“Cookie’s” chuck wagon favorites
By Julie Whitmore
Images of cowboys and chuck wagons meld like macaroni and cheese in our collective Western consciousness.
The cook, or “Cookie” as he was called, always produces mouthwatering, fragrant dishes from that odd-shaped wood and iron kitchen sitting atop a wagon. The cooking coals provided needed warmth as trail drivers slept around the fire.
The truth is somewhat different, but no less delicious, according to Bandera’s resident Chuck Wagon Cook and Caterer Dusty Britches. While Britches, who is also a musician and minister, can produce shrimp jambalaya and other delights in his collection of cast iron pots and pans, most trail drivers lived on beans, biscuits and coffee. Any canned goods, like peaches or tomatoes, and dried meat that could be hauled, were strictly luxuries.
The heyday of chuck wagon cooking was the period of the great cattle drives, after the Civil War, from the 1860s until the 1880s when the railroads provided a shorter and more economical way to move cattle to market. The object of cattle drives was to get cattle to market as quickly and gently as possible, since fast-moving cattle also lose weight.
Here the Texas Longhorn proved its mettle. It was hardy, and could graze on almost anything.
No cattle was slaughtered during the trip, and, except by happenstance, no one took time to kill small game and dress it.
So, dried beans were seasoned with salt pork, which could be kept on the chuck wagon, and served with coffee and biscuits. From the perspective of today’s fast food emporia, it was actually a healthier diet.
Another development which smoothed the way was roasted coffee. Until 1865, coffee beans were sold green, and had to be roasted in a skillet over a wood stove before grinding. The most popular cowboy brand was Arbuckles, sealed in airtight bags of one pound each, and shipped in wooden crates, 100 bags to a crate. Leading the pack in marketing, Arbuckles also enclosed a peppermint candy stick in every package. Cowboys would gladly gather kindling, wood, or anything for the privilege of grinding the coffee and winning the candy.
Britches provides readers with two recipes which are equally good cooked over the coals, in an oven, or stovetop - pinto beans (or any dried bean) and peach cobbler. He emphasizes that these are “cowboy style,” dependent on taste, supply, and space.
As Dusty Britches’ Cowboy Cuisine, Britches provides a “chuck wagon experience” for wedding receptions, corporate events, family reunions and large or small parties. He can be reached at 830-460-8144.
1 or 2 cans of sliced canned peaches drained, with syrup reserved. Use peaches depending on size and depth of your cast iron skillet. Dusty uses #10 cans, and generally cooks for 24.
Biscuit dough to generously fit top.
Melt 1 tablespoon butter or oil over medium heat in skillet
Place drained peaches in skillet and cook until slightly browned or caramelized to provide a richer flavor. Top with sugar to taste.
“When it’s almost too sweet, it’s good,” Britches said.
Meanwhile, mix about two tablespoons flour and one teaspoon baking soda and stir or wisk into syrup with one teaspoon vanilla extract. For a special flavor, instead of vanilla, add 1/4 cup rum.
When the peaches are caramelized, stir in the syrup and sprinkle cinnamon and a pinch of nutmeg to cover the skillet. Bring mixture to a boil.
Roll out dough, fold in half and cover peaches. Pinch dough to top of pot to seal.
If cooking over coals, cover skillet with top, and then load hot coals over the skillet.
If cooking in oven, no pot cover is needed. On top of stove use cover as desired.
When top is golden, set aside to cool. The syrup will wick up slowly through dough. Serve in bowls.
Britches adds no extra sugar to his regular biscuit dough, preferring the contrast of sweet peaches with plain biscuits.
Pot of Beans
2 lbs. dried beans (pinto or other variety)
Onion and garlic to taste, finely chopped
1 chunk salt pork (about 1 lb.), finely chopped
Salt and pepper
Soak beans overnight in water to cover. An alternate method is to bring beans in water to cover to boil for two minutes. Remove from heat and let stand until lukewarm. Do not change water.
(There are differences of opinion about this, but Britches believes that changing the water hardens the bean husk.)
When ready to cook, add chopped salt pork, onions, garlic, salt and pepper.
Bring to steady boil, then lower heat and cook for about an hour or longer, until beans are very tender. Add hot sauce at table if desired.