Depictions of cowboys today show them engaging in fearsome shootouts, epic horseback rides and dangerously heroic missions. However, spending large amounts of time in the wilderness also required careful planning, especially when it came to food.
Cowboys could spend months away either herding cattle or avoiding law enforcement. Fresh food was therefore a rarity, so foods were developed that were both highly nutritious and had an epic shelf life.
Just as an army marches on its stomach, so did cowboys.
Cowboy food was influenced by the ‘vaqueros’ of Mexico
Much of the food that cowboys ate was influenced by the vaqueros of Texas, a North African-Spanish/Mexican people who were the ‘original’ cowboys. The vaqueros were early versions of independent contractors who would sell their skills to anyone who needed a highly-skilled rancher. They owned their own horses, saddles and ropes.
Since they were highly skilled horse-people, they found lots of work as ranchers in North America. Some patrons even set up whole communities for vaqueros on their ranches or established ranch schools for vaquero children who would go on to become ranchers themselves.
Vaqueros revolutionised the cattle business, and so were the first to introduce the clothing, techniques and lifestyle that were to become the staples of cowboys in North America’s Wild West. As a result, much cowboy food has a distinctly Mexican influence, with foods such as the ‘Son of a Gun Stew’ made of animal heart, liver and tripe differing little from the Mexican dish ‘menudo’.
Meat formed a big part of the cowboy diet
In the early to mid-1800s, food in the old west would have been significantly better than pretty any other wilderness fare. A significant part of the cowboy diet was made up of the large amounts of cattle that abounded. Smoked jerky was the most common way of consuming beef since it lasted longer and could be used in stews.
Salted pork was used when beef wasn’t available since it had a very long shelf life. However, it had to be soaked in water for many hours to reduce the salt, as eating it directly would make you ill.
As the most heavily-traded food product amongst the indigenous American population, pemmican was a portable and high-calorie food. Made up of rendered fat mixed with dried meat and formed into bars, it was able to last for years and was used as a backup food.
Depending on the area, cowboys might hunt and fish for fresh meat, but this was uncommon and not relied upon.
Beans, biscuits, potatoes and fruit were popular
Cowboys would have eaten hardtacks, a dense bread made with few ingredients that resemble modern-day biscuits. These were edible for years. The only downside is that they were rock hard, so had to be soaked in water or milk before eating.
Beans and potatoes were also by far the two most common vegetables in the old west. They could be cooked quickly and added to a number of dishes, like stews. Beans could also be dried and rehydrated months later. A favourite way to do so was to slowly rehydrate them by cooking them in a mixture of molasses and water.
Pecan and almond plantations made many nuts that weren’t deemed suitable to sell abroad. Small, portable and nutrient-dense nuts were therefore popular. Apples were the most common fruit and made up the majority of the dried fruit supply. However, apricots, cherries, peaches and other fruits would also be available depending on the region.
For breakfast, thick hot coffee was served.
‘Chuckwagons’ started accompanying cowboys on cattle trails
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the gold rush and a general population increase meant that there was a sudden uptake in demand for food. This led to beef needing to become yet more mass-produced, meaning that cowboy teams would increase up to 30 men for the larger herds.
Rancher and cattle baron Charles Goodnight recognised the importance of attracting the best possible ranchers available, so invented the chuck wagon – a military wagon with a trunk attached – as a means of attracting the best talent.
Chuckwagons carried food, cooking supplies and medical kits and were driven by the cook who rode alongside the cowboys on the cattle trail. This allowed the ranchers, who often had to travel long distances, to enjoy freshly-prepared hot food rather than whatever preserved food they could carry.
The cook was a vital member of the team
The drive’s cook, often nicknamed ‘cookie’, worked longer hours than the cowboys. He would rise long before the ranchers to grind coffee and work on his sourdough starter which would then be used to make bread, biscuits or flapjacks for breakfast.
He would then ride ahead as the cowboys ate and start preparing the lunch in a designated area. Along the way, he might look for herbs and vegetables, eggs from nests or even hunt and fish to provide fresh food for the coming party of ranchers.
In addition to his role as head chef, the cook’s job was important, since they also took on the roles of doctor, nurse, pharmacist, veterinarian and even letter-writer too. Their reputation could influence whether a cowboy decided to work for one ranch or another.