Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A Cowboy Kind Of Thanksgiving

 Sarah McNeal is a multi-published author of time travel, paranormal, western, contemporary and historical fiction. Her stories may be found at Publishing by Rebecca Vickery and Prairie Rose Publications and its imprints of Painted Pony Books, and Fire Star Press. Her website: http://www.sarahmcneal.com  


When I was about eight years old, my dad decided he didn’t want a turkey for Thanksgiving. Instead he wanted roast beef. I believe Pop was addicted to roast beef, especially pot roast made in a Dutch oven with carrots, potatoes, and onions. We had it every Sunday. Pop was obviously stuck in a rut. Turkey is like the very symbol of Thanksgiving. In my childish mind I thought we must be too poor to have a turkey. I didn’t want my friends or classmates to know we had fallen into such dire circumstances that we had to have roast beef for Thanksgiving. What kind of Thanksgiving has roast beef for Pete’s sake?
Well, turns out pioneers and cowboys would have loved some roast beef for Thanksgiving. In Laura Ingalls’ famous stories about growing up on the Great Plains during the pioneer days in America, she describes the excitement and joy in preparing a Christmas dinner (close enough to Thanksgiving as far as feasting is concerned) with no turkey or roast beef.
"Ma was busy all day long, cooking good things for Christmas. She baked salt-rising bread and r'n'Injun bread, and Swedish crackers, and huge pan of baked beans, with salt pork and molasses. She baked vinegar pies and dried-apple pies, and filled a big jar with cookies, and she let Laura and Mary lick the cake spoon."
I never heard of vinegar pie, but I did find a recipe for it and added it to the list at the end of this article.

Cowboys led a labor intensive life and needed plenty of protein to keep up their energy and strength. Here is a list of their foods:
Dried and Fresh Meat
You’d think with all that beef on the hoof they were chasing around all day, they would be eating beef every day, but not so. Fresh meat was a rare treat usually produced by hunting.
Hard Cheese
Hard cheese was dried until hard and dipped in paraffin wax. The stuff could last for months without spoiling and was nutritionally valuable in its high fat and salt content. I would have loved this ration.
Beans were provided in large quantities and were one of the most abundant foods available to traveling cowboys. Versatile beans could be made into chili, mashed beans and bean soups when cooked in a Dutch oven overnight would last for many meals and were often re-purposed, made into patties when cold and fried.
Dried Fruit
Dried fruit supplemented the starch and protein that composed the majority of the cowboy diet. Apples, raisins and apricots were the most common, but berries and prunes were also available. Watch that prune intake out there on the trail.
Cowboy biscuits were based on the recipe for Civil War hardtack and so 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. Baked for a long time at a low temperature, they became hard, brittle and very dry…not the kind of biscuits I’d be looking forward to, for certain.
Coffee became an important staple of the cowboy diet. Used to remain alert and warm in the wilderness, coffee was prepared by boiling it directly in the water without straining. Often full of grounds, cowboy coffee was very thick and strong. 
Except for the grounds in there, I like it strong. My parents used to keep coffee going all day long until my mother had a heart attack. She couldn’t stand the smell of it after that and she switched to hot tea.

Oh, just for fun, I found some Chuck Wagon Etiquette at a website titled Legends of the Old West

Chuckwagon Etiquette
  • No one eats until Cookie calls
  • When Cookie calls, everyone comes a runnin'
  • Hungry cowboys wait for no man. They fill their plates, fill their bellies, and then move on so stragglers can fill their plates
  • Cowboys eat first, talk later.
  • It's okay to eat with your fingers. The food is clean
  • If you're refilling the coffee cup and someone yells "Man at the pot." You're obliged to serve refills.
  • Don't take the last serving unless your sure you're the last man.
  • Food left on the plate is an insult to the cook.
  • No running or saddling a horse near the wagon. And when you ride off, always ride down wind from the wagon.
  • If you come across any decent firewood, bring it back to the wagon
  • Strangers are always welcome at the wagon.
Did you know? 

When Cookie  was finished with his work for the day and before hitting the sack, he would always place the tongue of the chuck wagon facing north. When the trail master started in the morning he would look at the tongue and then knew what direction he would be moving the herd. 
Camp Cook Names
Soggy, Pot Russler, Lean Skillet, Old Pud, Coosie, Old lady, Belly Cheater, Biscuit Roller, Dough Boxer, Dough Puncher, Greasy Belly, Grub Worm, Gut Robber, Sourdough, and more.

I’m glad to report that we only spent that one Thanksgiving with roast beef. My sister and I gave Pop so much grief over it, we reverted back to good old turkey after that. Looking back on it, I’m sure my dad thought his daughters lacked gratitude, but tradition, in my opinion, must be upheld.

Here are a few recipes of pioneer feasting foods:

Mormon Johnnycake
Here is a form of cornbread used not only by the Mormon immigrants,
as the name indicates, but quite often by most of the immigrants traveling west.
Because of the inclusion of buttermilk, a source of fresh milk was a necessity.
2-cups of yellow cornmeal
½-cup of flour
1-teaspoon baking soda
1-teaspoon salt
Combine ingredients and mix in
2-cups of buttermilk and 2-tablespoons molasses.
Pour into a greased 9” pan and bake at 425 degrees for 20 minutes. 
To get a lighter johnnycake include two beaten eggs
and 2 tablespoons melted butter.

Thanksgiving Pudding
(From an 1880 Cookbook)
Pound 20 crackers fine, add 5 cups milk and let swell.
Beat well 14 eggs
pint sugar
cup molasses
2 small nutmegs
2 TSP ground clove
3 ground cinnamon
2 TSP salt
½ TSP soda.
Add to crackers.
Finally add pint of raisins. Makes two puddings.

Soda Biscuits
Take 1lb flour, and mix it with enough milk to make a stiff dough;
dissolve 1tsp carbonate of soda in a little milk;
add to dough with a teaspoon of salt.
Work it well together and roll out thin;
cut into round biscuits, and bake them in a moderate oven.
The yolk of an egg is sometimes added.

Red Bean Pie
Beans were a staple of the cowboy's food, particularly when he was on the trail.  Beans could be easily stored and they were inexpensive.  And although it probably wasn't known, they're also nutritious.
Here is yet another way the cook could feed cowboys beans.
1-cup cooked and mashed pinto beans.
1-cup sugar.
 3-beaten egg yokes.
 1-teaspoon vanilla.
 1-teaspoon nutmeg.
Place combined ingredients in an uncooked piecrust.  Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.  Make a meringue with the leftover egg whites.  Spread over baked pie and return to oven to brown.

Baked Apple Pudding
The recipe below was brought out west in the 1800’s
by the ancestors of Audrey Crandell of Linden, Arizona.
3 Large apples, grated
1 cup sugar
1 cube butter
½ cup nuts
1 egg
1 cup flour
1 tsp baking soda
Pinch baking powder
½ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp nutmeg
Beat egg, sugar and butter.
Add apples and mix well.
Add dry ingredients.
Bake 30-40 minutes at 350 degrees.
Serve with cream or a white sauce.

Vinegar Lemonade
Mix 1 to 2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar into a 12 ounce glass of water.
Stir in 2 tablespoons of sugar to taste.
Note: The pioneers used vinegar for numerous reasons.
One reason was to add vitamin C to their diet.

Corn Muffins for Breakfast
Farmer’s Almanac 1885
Pour one quart of boiling milk over one pint of fine cornmeal.  While the mixture is still hot, add one tablespoonful of butter and a little salt, stirring the batter thoroughly. 
Let is stand until cool, then add a small cup of wheat flour and two well-beaten eggs. 
When mixed sufficiently, put the batter into well-greased shallow tins (or, better yet, into gem pans) and bake in a brick oven for one-half hour, or until richly browned.  Serve hot.

How To Fry Quick Doughnuts
The following recipe for doughnuts came from the March 17, 1885 Daily Missoulian.  Obviously, anyone making these doughnuts will want to find a substitute for fat as a cooking oil.
Put a frying kettle half full of fat over the fire to heat.  Shift together one pound of flour, one teaspoonful each of salt and bicarbonate of soda, and half a saltspoon full of grated nutmeg. 
Beat half a pound of butter to a cream and add them to the flour.  Beat the yokes of two eggs to a cream, add them to the first-named ingredients, beat the whites to a stiff froth and reserve them. 
Mix into the flour and sugar enough sour milk to make a soft dough and then quickly add the whites of the eggs.  Roll out the paste at once, shape and fry.

Vinegar Pie

There were two different kinds of vinegar pie, one without eggs cooked as a cobbler in a Dutch oven, and the one below which is a custard pie.

A most important concern for a cook on the trail was to have items, especially for dessert, that do not require perishable items, and can have substitute ingredients. When the cook wanted to make the pie below, and ran out of sugar, he would substitute molasses, honey or syrup.

½ cup sugar
 1 tablespoon butter
 2 tablespoons vinegar
 2 tablespoons flour
 3 egg yokes (Save the whites for a meringue.)
 1 cup water

Line a pie pan with your favorite pie crust. Bake the crust about half done before placing the mixed ingredients into it.

Bake in a slow oven until the custard is done.

If you would like you can use the egg whites for a meringue, but it is not necessary.

Sourdough biscuits were a delicacy whether on the trail or at the ranch. Once a cook got a good sourdough starter he cherished it like a baby. On the trail he would store it in a dark, cool place in his chuck wagon. Here is one cook's recipe for a sourdough starter.

2 cups of lukewarm potato water

2 cups flour

1 tablespoon sugar

Make potato water by cutting up 2 medium-sized potatoes into cubes, and boil in cups of water until tender.

Remove the potatoes and measure out two cups of the remaining liquid. (The potatoes can be used for the evening meal.)

Mix the potato water, flour and sugar into a smooth paste.

Set the mixture in a warm place until it doubles its original size.
This recipe came from The Old Confederacy Receipt Book of 1863.
Take flour, little sugar and water,
mix with or without a little yeast, the latter better if at hand,
mix into paste and fry the same as fritters in clean fat.

Boy in Bag
2 cups raisins
1 cup chopped walnuts (black walnuts are fine)
1 cup dark brown sugar, firmly packed
1 cup chopped suet
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups flour
1 ½ cups milk
1 cup chopped dried fruit of any kind.
Chop suet into small pieces no pieces being larger than a bean.
Combine with raisins, nuts, brown sugar, and chopped dried fruit.
Then mix flour, spices, and salt with baking powder.
Add gradually to fruit mixture with milk, beating well.
Put in flour sack or tie in large square of cloth. Put in kettle of boiling water and boil 3 hours, always keeping enough boiling water, and put on cloth to drain.
After about ½ hour, untie cloth and turn pudding onto dish. Let chill.
Slice and serve with hard sauce.
This pudding will keep well and is similar to plum pudding.
This can be made in camp with molasses instead of brown sugar. Or can be made with white sugar instead of either brown sugar or molasses.
This was a great favorite with chuck wagon cooks.

Thanksgiving Pudding
(From an 1880 Cookbook)
Pound 20 crackers fine, add 5 cups milk and let swell.
Beat well 14 eggs
pint sugar
cup molasses
2 small nutmegs
2 TSP ground clove
3 ground cinnamon
2 TSP salt
½ TSP soda.
Add to crackers.
Finally add pint of raisins. Makes two puddings.

Baked Apple Pudding
The recipe below was brought out west in the 1800’s
by the ancestors of Audrey Crandell of Linden, Arizona.
3 Large apples, grated
1 cup sugar
1 cube butter
½ cup nuts
1 egg
1 cup flour
1 tsp baking soda
Pinch baking powder
½ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp nutmeg
Beat egg, sugar and butter.
Add apples and mix well.
Add dry ingredients.
Bake 30-40 minutes at 350 degrees.
Serve with cream or a white sauce.

Well, I haven’t tried any of these recipes, but if you do, let me know how it all turns out.  I found bunches more, a venison stew, possum belly, and a hominy recipe that, apparently was a favorite of Wild Bill Hickok that was made of cooked hominy, butter and, for some reason I cannot fathom, bits of pimento, but I thought this was plenty of recipes to see how the cowboys ate and food to celebrate while on the trail.
I hope everyone has a spectacular Thanksgiving and plenty of delicious food to share on your table. I’ll be having turkey for certain. Wherever Pop is in the great universe, I hope he gets all the roast beef he wants. Love you, Pop.
Happy Thanksgiving y’all.

Note: all cowboy photos are courtesy of Wikipedia public domain.
Legends of the Old West:



  1. Another very good and informative article. They had it hard, in many ways, sometimes I think their lives might have been easier than modern day life. The cost of living is so high; high rent, medical bills, food. If I returned to the old west now with the knowledge I now have, I would be panning for gold. Thank you for the article.

  2. I think you had the same daddy I did. He did not like turkey for anything, even though we did have it most Thanksgivings. He insisted on ham for Christmas--no turkey, please.
    One year, Daddy told Mother he didn't like any of the Thanksgiving fare, that it was all too "rich" and he'd rather have bar-b-cue. Mother had no idea how to make this, so with a friend's welding equipment and big a discarded cast iron pipe, he cut the pipe, set it on end, built a grate out of iron rods, and cut a half circle out of the side--to shove in wood. He placed this on the ground, and showed Mother how to "bar-b-cue" beef. Well, it was good, and she made the beans, etc. he asked for. So, that's what we had every Thanksgiving. While the "grill" was not used the rest of the year, my little sister and I built fires in it and baked our mud pies. What fun, and what a mess, and what kind of mother let two elementary school girls build a fire in the back yard?
    I always wondered why drover ate hard tack and beans, when they had so many cattle out there. So, thanks for clearing that up.
    Mother made vinegar pies, although rarely, and I remember them as very sweet and wondered where the vinegar went.
    I love the recipes. I won't make any of them...but I do love to read recipes.
    I know, it's weird, but I bet many women do that, too.
    Thanks, Sarah, for getting us into the Thanksgiving mood.

  3. Sarah, what a wonderful post! Like Celia, I love to look at old recipes. Some of them have the strangest ingredients, like vinegar pie. I'd never heard of that before, and I must admit it sounds a bit scary.

    I also didn't realize cowboys carried dried apricots. One of my favorite desserts in the whole world is apricot pie, which is made with dried apricots. I should've been a cowboy, I guess. ;-)

    Thanks for sharing all this with us, sweetie. You come up with the most interesting stuff!

  4. I don't know, JoAnne, but I think it's the stress of modern day living that gets to most of us. Pioneer life was a lot of hard work. Kids had to work right along side the adults, but I think that hard work gave everyone a sense of purpose and accomplishment. They did an experiment on homesteading on PBS which was very interesting. When it was over, and everyone went back to their modern day lives, the kids said they felt bored and useless. Many of them said they wished they could continue homesteading even though, in the beginning of the experiment, they complained about no TV, telephone or computers. Interesting, isn't it?
    Thank you so much for coming by to support me.

  5. Celia, how wonderful that your daddy had that grill made and that your mother let you build fires in it. Lord, they sound like my parents. I like the freedom I had as a kid even if I got in trouble for some of the things I did. It was fun, wasn't it? I have gratitude, probably the way you do, for having parents who could allow such freedom.
    Pop liked ham for Easter. I remember still how wonderful that ham smelled baking all day. He would have loved your dad's idea of barbequed beef.
    I can't imagine vinegar pie tasting so sweet. Now that really makes me want to check out that recipe. Speaking of which, I like to read recipes, too. What's that about? I do try something new once in a while, but mostly, it's just neat reading them.
    My sister and I loved making mud pies. We even decorated them with leaves, berries and tiny pebbles. I even took a bite of one once. Yuck!
    Thank you for always coming to comment on my blogs. You are so sweet.

  6. Yes Kathleen, you would have made a great cowboy cook with those dried apricot pies. Honestly, I wouldn't have thought they would have dried apricots, either. I can see apples and peaches, maybe pears, but not apricots. I don't even know where apricots come from in America.
    That vinegar pie is really fascinating. I wonder how they came up with that? I thought vinegar lemonade was weird, too. I think I'd rather have apple cider than vinegar to drink. My lips are curling at the thought.
    Thank you so much for coming by to visit my blog, Kathleen. I appreciate it.

  7. Wow, Sarah, lots of good stuff here. We always went to Uncle Albert's for Thanksgiving and there was always turkey. I don't eat much meat these days but don't think I could ever give up turkey.

    I am very interested in the vinegar pie. It intrigues me because it actually sounds kind of unappetizing LOL. I love how prairie housewives could make something yummy out of practically anything. A blessed Thanksgiving to you.

  8. Sarah, wonderful post! I love old recipes and holiday traditions of times gone by.

    My daddy always loved pot roast, too (I on the other hand have always loathed the stuff). This past year he had to go through chemo and lost his taste for roast. Kind of made me sad.

    Last Christmas I changed things up and we didn't have turkey, but a brunch. This year we're back to turkey. :)

  9. Too curious, I Googled "why is vinegar used in a pie?"
    There are two tablespoons of apple cider vinegar in the pie and the pie is a custard pie. I learned this was created our of necessity during pioneer days when the cook had no fruit, either fresh or dried, for a pie. But she could make a custard pie and flavored it with the apple cider vinegar she always had on hand.
    But never let the milk and eggs boil for the custard or it will curdle. You want this pie to be silky smooth.
    Got all that?

  10. Thanks for the taste of cowboy cooking. In my current WIP, the heroine is out of staples but has enough flour to make a batch of biscuits with only water instead of milk. I didn't know cowboys did this, so you have provided fodder for my story. Thanks. ☺

  11. Kirsten, I liked Pop's pot roast, but we had it every Sunday, so I think I just got tired of it. Once I begged for chicken on Sunday and his expression looked positively horrified.
    I've done the brunch thing for Christmas, but later, my sister had the evening meal. Yep. A whole day of eating. I can see the problem must be not to mess with tradition or you get negative reviews--from your own family. Bummer.
    Thank you for your comment and sharing your own experience with a change in tradition.

  12. Tanya, I wish I had an Uncle Albert. It reminds me of the Beatles' song.
    That vinegar pie has got us all curious. It just sounds so awful, but apparently, Laura Ingles thought it was yummy good.
    Thanks so much for dropping by and telling us about your traditional holiday meal. This is fun.

  13. Caroline, you're welcome. Cowboy biscuits don't sound very appetizing, do they? I guess they at least filled an empty stomach. I'd have to dunk mine in my coffee to make it more appetizing.
    Mom was a great cook and very good at making do with what she had. She could make the most awesome yeast bread, but when it came to biscuits, mercy, they were like hockey pucks. So, I think I have some personal experience with cowboy biscuits.
    Thanks so much for coming by to comment.

  14. Celia, your inner teacher just came out. That whole custard thing made me think about this pie Mom would make sometimes. She called it "poor man's pie." It was basically a custard type pie, too. Maybe custard pies were more versatile when it came to ingredients allowing cooks to do a lot of substituting. Thanks for looking that up.

  15. I love the post, Sarah. You gave a lot of good information about Thanksgiving in the olden days. I love looking at old recipes. It amazes me, sometimes, what people used to eat that we don't have on the menu today. I never heard of vinegar pie. So much as to do with all the processed food we rely on today. If we had to go back to what we could grow and hunt or what we could buy at our monthly (or semi-annual) trips to town, we would definitely eat differently than how we eat now.

    Also, we always had turkey on Thanksgiving and ham or turkey for Christmas, but more and more my family opts for a good cut of beef for Christmas.

    Robyn Echols writing as Zina Abbott

  16. See there, Zina/Robyn, even your own family has succumbed to the allure of beef.
    I must confess that I am a total fan of Alaska the Last Frontier where the homesteaders grow, gather, and hunt their own food. They eat things I just couldn't bear to eat like venison, bear, and porcupine. One of the wives (Charlotte) is a vegetarian. That would be me if I had to kill my own meat. I could probably kill a chicken, but I'm not sure. I remember my grandmother doing that. It was traumatizing. I could definitely catch, kill and eat salmon and other fish though.
    That vinegar pie drew a lot of interest--mine included. I'm glad Celia looked that one up so we could understand it.
    Thank you so much for coming by, reading my blog, and commenting. I truly appreciate it.

  17. Sarah, you always post such wonderful article, and this one is no exception. Great historical tidbits and so many yummy old-time recipes! I want to try that vinegar pie. My grandmother (the Minnesota one with roots in Bohemia) used to make creamed chicken soup with vinegar in it. I loved the tanginess of it.

    Thanks for sharing!

  18. Hey, Lyn. We might just start a vinegar pie revival. Vinegar is one of those things that have unending uses, from cooking to cleaning.
    My maternal grandmother's side of the family originated in Bohemia. Minnesota has got to be one of the coldest places on Earth. While I was there in April a few years back, it snowed. At he same time,here in North Carolina the azaleas were blooming.
    Thank you so much for the nice things you said and for coming by to comment. I so appreciate it.


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