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

This is a reworked, edited version of a 2011 posting.
With the holiday season fast approaching I thought it might be a fun to rework and repost this tidbit of American food history.

The first thing you must do is understand what life in the mid to late 19th Century [1865-1900] was like. You must understand what was and was not available to the average family or trail cook.

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

Moving a herd of longhorns from Texas to Kansas was no small undertaking. Herds could number in 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 2 or 3 months to move a large herd of longhorn cows from Texas to railheads in Kansas. It required as many as 20 sometimes more cowboys and a experienced, inventive trail cook.

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 was more easily replaced than a good trail cook.

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. Chuckwagon food typically included easy-to-preserve items like beans and salted meats, coffee, and sourdough biscuits. Wild game would also be harvested en route.
There was no fresh fruit, vegetables, or eggs available and meat was not fresh unless an animal was injured and had to be killed.
The meat they ate was greasy cloth-wrapped bacon, salt pork, and beef, usually dried, salted or smoked.
It was common for the “cook” who ran the wagon to be second in authority only to the “trailboss.” The cook would often act as doctor, barber, dentist, and banker.
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 pots, pans and dishes after meals.

A typical day’s food on the trail was meat based generally beef or cured salt pork bacon, hot bread or biscuits, dried fruit and coffee for breakfast.
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 more hungry boys 2 or 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 and serve 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] if that’s what you like.

Here is another Texas Red Chili Recipe
In Texas, they often refer to Texas 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 or other fillers. 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 meat grinders on the chuck wagon.] More likely it was cubed meat.
6 cups water
2 pounds boneless stew meat or ground meat(beef or goat)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil [trail cooks used beef fat or pork lard. Vegetable oil had not been invented].
1 strong flavored yellow onion coarsely chopped
4 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
2 teaspoons salt
6 tablespoons chili powder
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon white vinegar
Black pepper to taste (about 1 teaspoon)
Ground red pepper to taste (to start, about 1/2 teaspoon)
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 tomatoes, tomato sauce or that awful tasting ketchup. Tomato’s would go bad quickly on a trail drive.

Meantime, heat oil. When hot, brown meat, searing on all sides. When browned, add goat and or beef mixture in pot.

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

Stir in onion, garlic, salt, chili powder, cumin, vinegar, black and red pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for a minimum of two hours, 4 to 6 hours is better.
Add water if necessary.
Just before serving, stirring briskly to keep from forming lump slowly add Masa Harina. Continue to stir briskly to make a smooth, thick sauce.

Adjust salt and red pepper to your taste.

Do’s And Dont’s of a Texas Chili Cook Off

Why is common sense so uncommon?
Don’t be shy. Leave me your comment(s)

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

  1. I loved this blog. Full of history and excitement, and a great cookery lesson too. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for sharing that history with us. I would have never thought about the cattle losing weight along the way and how it would affect the worth or that cowboys were just that…boys.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Something worth considering about the mid to late 1800’s, the cattle drive years is (1) life expectancy was 45 to 47 years of age, (2) money was very hard to come by, working adults ‘labors’ made on average from $9.00 to $10.00 a month. Working 10 to 12 hours a day (sunup to sunset) 6 days a week. Day laborers earned from 15 to 40 cents a day. A boy (10 – 13 years old) contributing 5 or 10 cents a day to his/her family was often the difference in all members of the family eating at least two meals or not eating at all that day.

      Happy Gardening

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Enjoyable read, we never add tomatoes to chili they are reserved for the bolognese but we do like to gather and throw in several of the small thai chili peppers as they explode with flavour as you eat them.

    Liked the way the article involved a bit of history with a food recipe, thanks again.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I would sure miss the fruit and veggies after a few days.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I agree about using beans to fill a multitude of tummies! And I like the bit about finding your own chilli combination – which we have done and use regularly! Thanks for a most interesting posting (as always).

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks for reposting! During the autumn & winter months we eat a lot of what some modern folks would call ‘chili.’ But from your article, our ‘chili’ would be unrecognizable by a cowboy trail cook! We like it all the same, and might be willing to switch it up for old times sake one of these days! 😉
    -Kate

    Liked by 1 person

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