The Dutch oven, an important part of the way west

Camp fire cooking has been around since humans discovered fire but Americans managed to add a number of flourishes on the trek west.

One of the important icons of frontier cooking was the Dutch oven even though it wasn’t an American invention.  Englishman Abraham Darby adapted a Dutch method of casting and patented the process in 1704.   His durable pots were widely used in the 13  colonies and simply traveled west with settlement.  They proved indispensible during the building of the transcontinental railroad and the cattle drives of the 1870s and 80s.

Ijzeren kookpotThe term Dutch oven gets applied to a variety of shapes of cast iron utensils but the classic Dutch oven includes several unique characteristics; a flat bottom, short legs to hold it above the coals, a  bail handle for hanging. and a rimmed, concave lid that prevents coals placed on it from falling into the food. 


This classic design became the kitchen stove to hundreds of hard working drovers between 1866 and 1886. The typical cattle drive in the late 1860s consisted of  1,500 to 2,500 head of near feral longhorns, a trail boss, ten to 15 trail hands, a horse wrangler to manage a five to ten-horse ramuda and the all-important cook.   


In most cases the most traveled trails were as much as 1,000 miles long.   On a good day, the herd advanced just ten or twelve miles a day which means drovers often spent three months in the saddle, ten, 12 and 14 hours at a stretch, all for the generous wage of  about $1.30 per day.  


The chuck wagon cook was often more than the purveyer of three hot squares a day.  He tended to be tailor, tinker, black smith, medic and trail guide, as well.  The cook selected the camp sites, going ahead of the herd in order to prepare meals consisting largely of beans, bread, bacon, coffee and occasionally meat, mostly smoked or salted. 

In addition he was responsible for the safety of the wagon’s contents over rough terrain which included the cowboys’ bed rolls and all their worldly possessions, the drive’s entire supply of food stuffs, tents, farrier equipment and the scant items considered luxuries.

Despite popular depictions of trail drives on television,  in  hot weather drovers often grazed the cattle during the day and moved the herd in shifts overnight.

Unfortunately, most of the modern recipes that purport to be authentic trail drive dishes probably aren’t.  Vegetables were scarce, fresh tomatoes unheard of until reaching more northern farm gardens and fresh meat often available only as a result of a trail accident.  Cooks relied primarily on leftover coffee, dried chilies and molasses to flavor the beans and sweeten the corn bread.



While it’s definatley not be entirely authentic, this dressed-up version of hearty on-the-trail stew comtains ingredients recognizable to any chuck wagon cook worth his pay.


Drover’s One Pot Dinner


1 1/2 lbs beef stew meat


2 Tbls all purpose flour


2 Tbls. shortening or cooking oil


(“Cookie” would have used bacon grease)


1 to 1-1/2 cups strong coffee


(The cook would have used what was left


 from breakfast to tenderize the beef)


2 Tbls. molasses


Salt & pepper to taste


1/8 tsp. garlic power or 1 garlic clove


1 tsp. Worchester sauce


(The sauce was not sold in America until the early 1850s, 


probably not available in West Texas at the time.)


1/2 tsp. dried oregano


1/2 tsp. dried tyme


1/8 tsp cayenne


(The chuck wagon version would have 


featured dried red peppers)


1-2 cups water ( for richer stew, use beef stock)


2 cups chopped carrots


3 cups potatoes, cubed


Directions:  Dust stew meat lightly with flour.  Brown in heavy bottomed pot with tight-fitting lid.  Add herbs to browned meat.  Stir in coffee and simmer covered for 1 hour.  Add vegetables and water or stock and continue simmering covered for 45 min. - 1 hour.  Blend 3 Tbls. flour with 1/4 cup cold water.  Whick into stew and continue cooking until slightly thickened.  Serves 6 to 8.


Note:  For crock pot, use just 1 cup coffee and 1 cup water.



Frontier food wasn’t fancy but it has a rich history and a lingering legacy.  Discover the lore, the legends and ways to bring the Old West to the table today.

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