Cowboy Cooking in the Old West

When our friends, Donna and Markian, told me they were moving into trailers on a big piece of property on the last mountain before you get to the sea, my mind immediately went in one direction: chuckwagon!

The compound

The compound (“chuckwagon” cooking area at center)

While not the height of culinary sophistication, chuckwagon cooking has always had some appeal to me. There’s something undeniably romantic about the image of sitting around a campfire in the open air, a steak sizzling in a pan, beans simmering, a kettle of crummy cowboy coffee burning. I like the elemental quality of the cuisine, where a slice of grilled cow counts as a vegetable. Plus, I wanted people to call me “Cookie,” even if just for a day.

The appointed Sunday afternoon arrived and we loaded the kids into our modern stagecoach — the Acura MDX — and headed west. The stagecoaches used to roll by on the old El Camino Real trail not far from here. A dirt and gravel driveway led off the main canyon road, snaking between ocean view estates down into the trees, around several bends, until the compound of three trailers, a storage bin, a jungle gym and a swimming pool came into view.

I had pictured cooking over an open fire. But instead, we would be using an old gas barbecue. But more important to the theme of chuckwagon than how I was cooking was what I would be cooking. There would be no quinoa, no heritage or heirloom anything, not even any greens. I picked up some cheap cube steak — the cheapest steak of all! — a couple t-bones, a chicken. To accompany these, I made some wickedly good baked beans and some bacon-drippings pan-fried corn bread.

It was a windy afternoon, the first full day of fall. While the kids raced about the property climbing rocks and sending out missives via walkie talkie, the men drank wine and talked propane and trailer renovation while the wives gathered tomatoes from the garden enclosure.

My nemesis

My nemesis

As the sun dipped behind the mountain behind us, the time was right for starting the cooking. I refilled my wine glass and repaired to the “chuckwagon circle,” the grub hub, to put fire to meat. Unfortunately, the grill had other ideas.

“It’s not working that well,” Markian told me with a frown. Then he pointed to an unopened Char-Broil box sitting nearby. “I had intended to put that together and have you christen it, but I ran out of time.”

Given that the wind and extreme dryness were contributing to an unusually high fire risk, an open flame — which would’ve been Cookie’s first choice — was out of the question.

“Well,” I sighed, defeated, “Let’s see how it goes on the grill.” After preheating for 15 minutes, I could still lay my palm flat across the grills. It was not going well. I laid some peppers on what seemed to be the hottest part, scattered the meat around, closed the lid and hoped for the best.

A half an hour later the peppers were nicely cooked, the spatchcocked chicken was half cooked and had some pale brown grill marks on the skin side, and the beef was tepid. I gave up. Scooping it all onto a platter and heading inside the “dining trailer”, I turned the grill and cooktop on high. While the beans burbled away, I seared chicken skin and t-bone, broiled peppers and cubes, moved things around, and practiced a general culinary resourcefulness that — while not outdoors — would’ve made a real chuckwagon cookie proud.

Cowboy t-bones (only you and I know the secret)

Cowboy t-bones (only you and I know the secret)

I laid it all out buffet-style. The kids lined up and filled their plates, then the adults filled their plates, and there was plenty left over for our hostess, Donna, to make a tasty lunch the next day.

While the romantic vision I had of sitting around an open fire listening to meat crackle was not to be, the dinner did capture some of the spirit of the chuckwagon — a warm night in the west, family and friends gathered around telling stories, the hooting of owls and howls of coyotes punctuating a clear, starry eve.

*    *    *

Wickedly good baked beans
serves 6 – 10 as a side dish

1 lb. dried pinto beans
4 slices thick bacon
1 onion, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
1/2 cup ketchup
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
salt & pepper to taste

Soak beans overnight. Drain.

Cover beans with water to cover in a medium saucepan and cook over medium heat, adding more water as needed, for around 2 hours, or until tender.

Cook bacon in a pan over medium heat until crisp. Remove to cool on paper towels, and reserve fat in pan. Add onion and celery to bacon fat and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until tender — about 10 minutes.

After beans have cooked 1.5 to 2 hours and are getting tender, add onions, celery and bacon fat to beans. Deglaze the pan with a little of the water from the beans, and add to beans. Break up bacon and add to beans. Cook for 10 minutes, then add ketchup, brown sugar and cider vinegar, plus enough water to make it slightly soupy. Continue cooking over medium heat until the beans have thickened enough to stick to a wooden spoon.

Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve. Great with grilled meats or barbecue.

5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. pal-O
    Oct 11, 2013 @ 01:55:22

    My favorite chuckwagon master was “Wishbone” from the Rawhide series. A classic by Paul Brinegar and his famous sous-chef “Mushy”.


  2. Mom
    Oct 11, 2013 @ 03:25:26

    That was a good story and ‘saving’ a meal is the hallmark of a good family feeder whether a chef or a mom or dad.


  3. Jessamine in PDX
    Oct 11, 2013 @ 06:11:03

    I love a good batch of baked beans — and I wouldn’t say no to that T-bone either! Good job, Cookie.


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