Life in the Old West

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Cowboys knew who the real boss was on trail drives: the cook


One of the accepted realities of life on a cattle drive was that “the boss” or “boss man” was the man who owned the cattle they were herding — but everyone also knew the cook was the man even the boss deferred to most often. The outfit’s chuck wagon was a rough equivalent of a traveling general store, and the cook was not only the chief clerk of that store, he was usually the closest thing the cowboys had to a doctor, surgeon, dentist, tailor, and fussy maiden aunt.

When night approached on a trail drive or roundup, the cowboys knew where their home was. It generally was a circle with the chuck wagon in the center and various bedrolls and make-shift shelters placed around it within easy walking distance. At meal times, the cowboys sprawled around on the ground in various stages of fatigue following a long workday with the herd, or at the beginning of a long day that came along too soon at the end of a short night. The chuck wagon and camp gathering was all that many of the men ever knew about friendship or having a “family.” And at all times, the cook was the unspoken father/mother of the cowboy brood.

Cowboys knew to stay in the cook’s favor in any way possible. According to an account in “The Cowboys” a volume in the Time-Life “Old West” series of books, one example of the cook’s control of the trail hands had to do with the cowboy’s standard all-purpose beverage: coffee. The coffee had to be ground by hand. One of the most used, popular brands of coffee was Arbuckle’s, which came with a peppermint stick packed in each one-pound bag. In the evening, the cook would shout, “Who wants the candy tonight?” — and the cowboys would scramble and fight for the privilege of cranking the coffee grinder, a duty which earned them the peppermint stick.

Cooks often would help a cowboy who was in their favor with such routine tasks as patching bedding or clothing, sewing on stray buttons, doctoring cuts with a strong dose of kerosene oil, and even performing barber duties.

Culinary delights on trail drives were varied and tasty — as long as the cowboys found beef and beans
to their liking. Some cattle drives had Mexican cooks and saw a bit more spice and variety in their mealtime fare. But chuck wagon cooking and long days on the trail tended to limit all food options to the basics. (Although many trail cooks were adept at a wide variety of bread and sourdough biscuits to complement the beans.)

One widely prepared and hearty trail delicacy, went by the name of “sonofabitch stew” (or, if there were women present, “sonofagun stew”). The stew was made from a “young steer,” and relied mostly on innards for its main ingredients, i.e., a little lean beef and a lot of parts such as heart, liver, brains, sweetbreads, and marrow — all thrown together in a kettle with a hefty dose of salt and pepper and hot sauce. It was simmered, NOT boiled, for an hour or two, and served up hot.

After all the trail hands were either off tending the cattle overnight or asleep in their bedrolls, the cook was usually the last to turn in. One of his last duties was to drag the chuck wagon around so that the wagon tongue pointed straight at the North Star. This served as a marker to give the trail boss a true compass heading to start the next morning’s drive.