06 January 2010

A little Chuckwagon History

In my last post and in my profile I mentioned my chuck wagon. So, for those not in the Great State of Texas or those areas near where the cattle drives took place in the last quarter of the 19th century here's a little history. Mind you, I'm not a degreed historian, just an ol' cook with an interest.

At the end of the Civil war (or the War of Northern Aggression for my friends in the South) the economy in Texas, as well as the other southern states, was a wreck. In Texas, most of the cattle were scattered. One enterprising Texan, Charles Goodnight, who was a scout for the Confederate Army, came back and understood the opportunity that lay ahead. But, only if he could round up the cattle and drive them to the established markets in the north. Without going into how he pulled this off and wound up building one of the largest and most productive cattle ranches in Texas, one of the things he did was buy a used Army Studebaker wagon and modified it to include a chuck box that provided a complete trail kitchen. He understood that an Army traveled on it's stomach. So did an outfit driving cattle. The chuck wagon became the kitchen as well as the camp HQ and gathering point. Don't know about you but my kitchen in the house is also the social hub. It was the same back on the trail drives.

A good coosie, an Americanization of the Spanish cocinero or cook, was a valued resource who's pay was only 2nd to that of the trail boss. In fact, if the trail boss was out it was the coosie who would wind up in charge. He was the cook, doctor, dentist, teacher and arbiter of camp arguments.

There were three meals a day usually - breakfast, dinner, and supper. Breakfast and supper were somewhat substantial assuming the chuck in the wagon was available. There were times when a cowboy might only get away with some warmed up gun wadding, biscuits from the night before. Of course these instances did not indear a cook to the outfit. But, a cowboy had to be careful about criticizing the cook. No telling what might wind up in his grub. Worse, the complainer might very well be called on to assume cook duties if anything happened to the coosie. The dinner meal was usually fast as the herd was on the move. Coosie would get ahead of the herd far enough to set up a quick camp and get a meal of biscuits and beans prepared.

As you can guess, the day for ol' coosie started before sun up and went pretty much non-stop until after the supper was served, cleaned up and he was able to role and light up his last fixin's of the day before undressing up and hitting the bed role.

Well, there's so much more I could talk about but it's recipe time. The supper meal was quick on the trail. Here's an old recipe for Skillet Bread. It's done in a cast iron skillet over a heat source providing a medium heat.

2 cups flour
3/4 cup sourdough starter
1/4 cup lard (that's what they used back then or even salt pork or bacon grease. You can substitute with vegetable oil)

Mix flour, sourdough and lard (hehehe) in a large bowl. Do not overmix. Gently knead the dough in the bowl until it forms a ball. The dough should remain sticky. Tip: do this with your hands floured. Grease up a cast iron 8 - 9 inch skillet and set over a medium heat. Pat the dough into the skillet.

Let the dough cook until it starts browning in spots on the bottom - 8 to 10 minutes. Use an appropriate tool to lift the bread onto a plate. Turn it back into the skillet so the top side is now on the bottom of the skillet and continue to cook another 6 to 8 minutes. Turn the finished bread out onto a plate and serve up in wedges. This will serve maybe 8 but I've seen 4 hungry cowboys make quick work of one skillet of this stuff.

Once your happy with the basic recipe I encourage you to experiment with fillings or spices such as sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg or whatever's handy. That's they way the ol' coosies did it.

See ya down the trail.

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