Cattle Drive Chili – A Cowboys Staple Food – American Cattle Drives 1865-1886

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The first thing you must do is learn what life in the 19th Century [1865-1890] was like. You must understand what was and was not available to the average family or trail cook.

In most cases a cowboy was really a boy. Many young boys some only 12 years old moved millions of head of longhorn cows to to market buyers. Many buyers headquartered in rail head towns like Abilene, Kansas to be shipped to stock yards in Chicago and other mid-west and eastern markets. Trail drives were no place for the old men or the weak.

Moving a herd of longhorns from Texas to Kansas was no small undertaking. Herds could number in the 1 to 3 thousand head, could be moved only about 10 or 12 miles a day without the loss of much body weight. Cattle buyers would pay little if anything for poor starved down cows. It could take as much as 2 or 3 months to move a large herd of longhorn cows from Texas to rail heads in Kansas. It required as many as 20 or more cowboys and a experienced, inventive cook as well.

Cattle drives were moving millions of cattle from Texas Midwest markets. There was stiff competition among different cattle drivers, recruiting a good cowboy was difficult. The Goodnight-Loving cattle trail, co-founded by Col. Charles Goodnight, decided to gain interest in his trail drives through good cooking. Side note: An injured or dead cowboy could be easily replaced, a good trail cook could not be so easily replaced.

Col. Goodnight needed a mobile kitchen and a good cook. He used a military wagon to hold supplies and a makeshift kitchen. The military wagon was strong enough for all the supplies and could withstand harsh weather and bumpy trails. With the help of his cook, Col. Goodnight developed an efficient layout that was soon adopted by all trail drivers across the west. It was named the chuck wagon after Charles “Chuck” Goodnight.

Cooks were the kings of the chuck wagon. They were the cook, and only doctor available on trail drives. You wouldn’t want to annoy the person cooking your food or treating your medical needs would you? The cook enforced the rules of the wagon. Cowboys were required to ride downwind so dust would not blow into the food, and no horses could be tied to the chuck wagon wheels. The cook worked the hardest with the least amount of sleep. He had to get up before the rest of the cowboys to prepare the food and had to clean up the dishes after them.

A typical day’s food on the trail was meat generally beef or cured salt pork bacon, hot bread or biscuits, dried fruit and coffee for breakfast. The lunch and dinner meals included roast beef, boiled potatoes, beans, brown gravy, bread or biscuits and coffee. Dessert consisted of dried fruit pies, stewed dried fruit and spiced cake made without butter or eggs. These items would be cooked in a Dutch oven or skillet over hot coals.

Foods like butter, milk, eggs and fresh vegetables would soon spoil [no ice or refrigeration on the trail] and were not part of a cowboys daily menu.

Some say that ‘real’ chili can not contain beans, rice or other fillers. I disagree with this assessment. A chuck wagon cook had to feed 20 or so hungry boys 3 times a day. He had very limited resources in the variety of foods available, the number of cooking utensils and was always on a very tight time schedule to prepare meals. I think that it would not be uncommon to add fillers such as beans and rice to any one pot meal. It would cut down on preparation time, number of pots required and allow the cook to feed more cowboys using less meat.

There are thousands of ‘chili’ recipes that can be found when you do a chili recipe search. Find one that is to your liking, adjust spices to fit your taste. You can call bean soup with a bit of chili spices added chili [meatless] chili if thats what you like.

Another Texas Red Chili Recipe
In Texas, they often refer to their Chili as ‘a bowl of red’ which is an old slang term carried over from the trail drive days. Unlike most other Chili, real Texas Red Chili never contains beans. It is generally made with beef, but it can be made with goat meat.

1 pound lean ground beef [it is unlikely trail cooks had 'ground meats']
6 cups water
2 pounds boneless stew meat (beef or goat)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil [trail cooks used beef fat or pork lard. Vegetable oil had not been invented]
1 small strong flavored yellow onion course chopped
4 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
2 teaspoons salt
6 tablespoons chili powder
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon white vinegar [personally I like to use balsamic vinegar]
Black pepper to taste (about 1 teaspoon)
Ground red pepper to taste (to start, about 1 tablespoon)
6 tablespoons Masa Harina (Mexican corn flour) or [trail cooks would have most likely used 4 tablespoons of regular yellow corn meal]

**Please note this recipe does not call for tomato’s, tomato sauce or that awful tasting ketchup.

Place ground beef into a large pot with water. Stir vigorously to separate meat and incorporate it throughout water.

Meantime, heat oil. When hot, brown stew meat, searing on all sides. When browned, add to ground beef mixture in pot.

Stir in garlic, salt, chili powder, cumin, vinegar, black and red pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to simmer, and simmer for a minimum of two hours, 4 to 6 hours is better.

Just before serving, stirring briskly to keep from forming lump, slowly add Masa Harina. Continue to stir briskly to make a smooth, thick sauce.

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2 responses to “Cattle Drive Chili – A Cowboys Staple Food – American Cattle Drives 1865-1886

  1. I actually have one of those spiced cake recipes … no eggs, no dairy .. although I’ve never cooked it in a Dutch oven … only in the regular oven … mine came out of a European WWII cookbook that dealt with rationing. … it’s turned out to be my best cake recipe … I’m known for it … happy to share though …smile … S

    • WWII rationing. Something new for me to consider.
      Me and all my family was raised or lived on a farm and having a shortage of eggs, milk or butter was never an issue.
      Excess Milk, eggs and butter was the domain of the woman of the house and was sold or traded for other needed food items at the discretion of the woman of the house.
      Hope you have had a few dry, warm gardening days

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