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  Robb Walsh is a food writer and restaurant critic for the Houston Press as well as the author of Legends of Texas Barbecue, The Tex-Mex Cookbook, Are You Really Going to Eat That?, and most recently The Texas Cowboy Cookbook. In the process he has become both an expert and a guardian of the many food traditions and histories that add to the flavor of the Lone Star state.

The Kitchen Sisters
spent hours and days driving around Texas with Robb, recording his thought about everything from Chili Queens and Oystermen to cotton pickers and vaqueros. Here are some excerpts from our conversation about Texas Cowboy Cuisine.



Jo Mora’s Californios; dust jacket

From Vaqueros to Buckeroos

"The traditions of the cowboy were borrowed from both the Mexicans and the Spanish.  In fact, the early word for cowboy was buckaroo, which was a mangling of the Spanish vaquero.  Vaquero, from vaca (cow), means if a ranchero is a guy from a ranch then a vaquero is a cow guy, a cowboy.  So, cowboy is a literal translation of vaquero.  The garb—the big hat evolved from the sombrero and the chaps, the lariat (lasso), the rodeo, are all Spanish words.This goes back to the 1690s and early 1700s when the Spanish Missions were established in Texas and with them came herds of cattle and herding traditions.

  The distances were so vast here in Texas though, that herding the way they had in Spain was impractical so they started herding on horseback. In Mexico, the mestizo children, kids who were part Indian and part European, had no place in society in Mexico City.  Some of the more ambitious mestizos, headed off for El Norte.  In Mexico El Norte meant to them what the West meant to us.  It was the untamed region. They were the new caballeros, or horsemen, of the Americas.  So, in South Texas you had this culture evolving and these horsemen—they were entrepreneurs, mostly, but they became ranch hands or foremen.  They became cowboys and they were proud, independent people.

Cowboy dishing up chili at noonday dinner near Marfa, Texas, 1939 Photo by Russel Lee

  Cooking on the Range

Cowboy cooking tradition starts off really with Mexican food.  There are lots of dishes like picadillo where you just cook a bunch of ground meat with spices and then the cowboys would wrap it up in tortillas.  Beans were a staple. Cowboy cooking tradition starts off really with Mexican food. There are lots of dishes like picadillo where you just cook a bunch of ground meat with spices and then the cowboys would wrap it up in tortillas.  Beans were a staple.  Dried beans were very efficient to carry.

Cowboy cooking tradition starts off really with Mexican food.There are lots of dishes like picadillo where you just cook a bunch of ground meat with spices and then the cowboys would wrap it up in tortillas.  Beans were a staple.  Dried beans were very efficient to carry.  Cooks hated potatoes because they spoiled.  They were very heavy, but cowboys loved potatoes, of course, they considered them a vegetable.  There was a real shortage of vegetables.  When the canned tomato was invented, it was a huge hit in the cowboy culture. 

In fact, cowboys carried cans of tomatoes on their saddle bags.  One of the reasons was, the water in west Texas—like the Pecos River is so alkaline that you can barely get the beans to cook in it.  So, all the alkaline all the time, the acid of the water that the tomatoes were packed in was like a rare delicacy.  Just to open a can of tomatoes and drink the tomato water was a big thrill. In the early Spanish settlements cattle were raised for money, sheep were raised for wool and goats were what people actually ate. As far as cowboy food tradition, they adopted the tradition of eating goats, because if you’ve got 2 or 3 guys, and you don’t have a refrigerator, what are you going to do with a whole cow?  It weighs 100s of pounds.  You can’t even move it, never mind eat it.  So, killing cows was impractical. When you got to a city, San Antonio or somewhere, you had lots of people ready to buy you had lots of people ready to buy beef then slaughtering cows become practical.

But, out on the range, they ate goats. The classic preparation of goat probably came from Spain.  The cabrito (roast goat) is mounted on something like an iron cross. The carcass is spread out and it is rotated in front of a mesquite fire so that it roasts slowly. There is an interesting description of what foods were being eaten in Mexican Texas and in Anglo Texas. It said the Americans lived on crackers, salt pork.  They had honey but they didn’t have sugar and very few staples. Indeed, in the Anglo settlements, one couldn’t find anyone who would put them up at night because no one had enough food to share. By contrast the Mexican communities had more options; they had eggs, beans and bread and tortillas.
Chuck's Wagon

As the wild cattle were depleted, the ranching business arose.  People started to breed cattle and of course, they began to fence off the range and the cattle drive began to disappear.  But, the ranches were still big; to this day ranches in west Texas are 400,000 acres.  Ranches are enormous and every spring there’s a roundup where you bring in all the recently born calves to castrate and brand them.  When you do that, you still have to feed all these cowboys out on the range.  In the1800s, Charles Goodnight, who was a famous rancher, was credited with inventing the chuck wagon which was just a wagon outfitted with everything you needed to cook.  The chuck wagon became the center of the cowboy camp.  Today still, there are people now who have preserved old chuck wagons. Also, there are people who build re-creations of chuck wagons to use in cowboy cook-offs. People started building chuck wagons that fit on the back of pickup trucks.  Out in West Texas you’re liable to see pickup truck chuck wagons all the time.

  Biscuit Shooters ant Pot Wrestlers

The cook was usually the worst cowboy. He was the oldest, or he limped or he was incompetent. It was not a prize job. Nobody wanted to be the cook. Their nicknames for them were pretty funny: biscuit shooter…pot wrestler. The food on the chuck wagon, it had to be stuff that could travel and one of the most endearing traditions from the chuck wagon was sour dough. There wasn’t a source for yeast, so you had to keep that sour dough going. When it got cold, the cook would sleep with the sour dough to keep it from freezing.

  Dutch Oven



The Dutch oven, which had come in from the east coast, became a cowboy cooking appliance. It looked a giant cast iron pot with legs on the bottom and a lid.The idea is you burn a fire, you shovel some of the coals onto the ground, you put your biscuits in the Dutch oven then you put it on top of the coals, put the lid on it and you shovel more coals on the lid, so, it bakes from the top and the bottom at the same time.  One of the problems is the biscuits are a lot closer to coals on the bottom than they are to the coals on the top, so they tend to burn on the bottom.  I watched a cowboy cook one time making biscuits and he said, “you can smell when they are almost ready, you smell when the sugars are starting to caramelize and then you peek. One of the problems is the biscuits are a lot closer to coals on the bottom than they are to the coals on the top, so they tend to burn on the bottom.  I watched a cowboy cook one time making biscuits and he said, “you can smell when they are almost ready, you smell when the sugars are starting to caramelize and then you peek. The problem is if you lift the lid unevenly, all the coals dump on the biscuits. So, you really don’t want to open the dang thing until you really have to.”  So this cook said, “you wait until you smell—till you think the bottom is starting to brown, then you turn up the heat”. To turn up the heat he takes his hat off and he starts fanning the coals on the top to get them really white to get that heat on the top to brown the tops of the biscuits.

Of course, other “one pot” meals—things that could be cooked in a Dutch oven were popular.  There were cowboy cooks from Ireland making Irish stew.  You had Chinese cowboy cooks.  All kinds of cultures filtered into the cowboy tradition.  Of course, barbecue grilling, one pot meals, beans and sour dough baking are sort of the main stays of cowboy cooking.

  Robb Walsh Talks About
Part of the history of Texas includes a bit of a real estate scheme.  The state was essentially empty at one point in time.  After the Spanish abandoned the missions, the French were starting to make incursions into Texas because there wasn’t anybody there.  To hold the territory, Spain enlisted impresarios, a kind of salesman for the territory, and they made them a deal—we’ll give you this huge track of land and in exchange you bring in people to settle it.  Stephen F. Austin’s father, Moses Austin, was an original impresario for the region.  Stephen F. Austin continued with the settlement and brought Anglos from Tennessee and Missouri and other parts of the United States with the sales pitch “cheap land, beautiful country.”

Another impresario for the Texas territory was a German prince who was bringing people in from Germany.  There were about the same number of settlers coming in from Germany as the rest of the United States.  The late 1890s was the height of the German influx of settling and at that time, German was spoken as extensively in Texas as English.  Then of course Spanish was spoken widely too. In the process of all this settling, Texas had become a very multicultural place by the 1800s.

The kinds of Germans who were interested in coming to Texas varied widely.  There were a lot of farmers who just couldn’t get enough land in Germany and who saw this as a huge opportunity to farm.  There were also a lot of people who were members of utopian societies looking for a place to start their communes. So, some of the German settlers of Texas were among the most idealistic Europeans.  A lot of them went on to become part of the Texas legislature and the Texas government and gave us some of our eccentric traditions like Luckenbach, Texas, and South Austin.

  An Army of Hungry of Cotton Pickers  
Picking Cotton in North Texas, Country Life, Bill Dakin,TX
  The big agricultural business of Texas was cotton. Indeed, Texas was the most productive place in the entire south to raise cotton. However, that era in Texas’ history didn’t last very long because it was interrupted by the Civil War. However, after the Civil War the cotton culture continued in the German farming towns.Picking cotton is enormously labor intensive. During the harvest season an army of cotton pickers, would descend on Texas. Most of them were from Mexico, a lot of them were black, and some of them poor whites, or ‘Okies’ as they called them.
  As many as 400,000 cotton pickers would move in a swarm across the state starting in the lower Rio Grande Valley where the season began and moving north as the cotton ripened. They would spend about six weeks in each community harvesting the cotton. When they got to German towns, like Lockhart and Elgin, the number of cotton pickers was equal to the population of the entire town. The population of cotton pickers was not necessarily welcome in these towns. They weren’t provided any sanitary facilities and they weren’t allowed in restaurants. The only place they could go to get food was the local store. In the German towns, they went to the meat market. These were the days before refrigeration so the meat at the market wasn’t fresh; it was smoked. There were German smoked sausages and German smoked pork loins and an array of other German smoked meats.

  No Plates, No Sides — Just Meat

In a meat market, they don’t put it on a plate and give you a fork and ask you if you want potato salad, they just put it on a piece of paper. But to the cotton pickers the selection of smoked meats reminded them of barbecue, so they bought it up and it became a meal for them. The cotton pickers wiped out every German meat market of all the smoked meat they could find and they supplemented it with crackers, pickles, onions, and other stuff that you could pick up in a meat market.
  They’d go sit on the steps or wherever and eat the stuff on the spot. During cotton-picking season, the German butchers started to build extra pits and bought more meat.  One fellow I talked to, Mr. Smolek of Smolek's Meat Market, told me that when he was a kid, in the nineteen teens, his father was selling 2,000 pounds of smoked meat a day, at fifty cents a pound.  So, that was a thousand dollars a day from smoked meat in, I think 1917 was the year he gave me.  He said he sat underneath the counter and put the money in a bushel basket.

We think of this as some kind of German tradition, but the truth is, it came from the cotton pickers.  That’s why in the old German meat markets like Kruez Market in Lockhart, barbecue is still served this way. There are no side dishes. There are no plates.  There are no forks.  It’s a meat market.  But, this is where it came from. It came from the cotton pickers.  Without the cotton pickers, there would never have ever been the demand for this kind of mass production of smoked meat.  Otherwise, it would just be a couple rings of German sausage.

  More on Meat - Meat Biscuit, Pork Butt and Fajita's Texas Style

Fajita   Meat Bisuit
Pork butt   Perinni Chuckwagon
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