By Stephen Bly
While some big towns like Denver, San Francisco and Virginia City had fancy restaurants, most frontier cafes kept things simple. Often called chophouses, hunks of meat hung in the backroom. Cooks chopped off a slab and fried it up for you. Not too fancy. Nor sanitary. Most times it was only “slightly spoiled.”
For cowboys on the trail, they filled up with biscuits, bacon, and beans. There wasn’t much beef because no boss wanted to slaughter his own cattle. If a cow wandered in from some other herd, it could be butchered and fried, but for the most part bacon and salt pork dominated the menu.
But they had coffee. Ah, good old boiled coffee. I can almost feel the coffee grounds strain between my teeth. The brand was probably Arbuckles. That tastes something like a Starbucks tall Americano with a quadruple shot…and mixed with a bit of mud.
Plenty of sourdough bread thrived on long trail drives. The cook’s prized possession included a 5-gallon, wooden sourdough keg. When getting ready for the trail drive or roundup, the cook put 3 or 4 quarts of flour and a dash of salt in the keg. He poured in enough water to make a medium thick batter. Sometimes a little added vinegar or molasses hastened fermentation.
When the dough got ripe, this whole batch got dumped. The keg seasoned and a new batch again mixed in the same way. Everyday new batter filled the keg. Placed in sunlight during the day and wrapped in blankets at night kept it warm. Some cooks slept with their kegs on cold nights. An outfit that allowed harm to come to its sourdough keg suffered the consequence. Most cooks defended their kegs with their lives.
By the late 1880s air-tights (canned food) appeared, such as peaches and tomatoes. That provided more ways for the camp cooks to make dessert.
One trail favorite proved to be Hounds Ears & Whirlups. Thin sourdough batter dropped onto hot grease and fried brown. The dough usually spread out in the shape of a dog’s ear. Whirlup sauce consisted of water, sugar, flavoring and spices. If available, dried fruit was chopped or mashed into the mixture and bring it to a boil. It thickened a tad as it cooled, then poured over the Hounds Ears. A big hit with hungry cowboys.
That sounds better to me than Pooch…a dessert made with tomatoes, sugar, and leftover bread or biscuits, cooked over the campfire. Although my Oklahoma grandmother made something similar.
Ah, life on the trail. Pour the coffee and pass the pooch.
Stephen Bly is a Christy Award finalist and winner for westerns for The Long Trail Home, Picture Rock, The Outlaw’s Twin Sister and Last of the Texas Camp. He has authored and co-authored with his wife, Janet, 105 books, both fiction and nonfiction. He and Janet have 3 married sons, 4 grandchildren, and 1 great-grandchild and live in the mountains of northern Idaho on the Nez Perce Indian Reservation. Find out more about the Blys at their website or blog
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Stephen would like to know “What old-time recipe do you recall from your parents or grandparents that makes you think of camping out or life on the trail?” He will buzz by on June 16th and randomly choose one Novel Journey reader to receive a copy of Throw the Devil Off the Train. You can leave your memory in the comment field of today’s post. June 15th 11:59 p.m. is the cut off. Make sure Stephen can reach you by email or blogger handle.