If you conjure up images of cowboys gathered round a well-tended fire on the lonesome prairie, those images usually include cowboys enjoying simple but filling meals. Back in the wild west days, chuck wagon style meals of beans and stews were prepared in a kettle over an open fire, but the meal didn’t always live up to expectations. It all depended on the expertise of the cook.
After a long day on horseback driving cattle, these hungry cowboys would be pleased to find they had a master cook in the ranks. Perhaps you can be that master. Let’s take a look at how you can create a cowboy campfire picnic with delicious results:
Planning the Vittles
If you want to recreate those meals enjoyed on the wide open prairie, include the dishes cowboys were likely to encounter working the range. The cook, often called “Cookie,” might be up early in the morning preparing sourdough biscuits, pork hocks, and strong black coffee over an open fire. Although authentic, this doesn’t sound very tasty for a picnic.
To stay with the authentic chuck wagon experience and enjoy a delicious meal, a nice beef brisket might sound more tempting. In fact, some barbequed spareribs would be a nice start to your cowboy picnic, and of course, baked beans or hearty stew are a perfect meal to set the stage. Cowboys were never in short supply of beef. They were hearty meat-eaters who never turned down a big slab of beef, skillet fried steak, or bowl of beef stew. Include a cast iron skillet filled with fried potatoes and onions and you’ve got a full meal that’s easy to make and serve.
On special occasions, you might even find a fruit pie on the menu, either the classic apple or whatever other dried fruit might be available. You might bring along some ‘fry bread’ which is considered a dessert food by some native American tribes. With just a drizzle of honey, it makes the perfect chuck wagon treat.
The point is to stay authentic, but with today’s twists on yesterday’s favorites. Keep it meaty and hearty and on an open pit and you’ll have picnic fare to please any cowboy… or girl!
Creating the Wild West
When you think of the setting of a cowboy meal, you typically think of the chuck wagon and a campfire. Cooking was typically done on an open pit fire, either in cast iron Dutch ovens suspended over the fire, or cast iron skillets on top of a grate or a few rocks over the fire.
The secret to a chuck wagon picnic’s success will be in the old fashioned cooking. The Dutch oven can be used to make anything from biscuits to beans to cornbread, Spanish rice, cobbler, and a variety of meat dishes. A cast iron skillet on an open pit fire is perfect for searing steak and frying up a batch of potatoes and onions, as well as a simple dish of pork and beans. Planning your cowboy themed picnic where you can have a campfire is a real plus. However, if you won’t have authentic cooking facilities available, cook up your food ahead of time and transport in cast iron. Be sure to serve your food in camp-style eating utensils, like tin cups and plates. Use bandanas for napkins for another cowboy touch. Keep it rustic and you can’t go wrong.
Along with the food, you want the atmosphere to go along. You can replicate a chuck wagon in several ways. A child’s red wagon can be called into service with just a bit of bent wire and an old sheet. Gather up a few hobby-horses and create your evening under the western sky. A few bales of straw or hay will add to the feeling, and aroma! If you can find old wooden crates for seating, that’s a great bonus.
Playing the part and setting the scene also has to do with attire. Put on your cowboy boots, hat, Levis, and tie a bandana around your neck for wild west fun. And don’t forget the guitar and harmonica! If someone is musically inclined, great. If not, it doesn’t matter. Just the look of a guitar leaning on a bale of hay will give a warm western feel to your picnic. And, who knows? Maybe someone will be tempted to strum a few bars just to see what happens. You can also play soft cowboy ballads in the background for even more atmosphere.
Go ahead and start planning your cowboy themed picnic. Rustle up some authentic chuck wagon flavor and atmosphere with these suggestions and host a real prairie party “where the dear and the antelope play.” Have fun!