Life in the West

Chuckwagon Chow: 8 Cattle-Drive Foods Cowboys Ate on the Trail

chuckwagon food facts
Photo: John C. H. Grabill Collection, Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

Cowboy life in the Old West can best be described as nomadic: we’re talking true cowboys who drove great herds of cattle some 500-plus miles to market across vast wilderness with nary a McDonalds in sight.

The 25 to 30 or so men on big cattle drives got hangry at the end of a long day’s work, and who could blame them? Packing one’s own food was a pain — there was no refrigeration, no microwaves, no Keurigs, and no bento boxes. Worse yet, there were no womenfolk to make them a sandwich. What was a cowboy to do?

Then along came Charles Goodnight, a man who should be called “the father of the chuckwagon,” but is instead called the “father of the Texas Panhandle.” In 1866, Goodnight (great last name, by the way), a Texas rancher, realized that he should probably feed the men working for him when they were out driving cattle for months at a time.

He tricked out an old Studebaker-made covered wagon and, voila! He created the first Old West mobile kitchen. Having a bit of an ego — and because naming it the “Goodnight wagon” would have caused all sorts of confusion — Charles Goodnight called his kitchen on wheels a “chuckwagon.”

chuckwagon food

But this article isn’t really about Charles Goodnight or his chuckwagon. Instead, its focus is on what came out of those bad boys. Let’s look at the 8 chuckwagon staples that cowboys chowed down on during those long cattle drives.

Related read: 10 Famous Guns of the Old West, from Revolvers to Rifles

1. Coffee

Not much has changed in the last 150 years or so. Folks back then, just like today, wanted — no, NEEDED — to start their morning with a cuppa Joe. Cowboys didn’t run on Dunkin’ and no one could make a Starbucks stop to get a pumpkin spice latte.

The chuckwagon cook, Cookie — every single one of them was named Cookie — got up before anyone else to grind coffee beans and start the fire to get the coffee brewing for the cowboys. Cookie was a hero.

Chuckwagon coffee was jet black, thick, strong, and hot — the kind of coffee that would put hair on your chest. It was basic, no-frills, black coffee. No French press or pour over here, and no sugar or cream.

Fun fact: the most common brand of coffee beans in the Old West was Arbuckle coffee. The cowboys referred to their morning coffee as “Arbuckle’s axle grease.”

Related read: 7 Facts about Johnny Ringo You Won’t Learn from Movies

2. Dried Meat

Cowboys wanted meat to fuel their day, but eating meat that’s been sitting out for days in the summer heat, unrefrigerated, was risky business. Dried meat, however, lasted longer before becoming inedible.

Mostly that meant smoked beef jerky, the same stuff from those ‘Messin’ with Sasquatch’ commercials, only this wasn’t sold at your local gas station. It was made ahead of time by leaving strips of meat out in the sun.

No, really. Cowboys ate on the jerky until it was about to turn, then Cookie would use it to make a mess of stew. The salmonella gave it a little extra kick.

chuckwagon food
Photo: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division/Wikimedia Commons

Akin to jerky was pemmican, a dried-meat developed by Native Americans. Basically, pemmican was dried meat that was shredded or pulverized, mixed with rendered fat, and formed into bars.

It was easy to carry and loaded with protein and calories, if you could get past the taste and texture.

Related read: 8 Murderous Facts about John Wesley Hardin

3. Hardtack

Imagine if a stale biscuit and a cracker had a baby. This would be hardtack. Hardtack was commonly eaten on chuckwagons and long overland voyages, like wagon trains heading west, because this dense, unleavened bread didn’t go bad.

You could still eat it years after it was made, since nearly all the moisture was sucked out of it during the baking process. In fact, hardtack was practically indestructible. Hardtack was victorious over many a molar.

So how did cowboys eat this stuff? To soften it up enough to bite a chunk off, they had to soak the hardtack in water, coffee, or milk — another reason to have plenty of coffee around.

Related read: How the Invention of Barbed Wire Tamed the West’s “Wild” Era

4. Beans and Taters

The two main vegetables in the cowboy’s diet were beans and potatoes. (Cue the fart jokes.) Like the meat, beans could be dried to preserve them for long periods of time.

Dried beans could be easily stored in cloth sacks, and Cookie could measure out just how much he needed for the day’s meal, which he did the night before. To rehydrate them for cooking, Cookie had to soak the beans in water overnight, then boil them in water and molasses for several hours. That Cookie … what a gas! (Come on, you knew it was coming.)

cowboy roundup food scene
Workin’ hard or hardly workin’? Don’t say that to a real cowboy. Photo: John C. H. Grabill Collection, Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

Potatoes don’t have nearly as long a shelf-life as beans, but long enough for them to carry the cowboys through for several weeks at least. Beans and potatoes may freak out the carb-phobic people of today, but remember that cowboys worked hard from sunup to sundown and expended a lot of energy, and needed a carb-heavy diet to keep them fueled.

Related read: Why Did People Move West in the 1800s?

5. Salted Pork

At first glance, you might think that salted pork was bacon. There is a resemblance, but also notable differences. Salted pork is taken from the pork belly, it’s much fattier than bacon, and it isn’t smoke-cured.

To preserve salted pork, it’s first salted. Like with a LOT of salt. Before it can be cooked, it had to soak in water for several hours to rinse off the salt. After its lengthy soak, the salted pork was parboiled then fried in animal fat. No one said Cookie was a short-order cook with a lightning-fast spatula.

In fact, most of the meals the chuckwagon cook prepared took all day. After he prepared breakfast for the cowboys and clean up after them, he took the chuckwagon ahead of the herd, found the next campsite, and started dinner so it was ready when the cowboys caught up to him. Who said Cookie had it easy?

Related read: 20 Wild West Towns Where You Can Still Experience the Frontier

6. Sourdough

Remember the weird sourdough craze during the pandemic lockdown? A socially distanced person might gift you a sourdough starter and every day you feed it warm water and flour until it grows like that B-movie, The Blob, and you bake it into bread.

That wasn’t just a new, hipster, 2020 thing: there was sourdough blobbing on the chuckwagons, too. Unlike other breads, sourdough doesn’t require yeast. It may gross you out to learn that the sourdough starter contains live microorganisms that quickly take over the new flour that’s added to it, and does some chemistry project on it until the dough is yeasty.

sourdough starter
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

If the chuckwagon was bougie enough to have a tin camp stove, Cookie could bake some bread. If not, he used the sourdough to make biscuits — soft ones, like at Texas Roadhouse, not like hardtack — and flapjacks.

Related read: 7 Intriguing Facts that Reveal the Truth about Calamity Jane

7. Canned Fruits and Vegetables

The chuckwagon kitchen may also be stocked with canned foods, like peaches. Peaches were a big thing. But canned milk and canned tomatoes were useful, too.

The canning industry in the United States started in 1812 in New York City. Canneries preserved food, like vegetables, meats, and fruits, in tin cans. With the rise of automation, canning factories were able to produce large quantities of canned goods that were shipped to ports in New Orleans and Galveston before making their ways to the back of chuckwagons.

For cowboys on a route like the Chisholm Trail, canned peaches might be the only fruit they got for months on end.

Related read: I’m Your Huckleberry: The Real Meaning of Doc Holliday’s Iconic Line

8. Wild Game

Remember how we said Cookie the cook rode ahead of the herd and set up the next camp? While getting from point A to point B, he also kept his eyes open for wild game, like rabbits, ducks, or squirrels, that he could shoot for dinner.

He might even go fishing if he passed by a promising-looking creek. After weeks of dried meat, fresh game was a treat for the group. If Cookie spied an apple tree, nest of quail eggs, or wild berries, he wouldn’t pass those by either.

wild game in the west
Admiring their handiwork. Photo: Edwin Russell Jackman Photographic Collection/Wikimedia Commons

Old West cowboys were not foodies, and they weren’t concerned about things like carbs, calories, gluten, and listeria. They wanted their bellies full enough to get them through the day.

They did appreciate flavor and variety, and in time, ranchers competed with each other to hire the best cooks because they could attract the best cowboys by appealing to their palates. Job security for Cookie!

Related read: 29 Most Iconic Quotes from Tombstone

Explore the Wild West

Although Karen lives in the Midwest, she likes to put the emphasis on the "west." A freelance writer who specializes in American history, Karen has a bachelor's degree in journalism from Central Michigan University and a master's degree in English from Indiana University.

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