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Robin Friedman : author and journalist

Chow from the chuck wagon

Pioneer cooking is alive and well, and this isn’t a Hollywood movie


It’s not exactly home-on-the-range food, but Joan Morris’ chuck wagon stew is a meal many cowpokes would have sopped up with biscuits ’round the campfire when the dogies were asleep.

Under the wide open skies, things seem to taste a little better.

Morris, a “pioneer cook,” demonstrates the eats and techniques of America’s pioneers and posses at Wild West City, a replica cattle town in Byram inspired by Dodge City, Kan., of the 1880s.

“My personal opinion is that everything tastes better in a fire,” says Lara Van Eeckhoven, 12, of Newton, who was helping Morris, her aunt. “It’s amazing how much the pioneers did with such little supplies.”

America’s pioneers, men and women who heeded Horace Greeley’s manifest order to “Go West,” traveled through treacherous territory. Their success required endurance. Their food required endurance, too. It had to be simple enough to prepare under the stars every night, and hearty enough to travel.

Cowboys in the saddle ate from chuck wagons serving the same type of vittles. A few times a year, a dozen or so cowboys would drive several thousand heads of cattle from their grazing lands to the nearest railhead, where the animals would be shipped East for slaughter. Dodge City was one such railhead.

Although romanticized by Hollywood, cowboys were really just workers who tended cattle for wealthy ranchers. They were thought of as little more than ruffians. Between 1860 and 1890 there were about 40,000 working cowboys. It was only after the decline of the Old West that writers such as Zane Grey and President Theodore Roosevelt — himself a rancher — popularized the myth of the American cowboy.

Using much wild game in their cooking, westerners ate rabbit, squirrel, deer, bear, buffalo and various birds. They also kept domestic animals such as chickens, pigs and cows. Pioneers grew whatever vegetables they could when they settled down, and also depended heavily on wild plants.

The food techniques of pioneers and cowhands take two basic forms. Cooking, as opposed to baking, generally took place in cast-iron pots over open fires. When wood became scarce in the West’s treeless prairies, buffalo chips (actually dried buffalo dung) were collected and burned instead.

Once a roaring fire got going, pots of stew, soup or stroganoff could be dangled above the flames using tools called “S” hooks. The “S” hooks Morris uses in her demonstrations are banged out by Wild West City’s resident blacksmith.

Baking, on the other hand, was a completely different story. It required the kind of all-over even heat that an oven provides. Yet, it was crucial for those on the trail to be able to bake, since bread was a staple — it traveled well and lasted a long time without spoiling. Corn bread, sourdough bread, biscuits, and hard tack, made of unleavened flour and water, were popular.

Sometimes the pioneers would substitute ingredients. A form of baking powder, for instance, could be made from ground corn cobs. Flour could be made from ground acorns, which could also be used for coffee.

Enduring hardships on the trail did not mean going without baked desserts, however. Fruit pies and cobblers made from apples, cherries or peaches, were as popular at camp as a ten-gallon Stetson.

Morris’ apple pie, which the pioneers might have devoured while heading West on the Oregon Trail, bakes inside a Dutch oven on a bed of smoldering coals.

“You just ask the cowboys,” she says as she rolls out pie crust. “I make the best apple pies. I reckon it’s legend in these parts.”

Morris’ apple pie comes out of its bed of coals with the crust wonderfully flaky and the Granny Smith apples tender-crisp and awash in cinnamon and sugar.

The trick to baking on the trail was the Dutch oven. The large cast- iron pot, still called a Dutch oven today, was filled with the item to be baked, topped with a lid, and covered with hot coals. The heat could soar to 800 degrees or more. Baking times, therefore, were much shorter. Morris’ apple pie is baked for just 30 minutes.

When the pioneers finally reached western homesteads and set about building their dream cabins, outdoor cooking was mostly replaced by hearth cooking, though they continued to cook and bake using separate techniques. When their cabins became too hot due to the sweltering high noon sun, however, they often cooked outdoors much like we grill hot dogs today. Hearths were common from the 1700s to the 1800s. In the 1800s, wood stoves essentially replaced the open hearth.

Wild West City serves as a lively backdrop for Morris’ demonstrations. The clip-clop of horses and the delighted screams of children ring in the distance as a red stagecoach with brightly colored canary-yellow wheels bounces up a hill.

“I forget it’s the 20th century when I’m here,” she says.

The dirt main street of this western theme park is flanked on either side by wooden storefronts such as Wild Bill’s Trading Post, the Golden Nugget Saloon, Pilsner’s Candy Shop and the Silver Spur Saddle Shop. Ed’s Tonsorial Parlor advertises haircuts for 15 cents, a shave for 10 cents, leeches and bloodletting for 10 cents, and hot baths for 20 cents. Doc Holliday’s storefront reads, “Bullets removed, teeth pulled, snake oil, horses and humans cured.” The scent of manure hangs perpetually in the air.

“It’s really interesting,” says Lara of the park. “I have a lot of fun here.”

The park’s many live-action shows dramatize pioneer life and re-create historic events, such as the infamous 1881 gunfight at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Ariz. Other performances feature Native American dancers, tricks with bullwhips and lariats, can-can girls, bank holdups, shoot-outs, saloon fights, and even a shotgun wedding.

Wild West City was opened in 1956 by a group of investors. In 1963, Michael Stabile purchased it, and it has been in the Stabile family ever since. About 35,000 guests visit each season. In the winter, however, it becomes the proverbial ghost town.

Morris began cooking at Wild West City several years ago, after being introduced to the park by a friend who portrays the Mountain Man. Morris grew up in Ramsey and now lives in Louisville, Colo. “It’s my dream to someday have a cabin and live off the land,” she says. “It’s the way I’ve always felt.”