Search This Blog

Wednesday, July 22, 2015


Texas "groanin' cart"
"Wake up, snakes, an' bite a biscuit!"

Not exactly the most heart-warming call to dinner, is it? Hopefully, you won't be invited to your next meal with such biting enthusiasm. (If you are, I want to hear about it!) But to a cowpuncher runnin' on four hours sleep, this was just one of the dough wrangler's many colorful calls to the grub-pile.

The groanin' cart, or the chuckwagon, was the center spoke of a cowboy's harsh and lonesome world. While the wagon meant dry bedrolls and warbags, the chuckwagon meant grub.

Grubwagons housed barrels, sacks and air-tights, or canned goods. It was the belly-cheater's job to cook for ornery cowboys bent on breaking the monotony of trailin' cattle with playful tricks and jokes. Belly-achin' wasn't tolerated around the cook's camp, for his sensitivities were easily tramped upon. Swearing around or at the cook was generally avoided, (no matter that he could exercise his own tongue at will), an offended dough-roller made for lousy eats.

Cooks were often older men, those who had been thrown by a bone-crunchin' bronc one too many times. Stoved up and surly, "coosies" were often rough in rough as the backside of sandpaper. Quick to take offense and slow to forgive, spite often reared its ugly head around a cowpuncher's meal. Grudges meant succulent morsels would be shaved off a roast to be fed to cook himself, the leavings going toward the men. Syrups would be hidden, and an exhausted cowpuncher, eager for a good dose of Arbuckles, might find his coffee sweetened with molasses instead of sugar, meager portions or "altered" foodstuffs.

fine dining
A cowboy trailed herds from two to three months at a time, usually twice a year. Loving the open range, they rode for low pay, averaging $3.00 a day. Long as they didn't anger Cookie, the job was worth it. To keep that ole' biscuit shooter appeased, cowboys followed the "Wreckpan Code". It was a rule not to be violated - each man scraped his own plate and rinsed it out in the communal wreckpan. No cook ever collected dishes from the cowmen. Cowboys, or camp volunteers if they had any, coddled "Miss Sally" (yet another intriguing label for the trail cook) by chopping wood, peeling 'taters, drying dishes and packin' the man's personal bedroll.

The cowhand's day started 30 minutes before daybreak, regardless of how late they had stayed up nighthawkin' the herd. If grub was slim, a call of humiliation might be heard: "Here's hell, boys!" Chants, songs and diddies might be sung if the outfit's grubline was well funded. Either way, most of those calls are worth hearin', but probably not printin'.

Coffee, probably Arbuckles, awaited the cowman. But before you nod your head in agreement, here's a gem you may not have thought of. Cowboy coffee, on the trail, was often brewed with bog water...a bog being a stream dammed off to collect rain for range stock. This water, more often than not, was tainted by the bloated bodies of cows that had staggered into the mud, got stuck and died. A volunteer, (never the cook, for that would make him surly) would "pull bog" and yank out the offendin' critter. Later, the boys would straddle their haunches, drinkin' a stout cup of Arbuckles without battin' an eye.
Coffee, anyone?

Arbuckles on the boil at a cowboy camp
No cowboy ever went without his coffee, and he rarely drank it plain. Course brown sugar had to be chipped free from the barrel and run through a meat grinder to soften.

A lean outfit's menu consisted of arbuckles, (with or without the bloated cow and meat grinder brown sugar), beans, bacon and hoecakes. Wealthier outfits afforded a much more satisfying spread, consisting of anything between beans and barbeque. Frijoles, also called whistleberries, were a cowhand's staple. Sour-doughs or hot rocks, were a close second. Air-tights, maybe canned peaches or other canned goodies would be pulled out - if that dough-roller was in a good mood.

Ever one for a good wollop of sarcasm, the cowboy's "fried chicken" was actually fried bacon. Canned cow held the stamp of the Eagle Brand", and sow bosom or chuckwagon chicken was salt pork. 

In discussing an outfit where the cook fed salt pork exclusively instead of beef, one cowboy stated that he "lived on hog side 'til he near starved to death." He further stated that his system was "so saturated with hog fat that he sweated straight leaf lard and his hide got so slick he could hardly keep his clothes on." His friend added that he "et so much hog belly that he grunted in his sleep an' was afraid to look for fear he'd sprouted a curly tail."
(from Cowboy Lingo by Ramon F. Adams)

In the spirit of fine dining, family gatherings and "fluff-duffs" - cowboy terminology for fancy, throat-ticklin' grub - I urge you to remember the wreckpan code of the west...and perhaps, your guests at the next gathering will even hear the call of the coosie:

"Boneheads, boneheads, take it away...wake up, snakes, an' bite a biscuit!"


  1. Oh we sing the stories of these myths of the West, but they didn't have it easy, life kinda works that way. Still what a colorful life, language and foods they had. Thanks Shayna. Doris McCraw/Angela Raines

    1. Hi Doris! This is what I love about the west; the color for life despite the hardships. I love the crude wit of the cowboy, often as raw as the land they rode through.

  2. Replies
    1. Lol Kristy - rather made myself hungry writing this blog. I could go for some frijoles, biscuits sopped with canned peaches, and of course, bacon!

  3. Reality bites LOL. I had no idea about bog water...Ick...did anybody get sick? This is such good info and so cleverly written. I am glad my chuck wagon experiences were modern-day! We took a city slicker wagon train around the Tetons, and the food was fantastic! Awesome Dutch oven cooking. Good job, Shayna.

    1. Doesn't it, though Tanya? I'm sure there were indeed sicknesses relating to the bog water, at least they boiled it into coffee, I suppose. Still....bleh! Your wagon train around the Tetons must have been incredible! It truly is a magnificent area, I would love to put that on my "bucket list" someday. Thanks so much for your kind comments!

  4. I enjoyed this so much. How many stories have we read about Wagons West! and there was always that cook who was king because he fed the masses, but cursed for monotonous meals. Excellent.

    1. Hi Celia! Thank you, I'm so glad you enjoyed the reading! The cooks, it seems, had more pull in an outfit...I myself thought it interesting that they generally did not do their own camp chores, such as gathering the firework for a fire; but handed it off to a hungry puncher or wrangler. One never wants to make the cook angry! ;-)