Roping, riding and rounding up cattle aren't prerequisites for enjoying a cowboy breakfast -- at least not anymore. Back in the Old West when calf-roping was a livelihood and not a rodeo event, cowhands on cattle drives needed hearty breakfasts to sustain them throughout the day. Although modern-day versions offer better nutrition, the Old West breakfast is the hallmark, with its robust, rib-sticking victuals from a bygone era.
Stocking the Chuck Wagon
On the trail, breakfast was limited by the staples that the chuck-wagon master could stash into the chuck wagon, which often included dry beans, flour, ground corn, coffee beans, lard, hard-tack crackers and large sides of salt-cured meat. This stock had to keep for journeys that lasted months, while the cowboys traveled across hundreds of miles of unsettled territory. A clever “Cookie” – the nickname for the camp cook and chuck-wagon master – squirreled away dried chili peppers, a little sugar and a big jar of molasses. From these meager ingredients, legendary meals emerged.
Griddles, Grills and Cast-Iron Pots
While flame-grilled flavor and cast-iron cookery are today’s favorites, no other choices existed for the cooks who filled the cowboys' bellies before they saddled up in the morning. The campfire served as the sole source of heat for the morning and evening vittles. A huge pot of beans bubbled overnight so that the Texas cowboys could enjoy their morning frijoles. In another pan, browned biscuits, baked over the fire in a cast-iron pan were slathered with lard, and topped with thick gravy and became the gold standard for the traditional beans and biscuits.
Beyond Biscuits and Beans
If you order a cowboy breakfast in a contemporary restaurant or make one at home, you will probably find potatoes and eggs on the plate. Those may have been on the trail menu, too, but only during the first few weeks. Because potatoes sprout or go bad unless kept in a cool, dry space, cooks had to use the starchy potato quickly. No refrigeration existed in the Old West for eggs and dairy products on the chuck wagon, so the fare was meager, and morning coffee -- brewed over the campfire in a tin pot, was strong -- and black.
Today, cowboys are no longer limited to what a chuck wagon can carry, and with refrigeration, modern cowboy breakfasts can include fresh fruit, home-fried potatoes, spicy salsa, as well as sugar and cream in your coffee. In today's cowboy menu, sausage and bacon are fresh and not cut from months-old slabs, a standard taken for granted in the modern world. Biscuits and gravy also have a place of honor at this table, and you can find flapjacks hot off the griddle, fresh-pressed tortillas, and corn bread or corn muffins. Making a cowboy breakfast at home is a good way to start your day -- even if you’re not going to rope cattle or wear a ten-gallon hat.
- Breakfast: A History; Heather Arndt Anderson
- Cowboy: The Ultimate Guide to Living Like a Great American Icon; Rocco Wachman and Matthew A. Pellegrini
Denise Schoonhoven has worked in the fields of acoustics, biomedical products, electric cable heating and marketing communications. She studied at Newbold College and Middlesex Polytechnic in the UK, and Walla Walla University. A writer since 2008, Schoonhoven is a seasoned business traveler, solo tourist, gardener and home renovator.