During the late 1800s in the early days of what we know as America's 'Wild West,' the prairies and mountain trails looked nothing like they do today. While cattle ranchers and farmers still live off the land and follow the cowboy lifestyle, traditional cowboys of the West were nothing like they are today. Their days were harder, filled with challenges undealt with today, and ever-changing while on the road. In true pioneer fashion, one of the challenges they faced was food... And even that was far from what any of us would eat today.


While these foods weren't anything unimaginable, per se, they are dishes that many of us would probably opt out of if we had the choice. However, during times when food was tough to come by and needed to survive a cowboy for weeks at a time, eating certain things was non-negotiable. Interestingly enough, this is also where we get many of our current camping staples, such as beans, jerky, and other long-lasting foods that provide quick protein.

The Essential Foods That All Cowboys Had During The Long Haul

Food on the trail was not a luxury and the luxury food items that were obtained were few and far between. For the most part, every pioneer had a generous helping of beans, dried meat (what we would call jerky nowadays), dried fruit, something called hard biscuits, and coffee. Out of all of these things, beans were what comprised most of the food, and it's what cowboys and those traveling with them, such as the cook and other wranglers, ate every single day.

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To start off the morning, coffee was made first-thing and was made with roasted Arbuckle beans. Arbuckle's was the original coffee of the west, and they were patented by John Arbuckle Jr. in 1868. When these beans were roasted, they were coated with sugar, Irish moss, and eggs, which allowed the beans to have their own flavor without anything extra added. This made making a cup of coffee on the road - so to speak - much easier, as cowboys needed to bring nothing else to sweeten or flavor their morning brew. Making coffee during that time was an art form, as it was anyone's guess how the water used would taste, meaning the cooks, often referred to as 'cookies,' would need to be creative in knowing how to balance flavors and correct mineral tastes so that the coffee was drinkable, as the beans were highly valuable.

Having dried meat and dried fruit accounted for two major food groups: Protein and starch, or sugar. It was hard work on the road and these things were needed in order to have enough energy to do the work and somehow this, combined with beans and coffee, was enough for cowboys to get in a whole day's worth of physical labor. Cowboy biscuits were also a commonly-cooked meal, as they consisted of simple things like flour, water, and salt. The problem with these is that they had to be cooked over the fire which meant low and slow, and the process of doing this dried out the biscuits after a day or so, making them brittle. In order to remedy this and not waste food, cowboys would dunk them in coffee or save them to use as crackers in stews and soups. On the road, nothing was wasted - simply repurposed.

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That didn't mean that there were no 'luxury' items for cowboys to indulge in on the road. While it wasn't often, they would occasionally get their hands on fresh meat (not from the cattle they were wrangling, of course) and these would go into stews. Every part of the animal was used including the liver and tripe, and if a stew wasn't being made, it would go into something called a slop. Another treasured food that some cowboys were able to obtain was hard cheese. This is the only type of cheese that would have lasted on the road and it was usually encased in wax (not unlike it is today) which would allow it to have a shelf life of several months. However, this cheese was not eaten on its own. Rather, it was mixed into other foods; bits of cheese would be crumbled into beans or baked into biscuits and this would stretch the food supply immensely. Salted pork was another delicacy on the road, and this was usually cooked with breakfast as it was similar to bacon. The salt in the pork would help with a cowboy's hydration while the meat itself held essential fats and protein that were needed for energy.

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