Western Art, Western Decor

Christmas on the Western Trail

Posted on November 29, 2009 by Buffalo Trader Online

Now that Thanksgiving has come and gone, holiday shoppers will be readily seeking bargains and items on their holiday shopping list. Being mindful of the current economy, Buffalo Trader Online selects merchandise that is both affordable, good quality and easily shipped to the destination of your choosing.

Planning for your Christmas Day menu may also be at the top of your shopping list. While planning your festive menu, be mindful of the origins of our celebrated holiday meal. Modern conveniences, all electric and gas kitchens make preparation of any meal a snap, but it wasn't always this way.

If we step back in history a bit and reminisce on Christmases past, you'll get a better understanding of the dedication and perseverance of our forefathers during their quest to settle the west. Settlers moving to the western territories, wranglers, rustlers, guides, cattle drives, wagon trains and the like made do with the rugged and often deplorable conditions afforded to them along the dusty trails. The "cookie," otherwise known as the chuck wagon cook was of the utmost importance to the survival of the groups. Most groups traveling in wagon trains hired an experienced "cookie" to oversee the preparation and distribution of the simple and often plain mainstay of staple foods along the trail. Flour sugar, strong black coffee, tea leaves, dry beans, rice, dried fruits, various jerky meats, smoke cured bacon, other cured and salted meats, and often fresh wild game was cleaned and prepared along the trip as traditional sustenance. These cooks were very creative with flavorings, spices and fresh herbs when available to create savory and often very satisfying meals for the weary travelers. The holidays were of no exception of course and sometimes members from the large caravan groups would contribute little things to the menu to make the meals more festive and special.

Livestock, chickens, and wild game were often the main courses. The cooks would travel a day ahead or so of the wagon trains and have meals prepared and waiting for the weary travelers' arrival. Weather conditions dictated the menu often and the conditions were always in the forethought of the cook in his preparedness for the next day's meal planning. Cooking utensils and pans were of a simple design and often very heavy cast iron. A large, heavy cast iron Dutch oven was more often than not the process of choice for cooking when open flame cooking wasn't advantageous. Dutch oven cooking involves constructing a pit fire dug several inches into the earth where a very hot fire is built and the coals are brought to a red-hot glow. The foods are prepared and put into the large, heavy cast iron pots that are covered with heavy lids and then lowered into the shallow pits where they are buried slightly with the hot coals around, underneath, and on top of the pot so as to basically slow cook the meal, a cast iron oven so to speak. This sounds easy in theory but it requires a great deal of physical strength and skill as well as attention to details to obtain the perfect cooking environment.

Roasted buffalo, whole chicken, wild turkey roasted on a spit by open fire pit or Dutch oven, smoke cured ham with scalloped white potatoes, roasted sweet potatoes, meatballs with gravy over rice, cooked dry beans with seasoned cured sausage, and of course, cowboy beans, chili and baked beans were frequently the mainstays on the cook's menu. Sounds good, doesn't it?

Let's step back even further and consider the often less than sanitary cooking conditions, weather, and overall lack of convenience these settlers must have endured. First, cleaning of foods usually involved water from nearby steams or rivers. Settlers and cooks on the trail always camped down for the night near a water source, not just to rest and hydrate the livestock but also to secure clean water for the next day's trail ride. For safety, water was taken as upstream as possible, away from beaver dams and other areas where water could potentially be contaminated. The water was often gathered in wooden buckets, dried animal bladders, canteens, or other suitable containers. The water was boiled to kill any contaminants and then stored in large wooden barrels lined with waterproofing resins for the ongoing trip should a shortage of fresh water become an issue. Water was taken from these barrels for food cleaning and preparation as well as drinking water or coffee making. This process alone would take hours to complete from start to finish. A cooks laborious day is one of little sleep, lots of physical labor and although very good pay for the times, a job many of us wouldn't ever envy.

Food storage was always an issue on the trail. Dry goods, often in cloth sacks, were the mainstay staples along the trail. Storage was of the utmost importance to prevent contamination and pest invasion. Canned goods in jars, when available, had to be stored carefully to protect them from freezing conditions and to avoid glass breakage and the ever-present botulism exposure. Aluminum and tin storage containers, similar to The Olde Mill Canisters or our Tin Spice Bin Rack were used along the trail for storing dry goods to protect from pests and moisture.

Dried and cured meats were often supplemented with fresh venison, buffalo, wild turkey, chicken, rabbit and other small animals when dried meat rations were in short supply. The meats were cooked either on a spit by open fire or roasted by Dutch oven method. Nothing was wasted and much work went into the cleaning, preparing, smoking and storage of meats. Consider the enormous amount of time and effort involved for the little convenience items we now buy readily prepared. There is nothing like a dry rub on meats for that rich, smokey, back-to-nature flavor. We have developed our own Buffalo Branded Original Dry Rub Seasoning in the rugged spirit of these great settlers.

Let's not forget desserts! The settlers, wranglers, guides, cattle drivers, and even the wild, west posses loved just a little sweet something back then too, just as we all still do today. A little sugar often went a long ways to finishing off a satisfying meal on the dusty trail. The cookies were creative with the limited staple items available and often served warm biscuits with molasses and butter or fresh apple butter, brownies made from cocoa, flour, sugar and lard or butter, homemade fudge, sometimes with nuts when available. Very creative cooks would bake apple, peach, or a rhubarb pie or sweet potato turnovers when the right staples were available and time permitted. And of course, dessert was not complete without a mug of hot, brewed black coffee. A little hot cocoa around the campfire was often the finishing touch to a meal on the trail.

Christmas menus were often a dilemma for feeding the hungry travelers but for these seasoned cookies, mental planning, creativity and a fresh, plump, juicy gobbler or other suitable meat, traditional Christmas dinner was not only tasty but also hearty and filling. Here are examples of such a meal for the on-the-move trail riders.

Spit-cooked roast turkey giblet gravy and corn bread dressing – wild turkey of course.

Quail in cranberry sauce with carrots, turnips, or other root vegetables – fresh quail and cranberry sauce from dried cranberries.

Pheasant with roasted baby potatoes – pheasant was plentiful along the western trails.

Savory corned beef or buffalo stews with vegetables, hot buttered biscuits and fruit pie – livestock and cattle drives often fed the travelers along the trail. Roots, berries and nuts also provided other sources of tasty delicacies.

Spit-cooked pork roast, baked sweet potatoes, and fresh vanilla custard – wild boar pigs were a staple along the trail. The leftovers were cured for bacon, cured and salted pork fat for seasoning, and jerky.

During our season of Thanksgiving and Christmas, we give thanks and reflective compassion for the settlers, rustlers, cowboys and cookies that helped mold and shape our current festive holiday mealtime celebration.

Merry Christmas one and all!

Posted in Western Culture