Cowboy Food

What exactly did the cowboys eat on a cattle drive?

They were driving cattle nearly every hour of daylight, and riding horses over rough ground, and fighting rougher longhorns. The rigorous work left the cowboys dog-tired and ready to eat a “whole mule and a hamper of greens.” According to Theodore Roosevelt, that literally could mean consuming several pounds of meat every day.

The staples on a cattle drive were beans, jerky, biscuits, and coffee. All four had a long life span of edibility, and could be carried almost anywhere.

“Cookies” (cowboy slang for a cook) would use beans in everything from chili to bean soup. Sometimes he’d refry cooked beans, much as we do today.

The jerky was drier and had far less seasonings than the modern staple. Beef was far too expensive to eat on the drive (a cowboy’s wages might range from 30-40 dollars a month; a cow could sell anywhere from 20 to 65 dollars a head, depending on the location and the era), so fresh meat was generally in the form of a deer or an antelope.

Biscuits were a combination of water, salt, and flour, which when cooked on a campfire, resembled hardtack.

Cowboy coffee was a thing unto itself. One standard was a handful of grounds per cup of coffee. Old “Biscuit Shooters” were rumored to drop a horseshoe into the pot. If it sank, then the coffee wasn’t strong enough. Probably an exaggeration. The rumors of cowboys lynching cooks for making weak coffee are almost certainly fiction, but once again, they emphasize the cowboy’s dependence on a good cup of coffee.

The next time you can’t find a good cup of coffee, remember that you’re not alone. The cowboys knew just how you feel.

This is a link to a YouTube video by Kent Rollins on how you can make cowboy coffee. As you may notice, he uses 1/4 cup of grounds per quart of water, which is a little weaker than the handful of grounds per cup. The cowboys probably didn’t carry measuring cups with them, so they just made do with the palm of their hand. The ratio might be almost identical to Kent’s or maybe drastically different. Probably depended on the cowboy.

Published by Andrew J. Pankratz

Andrew Pankratz is a story-teller, historian, and carpenter. He writes high adventure Christian westerns.

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