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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Way to a Cowboy's Heart

An army travels on its stomach. Whether or not Napoleon was the first to say this, it is a long accepted truth. A truth that could be justifiably applied to the cowboy on the cattle trail. The wise cattle owner recognized this and gave just as much consideration to the hiring of the cook as he did his trail boss. In fact, next to the owner and the trail boss, the cook usually got the highest salary often as a share of the herd's sale price.

For that pay, the cook generally came with his own chuck wagon. This vehicle, an invention attributed to Charles Goodnight, was specially built on a standard wagon base with room for supplies in the front and a trail kitchen in the back. Equipped with a fold down table, drawers and shelves for utensils, cook pots, plates and the all-important Dutch oven, the chuck wagon was the center of the cowboys' life while on the trail. Many cooks served as not only the creator of meals, but as first aid doc, postal clerk, and steward of the campgrounds.

The cook was responsible for acquiring supplies. He started with a list which included beans, flour, rice, salt pork, syrup, spices, prunes and dried apples, "skunk eggs" (onions), and coffee served hot, strong, and always. He kept a supply of dry wood and cow chips for fuel slung in a cowhide tarp (called a possum belly) under the wagon. Cowboys were told to be on the lookout for fire wood to add to the store. As the season wore on, the prairie was scoured of fuel sources, so cow chips became the fire maker of necessary choice.

With so much meat on the hoof, beef would be a staple of the trail diet. Or so you would think. However, many an owner and trail boss balked at depleting the moneymaker.  Consequently, the steers were relatively safe from slaughter on the trail unless one proved troublesome or a straggler. Then he was ripe for the picking.

Even then, the cook would waste no portion of the animal. A popular or infamous recipe of the trail was "sumbitch" stew with ingredients including heart,  liver,  kidneys,  brain,  sweetbreads  and everything                                                          except the moo. Seasoned with salt, pepper, and chili flakes and cooked as long as practical, the stew was better than it might seem from its contents.

The best cooks were known for their sourdough biscuits. Sourdough starter was carefuly restocked and guarded. On cold nights the prudent cook took his starter to bed with him to be sure it stayed warm enough to raise his biscuits. Biscuits. beans, and Arbuckle's coffee  made up the bulk of the cowboy's trail diet.

In my cattle trail historical, West of Heaven, Marcella McGovern unexpectedly inherits the cattle of her ranch owner father and the bawdy house of her mother. To get the cattle to market, she is forced to recruit the women who formerly worked at the bawdy house. With a crew like that, how could I resist creating a cook as unusual.

Hans Weiss wants to become cook for Marcella's crew to practice his recipes for the restaurant he plans to open in Kansas when he gets there. Beans, biscuits and the occasional stew are not enough for Hans. To facilitate his success he even devises traveling chicken coops so he has a fresh supply of eggs on the trail.

Here's an excerpt describing Hans's preferred bill of fare:

Last night after hearing Jean Luc's reasoning and instructions for slowing the herd, Marcella had recruited Nell and the two of them went out to collect cow chips. Hans stored them in the possum belly, a basket that hung under the wagon, to use for fuel on the treeless prairie. But this chore did not keep her away from camp long enough. She returned in time to hear the question that had already become a habit with Jean Luc,
"Hans, what's for supper? -- or dinner? -- or breakfast?" depending on the time of day.
To which Hans would reply Shinken mit rotkohl " -- or "Linsensuppe" -- or "Biernebrod."
And Jean Luc would throw his head back and walk off laughing.
Yet, when meal times rolled around, she noticed he ate the ham with red cabbage, the lentil soup, or the dried apple bread with gusto, all compliments to the chef, just like the rest of them...


Later after the successful slowing of the herd:





Too soon, it seemed, the signal was passed to break for the night. The herd was put to pasture and first watch began. The rest of the crew gathered to wash up and wait for supper.
When most were assembled, Jean Luc sauntered up. He rocked back on his heels and stroked his stubbly chin. Jake mirrored his actions in almost comical style, though no one dared laugh.
"Hans, what's for supper?"
"Geffulte." Hans replied.
Instead of his customary laugh, Jean Luc nodded his head. "Ahh, large noodles filled with meat, onions and parsley then boiled in beef broth. Very good." 
Then it was Jake's turn. "Herr Weiss, what's for dessert?"
"Pfefferkuchen mit honig."
"Ahh, gingerbread cake with honey. Very, very good." 
This time no one could suppress their good-natured laughter. Not even Marcella.
After a moment, Jean Luc gestured them to silence. "Hans has made us a gingerbread cake to celebrate. Congratulations, wranglers, you have successfully guided the herd past the first milestone. You are no longer tenderfoots. If I have earned the right to say it with my late start, I am proud of every one of you."

West of Heaven by Barbara Scott is available at Amazon for Kindle, Barnes & Noble for the Nook, Sony, Kobo and Apple's iBookstore 
or 


direct from DBP:  


 http://stores.desertbreezepublishing.com/-strse-150/Barbara-Scott-West-of/Detail.bok
For a review of West of Heaven at Love Western Romances: 







6 comments:

Paty Jager said...

Barbara, Nice post! I think any outfit whether it's a cattle drive or a military outfit needs to have good grub or the men will revolt.

Barb H said...

Interesting post, Barbara. I had to smile when you mentioned the stew contained all but 'the moo'. My grandmother would have served that, too. She loved tongue. We kids grew to be very suspicious of what showed up on her table when we visited.

Your excerpt was intriguing. I'm looking forward to reading about a cattle drive "manned" by the girls. Thanks.

Barbara Scott said...

Thank you, Paty and Barb. Barb, I remember eating tongue as a kid. I liked it then, but I think me squeamishness would get the better of me now. Intersting that you equated the tongue with the moo. Given that simile, I'm sure the cook threw the moo into the pot as well.

Paisley Kirkpatrick said...

Your post is great, your story wonderful. What a great concept for a plot. I bet it was fun researching all the recipes that were used.

Barbara Scott said...

Thank you, Paisley. Yes, researching the recipes was fun. Made me hungry.

Debby Lee said...

Hi Barbara, very educational article, thanks for sharing. I love the idea of women driving the cattle, sounds very interesting.