Friday, September 20, 2019

Sowbelly and Sourdough

While poking through my books about the old west (I have quite a few) I pulled out one titled Sowbelly And Sourdough, Original Recipes from the Trail Drives and Cow Camps of the 1800s. Compiled by Scott Gregory, this book is a plethora of chuck wagon recipes, often with funny names, as well as quotes and quips that illustrate the trial drivers’ rigorous lifestyle and the cooks who kept them fed.

Setting the tone, Mr. Gregory opens with a poem called “Old Coosie” by Charlie Hendren, a modern-day poet, songwriter and singer who brings to life the Old West. The poem is kind of long, and I don’t want to infringe on the author’s copyright, but here are a few stanzas.

“Somethin’s got Old Coosie mad,”
the kid whispered as we roused up.
“He’s cussin’ fierce ang whangin’ pots.
We may not get no chuck.”
I stomped into my hightops
and answered, “Don’t you fret.
He gets like this from time to time,
but no man’s gone hungry yet.”

“I ain’t so shore,” the kid replied.
“His eyes are lookin’ grim.
I saw ‘em by the firelight
and they’re frosty round the rims.”
“Kid, I tell you, it’s ok.
Coosie gets like this some morns.
He wakes up recallin’ his cowhand days,
and it puts him in a storm.

“That he’s too stoved to cowboy
and throw his hoolihan,
And catch him up s cold-backed hoss
and ride the rough off him.
You know, he’s got more cow sense
than any five of us,
But when we ride off he’ll still be here,
cleanin’ dishes up.”

The poem ends with the seasoned cowboy giving the kid some good advice.

“Remember, Kid, it’s no small thing
to show a man respect.
It’s hard to earn and quick to lose,
and you’ve done seen the effect.
Be prayin’, Kid, that when you’re old
and you’re nearly out of hope,
Some kid will come and ask you
to help him with his rope.

"Let’s ride.”

The cook was a major part of any outfit, both at the home ranch and at a cow camp, or on a cattle drive. He was often paid more than the cowboys and took orders only from the ranch owner or trail boss. If a cowboy ever tried to “put the cook in his place,” he might find sand in his beans or horsehair in his biscuits.

The chuck wagon was the center of the operation. As Gregory says, if a stranger rode in he’d likely ask “Which way’s the wagon?” Or a cowboy might advise “Go to the wagon and see if Cook can doctor that for ya.”

There were rules of etiquette about the chuck wagon that cowboys were expected to follow. They never approached on horseback from the up-wind side because of dust the horse would kick up. Cowhands never touched anything in the wagon without the cook’s permission, except for their own bed roll which was carried there. Above all, they never “bellied up to the stew pot” until “the call” came from the cook.

Recipes used by the cooks were a blend of cultures: Mexican, Native American and frontier settlers from varied backgrounds. Cooks from different outfits also shared recipes, each one giving them his own special twist. Cowboys sometimes told the cook about a dish they’d eaten in a saloon or hotel, and he would do his best to duplicate it. Of course, the cook could only prepare food according to how well the outfit stocked the wagon. “Good food kept the cowhand’s belly full and his mind right.”

Now here are three of the many recipes collected by Gregory.

Helava Chili

This recipe came out of Texas in 1891. Gregory points out that chili is an American invention – not Mexican, as many folks think.
2-3 pounds chopped (ground) beef
4 T. bacon drippings
1 large onion diced
Green chilis, to taste
1 - 8 oz. can tomatoes, chopped
4 8:13 PM. Chili powder
2 T. cumin
4 cloves garlic diced
½ tsp. oregano
1 cup water
Pinch of cayenne
Salt and pepper to taste
Pinch of thyme

In a Dutch oven, brown the beef in the bacon fat (do not drain). Add the onions, green chilies, and continue to cook for a few more minutes. Add remaining ingredients; simmer for at least an hour, stirring occasionally. Do not cover unless you’re cookin’ outdoors. Add a little more water whenever it looks like it is going to stick. Skim the grease when well cooked. Thicken with 2 tablespoons flour mixed with ¼ cup water. Stir and cook another 10-20 minutes.

Serve over beans, refried beans, rice, biscuits, or cornbread. You can add the beans to the chili if you like, but most cowboy cooks made it up Separate; it gave ’em more options!

Tater Soup

About this one, Gregory says, “I personally have never been much of a soup eater. But once in a while I find one that sets pretty well, this is one of those.”

1 gallon water
6 large potatoes
1 cup cream
I cup rice
Lump of butter
1 tablespoon flour

Start the water boiling. Peel and chop the potatoes very fine and place in water. Then add the rice. Combine a lump of butter the size of an egg with the flour. Stir this into the cream, then stir mixture into the soup base. Salt and pepper to taste. Cook at a slow boil for one hour or until everything has cooked in well.

This can be stretched by adding some dumplings to it!


Gregory says, “The difference between these and regular hot cakes is that these don’t have any eggs. Even the milk can be substituted with water, making these well suited for the trail.”

1 quart of flour
2 tablespoons baking powder
2 teasoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
Bacon grean
 Milk or water

Mix all dry ingredients together. Then add milk or water to make a thick but pourable batter. Pour into heated heavy skillet that has been liberally greased. As edges appear to get stiff, flip and cook other side until done. Serve with syrup and butter, (if available).

All in all, this book is fun to read as it reveals what cowboys ate on their trail drives or at “home on the range”.

Lyn Horner is a multi-published, award-winning author of western historical romance and paranormal romantic suspense novels, all spiced with sensual romance. She is a former fashion illustrator and art instructor who resides in Fort Worth, Texas – “Where the West Begins” - with her husband and one very spoiled cat. As well as crafting passionate love stories, Lyn enjoys reading, gardening, genealogy, visiting with family and friends, and cuddling her furry, four-legged baby.

Amazon Author Page: (universal link)
Newsletter:  Lyn’s Romance Gazette
Website:  Lyn Horner’s Corner 


  1. I enjoyed reading this post, Thank you for the recipes. Have a Great weekend. God Bless you.

  2. I'm glad you enjoyed it, Alicia, and thank you. Happy weekend to you, too.

  3. Lyn, thanks for the fun read. Don't think I'd care for the splatterdabs though!


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