie ranked second only to the trail boss. He got up before the sun to start the fire and make breakfast, including a three-gallon pot of coffee (a.k.a. cowboy crack). After the meal was cleaned up, the chuck wagon rolled ahead to set up for lunch, and after lunch, he would ride ahead again to find the night’s camp. It was a grueling job. (To accurately gauge the importance of Cookie, watch Roscoe Lee Brown’s performance as Mr. Nightlinger in perhaps the greatest Western ever, The Cowboys.)
Every cattle drive followed the same set of strict rules, known as the Cowboy Code, which emphasized courtesy to others, especially around the chuck wagon. There was no riding, saddling or tying up horses near the wagon, no warming oneself at Cookie’s stove. Any cowboy who refilled his coffee was obliged to pour it for everybody. Guns had to be removed before eating.
One never complained about the food, and one never shot at a woman, no matter what. (I’m going to use this code as the centerpiece on my next Thanksgiving table.)
A good Cookie kept the menu interesting. The main protein on the cattle drive was beef, and all the parts were served, usually chicken-fried. (Grease was the most popular flavor, so I think we can safely blame Texas for America’s love of all things fried. Like Texas needed another strike against it.)
Enterprising Cookies thought ahead, planting herbs and chiles along the trail, nestled in patches of prickly mesquite to discourage foraging animals. They were used in the original chili con carne. Dried beef, fat, herbs and chile pods were pounded into a paste and formed into chili bricks that kept well and could be reconstituted into a stew. Nerdy historians (redundant?) call it “Southwest pemmican,” which was similar to a dried trail food used by Native Americans.
Chuck wagons in mining or logging camps got the bulk of their protein from salt pork and the beloved bean (a.k.a. Pecos strawberries — perhaps the most disappointing food slang ever). They had corn meal, spices and sourdough growing in a barrel for biscuits, which appeared at every meal (dipped in grease). Canned foods had been in production for decades, and most chuck wagons carried an assortment, including canned fruit that would be mixed into an eggless cake or cobbler, sweetened with molasses and botulism.
It sounds simple enough, but the chuck wagon revolutionized the cattle business. Texas had a lot of beef, but not a lot of people, so cows were herded north to the railheads for transport. From the end of the Civil War until the mid-1880s, 10 million head
hit the trail. Cow towns sprang up where the trail met the trains, in places like St. Louis, Denver and Dodge City, Kansas. There, trail-weary cowboys lived it up as the cattle were loaded onto boxcars and shipped to the stockyards of Chicago or boomtowns out west that had a taste for beef and the gold to pay for it.
And what a taste it was! Those animals were grass-fed and free-range, with no added hormones, antibiotics or corn. Plus, they lived happy cow lives.(There is nothing more delicious than a happy cow.)
And this, my beef-loving friends, is where the romance of the trail ends, and the long and disturbing history of American meat processing begins. Refrigerated cars, pickup trucks and barbed wire took over. Brutal feedlots replaced the ranch, and 100 years after Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, meatpacking is still widely considered the most dangerous factory job in America.
So you’ll indulge me my little Western fantasy. It beats the reality of the shrink-wrapped anony-meat at my local supermarket.
Leslie Bilderback is a certified master baker, chef and cookbook author. A South Pasadena resident, she teaches her techniques online at culinarymasterclass.com.