Some years ago, I wrote a lengthy article for the Cookbook Collectors Exchange, titled “KITCHENS WEST”. The idea for the article was born out my curiosity about pioneers making the great migration west in the 1800s. What did they eat? I wondered. How was the food cooked when they were on the trail? My curiosity about American pioneers began to branch out – I began wondering about American Indians. What did they eat? I wondered. How was their food cooked? And then I began wondering about the American cowboy, those hardy souls who herded cattle or worked on ranches. My curiosity about the American cowboy was probably born when I was a child, watching Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Hopalong Cassidy, the Lone Ranger, and Gene Autry at Saturday matinees. Then my brothers and I, my girlfriend Patty, and her two younger brothers would romp up and down Sutter Street, playing cowboy and Indian. The most coveted role was being the horse.
It probably took about a year for me to write KITCHENS WEST. I began collecting books about American pioneers, the Oregon Trail, American Indian cookbooks, and all the cowboy cookbooks I could find. I found a lot of great books at the gift shop of the Western Heritage Museum, founded by Gene Autry. I was a member of the museum for over a decade and we took all of our out of town visitors there. My greatest “find” at the gift shop was a set of 12 soft cover books titled COVERED WAGON WOMEN/diaries and letters from the Western Trails, starting with 1840-1849, a series edited and compiled by Kenneth L. Holmes and published by the University of Nebraska Press. There are quite a lot of other great books about American pioneer women but none is quite as comprehensive as the collection gathered by Mr. Holmes. Diaries and letters provide the framework of the series which I have found captivating.
More recently there have been a flurry of cowboy-theme cookbooks, demonstrating perhaps that I am not alone in my interest in cowboys and what they eat.
One such cookbook is THE ALL AMERICAN COWBOY COOKBOOK by Ken Beck and Jim Clark. This cookbook was originally published by Rutledge Press in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1996.
“If all the world’s a stage,” the co-authors write in the introduction, “The American cowboy is perhaps its most legendary rider…”
Along with food favorites from all of our favorite cowboys of the silver screen, such as Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, and TV western stars such as James Garner and Chuck Connors, there are recipes from singing cowboys and world champion rodeo cowboys. Portions of royalties from THE ALL AMERICAN COWBOY COOKBOOK support Ben Johnson’s Helping Hand Program with its various projects working with children. (At the time of publication, the program’s efforts were assisting the Sunshine Home for children in Mesa, Arizona). You will love this cookbook, filled with lots of photographs of our Western favorites, bits of trivia, and fun quizzes. Some recipes are tongue in cheek, such as “Here’s a recipe for cowboy coffee: take a pound of coffee. Add water, boil for half an hour. Throw in a horseshoe. If it sinks, add more coffee.”
You’ll love the trivia too—for instance, throughout the movie THE SEARCHERS, John Wayne’s character, Ethan Edwards, says “That’ll be the Day” which—surprise!—was the inspiration for Buddy Holly’s hit song “That’ll Be the Day”. (The Searchers is and was one of my favorite films–and I eventually found a copy of the book on which the film was based – complete with the dust jacket!)
There are black and white photos of all your favorite cowboys and cowgirls. Pictures on every page, in fact, and an interesting novelty touch—photos of lunchboxes, spanning decades, from Davy Crockett to Roy Rogers and Dale Evans lunchboxes. (Who’d have ever guessed that lunchboxes from the 50s and 60s would become so prized by collectors? And don’t we all wish we had kept ours?)
Also included in this wonderful cookbook, is a list of western museums and heritage centers which includes, of course, my favorite Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum in Griffith Park in Los Angeles, on the edge of Burbank. It is right across from Los Angeles Zoo – and was so easy to get to when I was living in Arleta.
“Real cowboys and cowgirls ride, shoot, rope…and cook” the publishers of COWBOY COOKBOOK proclaim; whether you are riding the range under a blazing Texas sun, or a cool Montana moon, or working on a Hollywood sound stage, cowboys and cowgirls can work up a he arty appetite…The ALL AMERICAN COWBOY COOKBOOK is filled to the brim with favorite recipes from the country’s most famous western stars from the silver screen and television to rodeo heroes and cooks on real working ranches, as well as recipes from some of the best cowboy balladeers to lasso a Gunsmoking Chili and Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti Western. Here, took, are chicken and dumplings from Roy Rogers, chilies rellanos form James Garner,. And cherished family recipes from Annie Oakley star Gail Davis…”
THE ALL AMERICAN COWBOY COOKBOOK offers more than 200 classic photographs and they’ve rounded up well over three hundred recipes from more than two hundred folks who represent what it means to be a cowboy.
I can’t tell you (or anyone else) how to read a cookbook—those of us who read cookbooks proudly read them the way other people read novels, generally marking pages with recipes to try with paper clips or bits of paper—my favorite way is using small post-it notes and I wish I could discourage the use of paper clips as over time, it damages the pages if the clips are left inside. THE ALL AMERICAN COWBOY COOKBOOK could be read page by page, or you might want to go through the book and look at all the photographs of our all-time favorite cowboys. Then there are the quizzes such as the one titled “WHERE IN THE WEST?” which is two columns—one column is the locations in TV series; the second column is a list of cowboys to match up with the locations. Sound easy? I missed the very first one!
As for recipes….well, you will discover for yourself dozens of great recipes to try. One I can vouch for – Gene Autry’s Texas Chili! To observe the date Mr. Autry would have been 100 years old, the Western Heritage Museum had a dinner and music for members. Bob and I attended, wearing new western shirts and cowboy hats. To tell the truth, I thought it tasted pretty similar to my chili. Here’s the recipe in case you want to decide for yourself:
Gene Autry’s Texas Chili:
1 ½ pounds lean ground round
1 garlic clove, chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
1 medium green bell pepper, finely chopped
1 package chili sauce or 1 bottle Red Devil chili sauce
1 16-oz can of kidney beans
1 8-ounce can tomatoes, finely chopped
1 cup grated Jack cheese
Chopped onion (optional)
Brown the first four ingredients in a large pan until tender. Add all remaining ingredients except cheese. Cook on high simmer for 1 hour. Add cheese to thicken, just before serving. Mr. Autry liked it best topped with chopped fresh onions. We do too, but we also like it topped with a lot of grated cheddar cheese as well, and being former Cincinnatians, we all like it over spaghetti, with oyster crackers topping it all off.
ALL AMERICAN COWBOY COOKBOOK is available on Amazon.com; there are a plethora of copies available – $10.98 for plastic comb binding – or choose from 120 new or preowned copies, starting at 9 cents & up.