Historic Cowboy Camp Cookin’

Cowboy Camp Cookin’ is one of my favorite topics.  I’m not a country music fan, know how to ride a horse, wear chaps, or know anything about tending cattle.  My interest derives from camping and recreational vehicles.  Long time readers of this blog will also recall my affection for cast iron and camp cookin’ (see some here).

For instance, the chuck wagon.  This was a mobile kitchen that traveled with the 1800s cowboys as they drove their cattle north from Texas to St. Louis or Chicago.  The chuck wagon had a front area for storage and often the cook slept in there.  Off of the back was where the cooking took place – Just like a teardrop trailer!

Not all camp trips go as planned and sometimes a recipe needs improvising.  The cowboy camp cookin’ chefs had to roll with whatever they had in order to make the meals.  This created a long list of recipes.  Out of that list, some became staple offerings of every cattle drive.  Below is my collection of favorite recipes.  These are all real authentic and historic.  There is only one that, although part of actual recipe books of the time, seems to be a bit of a joke.

Buffalo Stew

1 buffalo
2 rabbits
Salt and pepper
Cut buffalo in bite-size pieces. Salt and pepper. Cover all with brown gravy. Cook over kerosene fire about four weeks at 465 degrees. This will serve 3800 people. If more are expected, two rabbits may be added. But do this only in an emergency. Most people do not like hare in their stew.

The Civil War Influence

The cattle drives occurred after the civil war – for the most part.  Many cattlemen had served in the war and brought their soldier habits with them.  Hardtack was a quick soldier’s meal that required no cooking.  It isn’t especially delicious but it is a functional food.

  • 2 cups stone ground flour
  • 1 cup water

Combine the flour and water. Knead until smooth. Sprinkle some flour on a smooth surface and roll the dough flat until it is 1/4 inch thick. Cut biscuits out with a can or a glass making each biscuit about 3-4 inches in diameter. Poke holes into each biscuit with a fork. Place on a floured cookie sheet. It should come out hard and dry.  Bake at 400 F for 35-45 minutes.

Yes, it tastes just like eating a hand full of flour.  Not that good.  I have found that a little salt does help but still…

Off the Land

When traveling for extended periods of time, it is necessary to live off of the land.  Of course, cattle were available for consumption but cowboys would try to limit eating up their profits.  Food was made of whatever could be found, trapped, or traded for.  This pragmatic approach to camp cooking produced some common but unusual, to us, recipes.  Here’s a few

Mouse Pie
  • 5 fat field mice
  • 1 cup macaroni
  • 1/2 thinly sliced medium onion
  • 1 medium can tomatoes
  • 1 cup cracker crumbs
  • Salt and pepper

Boil macaroni 10 minutes. While it is cooking, fry the field mice long enough to fry out some of the excess fat. Grease a casserole with some of this fat and put a layer of macaroni on it. Add onions, then tomatoes, salt and pepper well. Add field mice and cover with remaining macaroni. Sprinkle the top with cracker crumbs. Bake at 375 degrees about 20 minutes or until mice are well done.

Raccoon Fricassee
  • 1 Raccoon
  • 1 onion, sliced into rings
  • 1/2 C vinegar
  • 1 1/2 C water
  • 2-3 T lard or other fat
  • 1 bay leaf

Skin the raccoon, remove the musk glands and dress out the carcass. Soak in salt water overnight to draw out the blood. Baking soda can be added to the water to remove any gamey smell.  Cut raccoon into serving pieces and dredge in flour seasoned with salt and pepper. Brown in hot fat. Add remaining ingredients. cover and simmer 2 hours or until tender. Thicken the juice with flour and water mixture for gravy. Serve hot with cornbread.

Rabbit Stew
  • 1 rabbit dressed and cut into serving pieces
  • ¼ c flour
  • Salt and pepper
  • 4 T Butter
  • 2 onions chopped
  • ¼ c chopped carrots
  • 1 c potatoes chopped
  • Mixed Herbs

Mix flour and seasonings together.  Coat the rabbit pieces with the mixture.  Melt the butter and fry the rabbit pieces until browned.  Put the pieces in a large pan and add the onion, carrot, and potatoes.  Cover with water and season with salt, pepper, and herbs.  Cover and cook for three hours.


Not all cows had the endurance to make the long walk from Texas to market.  Some would die.  Those wouldn’t be wasted.  The Cowboy Camp Cookin’ Chef would utilize as much of the animal as possible.  The best-known recipe is known as Sonofabitch Stew.  After reading the ingredients, I can only assume that is the phrase someone utters while pounding on a tabletop right after eating a spoonful of this stew.  An interesting twist in this recipe is that for a time, Americans started calling Sonofabitch Stew by the name of the current president Grover Cleveland.  They change the name of the stew not out of respect but mostly because they thought he was a Sonofabitch.  Cleveland Stew, therefore, was synonymous with Sonofabitch Stew!

Enough of the wind-up.  Here’s the recipe:

Sonofabitch Stew (Cleveland Stew)

2 pounds lean beef
Half a calf heart
1/2 pounds calf liver
1 set sweetbreads
1 set brains
1 set marrow gut
Salt, pepper
Louisiana hot sauce

Kill off a young steer. Cut up beef, liver, and heart into 1-inch cubes; slice the marrow gut into small rings. Place in a Dutch oven or deep casserole. Cover meat with water and simmer for 2 to 3 hours. Add salt, pepper and hot sauce to taste. Take sweetbreads and brains and cut in small pieces. Add to stew. Simmer another hour, never boiling.

So there you have it!  Some classic camp cooking.  I read this list and always find myself thankful for our camp foods.  Every time I tell people of these recipes there is always one who says they will or have tried some of them.  If you have, share your thoughts below in the comments, I’d love to hear them -especially since I don’t plan on eating these anytime soon.

Maybe the next time you take your teardrop out, you could haul an entire buffalo and a few rabbits along with you!  Ok, we may not eat exactly the same but the tradition of hauling our provisions, opening up the back of our trailers and cooking while standing on the ground is still with us.  And let’s face it, if the cowboys would have had a teardrop and truck, they would have used it.

Until Next time,



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