Kate's All-American Summer:
Texas Cowboy Country
by Kate Heyhoe
I grew up in the Lone Star State, and while Texas may share such favorites as ribs and chili con carne with other southwestern states, it puts a whole different spin on these dishes.
Tex-Mex cooking, for instance, tastes nothing like California or New Mex cooking. Texans don't ladle sour cream all over their tacos, a bowl of chili is red, rich and hearty in beef, not pale or mild or flecked with chunks of green chiles. At the same time, Texans also borrow some of the odder customs from their southeastern neighbors. Things like Coca-Cola marinades and marshmallow fruit salad.
We've always called Texas, which reigns over the Gulf of Mexico, the Third Coast. Besides being the largest state of the contiguous 48, it has a distinct personality and an ego just as big and blustery as those of the East and West coasts. Forged from determined settlers, oilmen, farmers and fishermen, Texas fought fierce revolutionary battles for independence, including the famous and disastrous Battle of the Alamo. To this day, Texans act like they are independent of the rest of the union, and sometimes they even think they're in control of it. That's just part of being Texan.
The Birth of Cowboy Cuisine
If you've ever driven across Texas, you are well aware that this state is flat. Sure, it's got a few little rises known as the Hill Country, and Big Bend National Park sports some amazing canyon vistas, but most of Texas is flat as far as the eye can see, making it perfect cowboy country.
Out of need, the early cowboys developed their own type of cooking. Cattle ranching developed most strongly right before and after the Civil War, when settlers were looking for opportunities in the West. Cattle drives herded beef to lucrative markets as far away as Chicago in the north and New York in the east. At first, the cowboys rode for months across the entire route, but later shortened their journeys, taking the steers to the newly created railhead in Abilene, Kansas. At this and other railroad towns, the cattle were sold to merchants and then shipped off by train.
In the early days of ranching, especially before the rail spread into Fort Worth (now known as Cowtown), the men had few creature comforts, often subsisting on a diet of jerky, hardtack and coffee. But everything changed when a trail driver and cattleman known as Charles Goodnight invented the cowboy's kitchen on wheels: the chuck wagon.
Chuck wagon food wasn't fancy, but it was filling, tasty and hot. Chuck wagons could set-up anywhere on a ranch— a good thing as many of these ranches were, and are still today, huge. More importantly, chuck wagons and their cooks joined the trail drives, carting along their kitchenware and provisions, to feed the drovers on their long, dusty journeys. When the cowboys weren't on trail drives or on round ups across the vast ranches, they lived in bunkhouses and were fed at a cookshack, a permanent kitchen that served breakfast, dinner and sometimes lunches. And as with the chuck wagons, the food at the cookshack was simple but hearty.
Today's Texas cuisine owes a lot to the ingenuity of the chuckwagon and cattle ranch cooks. Salads weren't made of tender, leafy greens— they were made of long-lasting black-eyed peas, beans, and corn, with an occasional head of cabbage sliced into cole slaw. Beef, of course, was a mainstay, often seasoned with spices that came from Texas' Mexican origins, including dried and fresh chiles, garlic, and onion. Catfish also made a frequent diversion from red meat; the mild, flaky fish was poled from Texas' many rivers and lakes, served in a crisp, deep-fried batter with or without a mayonnaise-dense tartar sauce. Along the Gulf coast, shrimp were deep-fried or thrown into a gumbo or stew. Sourdough breads, quick biscuits, or skillet corn bread rounded out the meal.
Recently, Texas cowboy food has begun popping up in Beverly Hills and hip urban restaurants— but true Texas cooking is as far away from trendy cuisine as real Texas ranchers are from Hollywood cowboys. Long after the sudden popularity of cowboy cookery eventually dies, I'd wager that the essence of this down-to-earth, old-fashioned food endures beyond the day the last cowboy hangs up his hat. After all, the chuckwagon meal is what real Texas cooking is all about, and no other culture can claim it.
The Global Cowpoke
Other Texas cuisine cookbooks and recipes:
Kate's Global Kitchen for July, 2000:
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Copyright © 2000, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.
This page created July 2000