Long distance cattle drives forced cowboys to pack light.
Long distance cattle drives forced cowboys to pack light.

Cowboy culture in the American West reached its zenith in the late 19th century, between the end of the Civil War and the turn of the century. Nomadic and individualistic, cowboys relied mainly on themselves to provide food by packing light rations and hunting for fresh meat. Despite the spartan conditions under which they cooked, cowboys developed a large repertoire of cuisine.

Dried and Fresh Meat

Fresh and dried meat were integral to the cowboy diet, providing protein and energy for their labor-intensive work. It was similar to modern jerky but drier, not as heavily seasoned, lightweight and nonperishable. Eaten straight or boiled in water to make a broth, dried meat was a versatile form of protein that could be used sparingly and made to last. A rare treat to cowboys on a long journey, fresh meat was procured through hunting. Game animals such as deer, elk, buffalo or fowl were sometimes hunted to supplement the cowboy diet or to hold them over through lean times when rations were low. Cooked into stew, soup or added to chili beans, meat was one of the most important parts of the cowboy diet, despite making up only a small percent of food eaten.

Hard Cheese

Hard cheese was a staple in the rations provided for cowboys by their employers. Dried until hard and dipped in paraffin wax, hard cheese could last for months without spoiling and was nutritionally valuable due to its high fat and salt content. Although hard cheese was palatable, it was seldom eaten raw and was instead added to chili beans or cooked in biscuits using a Dutch oven.

Ready-Cook Beans

Beans made up the bulk of a cowboy's protein intake. Provided in large quantities in their rations, beans were one of the most abundant foods in a traveling cowboy's diet. Because beans were readily available, many simple recipes were shared along the cattle trails of the American West, including chili, mashed beans and bean soups. Cooked in a Dutch oven overnight, beans would last for many meals; they were often repurposed, made into patties when cold, and fried.

Dried Fruit

Dried fruit supplemented the starch and protein that composed the minstay of the cowboy diet. Apples, raisins and apricots were the most common, but berries and prunes were also available. In addition to being eaten plain, dried fruit was also reconstituted in water and used to make simple steamed puddings with crumbled biscuits.

Basic Biscuits

Cowboy biscuits were based on the recipe for Civil War hardtack and so resembled them in taste, texture and longevity. Meant to be palatable for a long period of time, cowboy biscuits contained only flour, water and salt. They became hard, brittle and very dry after being baked for a long time at a low temperature. Although they were sometimes eaten out of hand, biscuits were commonly sopped in coffee and eaten as mush, crumbled to make simple desserts or cooked in stew like dumplings.

Cowboy Coffee Buzz

Coffee was one of the few luxuries given to cowboys on long trail rides. The caffeinated beverage was an important staple of the trail diet; cowboys relied on coffee to keep them alert and warm in the wilderness. The brew was prepared by boiling it directly in the water without straining. Often full of grounds, cowboy coffee was very thick and strong.