The chuckwagon was central to the trail drive’s daily operation. Chuckwagon cooking is an important part of the American Cowboy Culture, as well as Texas history, and lives on today in the form of cooking competitions and other events. So what is Cowboy Stew or as commonly known ‘son of a gun’ stew? We will start our explanation by introducing you to Cookie.
Texas is a former independent republic in its own right and the 28th US state. Here at TEXINI, we highlight Texas history, Texas culture, and Texas people as well as interesting facts about Texas. The chuckwagon, trail drives, longhorns, Cookies, and trail hands are an intricate part of the history of the Lone Star State.
What is a Cookie?
What is a Cookie? The very best Cowboy Stews were made from chuck wagons by the camp cook known as Cookie.
Cookie was oftentimes put upon to be the barber, dentist, doctor, seamstress, banker, and peacemaker. Cookie was second only to the trail boss. Texas may not have invented the trail drive but we do take credit for the chuck wagon that was used on trail drives to feed the trail hands.
Cattle Were Plentiful in Texas
In the 1800s cattle were plentiful in Texas but worth very little locally. Most were unbranded “mavericks” or Longhorns. Texas trail drives during the period consisted of horseback riders who were referred to as cowboys or vaqueros.
Due to the need for beef in the north and western regions of the country, trail drives were implemented to bring in higher beef prices for Texas ranchers. Trail drives typically took anywhere from 25 to 100 days creating the need for cooking rations and a transport apparatus that became known as the chuckwagon. Chuck was a slang word for food and food required a cook, commonly referred to as ‘Cookie’.
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Who Named the Chuckwagon?
Who named the chuckwagon? The invention of the Chuckwagon is attributed to Charles “Chuck” Goodnight, a Texas rancher in 1866.
Food stocked for trail drives consisted of beans, potatoes, sourdough biscuit makings, salt pork, molasses, rice, dried fruit, and coffee. Canned tomatoes, peaches, and canned milk eventually became available. Beef of course was plentiful and butchered on the trail as needed. Cookie knew how to prepare beef in many different ways. Fried steak, pot roasts, short ribs, and stew were common menu items. Cookie stocked a good supply of herbs and spices to flavor things up as fresh vegetables were not readily available. Occasionally the trail boss would stop to trade a steer for fresh fruits, vegetables, eggs, milk, butter, and other supplies from a local farmer along the way.
Chuckwagons were Central to the Trail Drive
The chuckwagon was central to the trail drive’s daily operation. Cookie had a long day and was never questioned as the trail hands depended on him for their sustenance. Cookie was up before dawn to grind the coffee beans and prepare breakfast. After this, he washed, dried, and put away dishes and cooking utensils often times prepping for the evening meal. He put away all the bedrolls, food, and utensils, then hitched up the wagon to move it on down the trail. In the evening after making dinner, and cleaning dishes including general clean-up, Cookie would gather wood to fill the possum’s belly (a piece of cowhide stretched under the wagon to store firewood) and fill the water barrel. No cowhand in his right mind would mess with Cookie, not even the trail boss. After a meal, the cowboys scraped their plates clean and put them in the wash bucket that the camp cook provided for that purpose.
Sometimes Cookie would soak a pot of red or pinto beans during the night and during the day for cooking at evening camp. If the trail hands were lucky some dried peppers along with salt pork made the beans a meal along with the leftover sourdough biscuits from breakfast.
So….What is Cowboy Stew?
What is Cowboy Stew? A trail hand’s favorite meal rivaled only by breaded fried steak and gravy was Cowboy Stew, popularly called ‘son of a gun stew’ among other more colorful names.
Many popular chuckwagon dishes were available when Cookie had time to prepare them. Among them was bread pudding made from leftover bread or biscuits, hoecakes from cornmeal, vinegar lemonade, fried apples, cornmeal mush, slapjacks, pickled eggs, fried cakes, raisin rice pudding, brown gravy, and chili. The chuckwagon era lasted about 20 years until the railroads expanded and cattle were transported in stock cars. Modern-day cowboy chuckwagon cook-offs are a popular pastime in our modern world, including BBQ and chili of course.
There are many popular modern-day chuck wagon outfitters who cater to BBQ cook-offs, chili cook-offs, camping enthusiasts, campgrounds, survivalists, hunters, and backyard cooks. Chuckwagon outfitters are even a favorite of glampers (:!
Authentic Cowboy Stew
Authentic cowboy stew probably would have been cubed beef chunks coated in flour, paprika, chili powder, and salt, then seared until light brown in salt pork drippings. This would have been added to a cast iron pot and filled with just enough water to cover along with onion, herbs, spices, salt, pepper to taste, potatoes, and other root vegetables that Cookie might have had on hand along with a grain such as barley or rice; then boiled and simmered to make a thick broth. Perhaps some scraps from a previous meal and cooked beans would have been added to feed a large group of trail hands. Then the hungry men would line up and fill their large tin cups to the brim topping the stew off with leftover sourdough biscuits or crumbled sourdough cornbread.
Modern-Day Version Cowboy Stew
Our modern-day version stays true to its authentic cowboy stew roots with some additions and variations. The chuckwagon has been replaced by food trucks, restaurants, and modern-day kitchens. Make some today –Cowboy Stew Recipe.
Find out more about locally sourced Texas-grown foods here.
Cowboy Boots With a Suit, read here.
Famous Cowgirls, read here. Find out more about Texini, the leading Texas lifestyle brand that is defined by its celebration of the Lone Star State's culture, heritage, and values.
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A trail hand’s favorite meal rivaled only by breaded fried steak and gravy was Cowboy Stew, popularly called ‘son of a gun stew’ among other more colorful names. The stew consisted of cubed beef chunks coated in flour, paprika, chili powder, and salt, then seared until light brown in salt pork drippings. Cooked in a cast-iron pot and filled with just enough water to cover along with onion, herbs, spices, salt, pepper to taste, potatoes, and other root vegetables that might have been had on hand along with a grain such as barley or rice; then boiled and simmered to make a thick broth.