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.
Cowboys living in the American West required foods that were nutritionally dense, easy to prepare and portable. They generally consumed a combination of dried and fresh meat, hard cheeses, ready-cooked beans, dried fruit, biscuits and coffee.
Dried and Fresh Meat
Fresh and dried meat were integral to the cowboy diet, providing protein and energy for their labor-intensive work. This 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 on a long journey, cowboys procured fresh meat through hunting. Game animals such as deer, elk, buffalo or fowl supplemented the cowboy diet and held 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 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 content of fat, protein, salt and calcium. 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.
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 shared along the cattle trails of the American West relied on this staple, including chili, mashed beans and bean soups. Cooked in a Dutch oven overnight, beans would last for many meals; some cowboys repurposed the leftovers by forming them into patties when cold and frying them later.
Dried fruit supplemented the starch and protein that composed the mainstay of the cowboy diet. Apples, raisins and apricots were the most common, but berries and prunes were also available. In addition to eating it plain, dried fruit reconstituted in water and crumbled biscuits formed the basis of simple steamed puddings.
Cowboy biscuits originated from the recipe for Civil War hardtack and therefore 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 baking for a long time at a low temperature. Although they were sometimes eaten out of hand, most cowboys used the biscuits to sop up coffee, ate them as mush, crumbled them into simple desserts or cooked them 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. They brewed this coffee by boiling it directly in the water without straining. Often full of grounds, cowboy coffee was very thick and strong.