Cookin' On The Range



The old-time Arizona cowboys spent most of their time pursuing and rounding up cattle that roamed over hundreds of acres of mesquite, catclaw and palo verde trees searching for sparse vegetation for food.

The cattle needed to be checked over and doctored for any injuries they may have sustained, and cows and their newborn calves were brought to areas closer to home so that they could be watched over more closely.

Dogies, calves whose mothers had died or been killed by predators, were brought back to be cared for at the ranch if a surrogate mother could not be found. Cattle that had escaped being branded in previous roundups were branded, and young male calves were castrated, thus becoming "steers."

It was a never-ending job, and the cowboys were far from civilization most of the time; there were no corner grocery stores handy, so food was what they could carry on a chuck wagon, which was stocked with nonperishable items, such as flour, baking powder, salt and pepper, beans and bacon. Usually there was a camp cook along with the chuck wagon, who prepared Dutch oven biscuits, beans, pancakes, coffee and any other food available. If the cook got fed up with the lonely life, or had a row with a cowboy and left, one of the cowboys had to take over the job. When they butchered a calf they had steaks or stew from the beef, using vegetables as long as they lasted without any refrigeration.

A choice delicacy was "calf fries" at castrating time, sometimes referred to as "mountain oysters," which were rolled in cornmeal and then thrown onto the coals of the campfire and cooked until they popped open.

Canned or dried apples were taken along to make an apple pie for dessert, or gelatin was served, but with no ice to chill and thicken it, the watery result was not a favorite with the cowboys.

Jerky (dried beef) was eaten as a snack when there was no time to set up camp. Richard Taylor, of Payson, was one of those cowboys and remembers making biscuits in a Dutch oven over a campfire. He says you take a big sack of flour, scoop out a hole in the top of the flour and pour some water in it. Then you add baking powder, salt and some lard if you have it. Using your hands, mix it with the water right there in the top of the sack of flour. Then the biscuits are formed and placed in a hot Dutch oven and covered with the lid. The oven is then removed from the fire to some hot coals at the side of the fire to finish baking the biscuits.

In the meanwhile, pinto beans which have been soaked overnight, drained and put in a Dutch oven with water to cover, some bacon added, and then cooked all day over coals, are ready to be eaten by the time the hungry cowboys came in at night.

If there was fresh beef, it was fried in an iron skillet or barbecued over the campfire. Breakfast was usually pancakes, bacon and coffee. The menu never changed, but the cowboys seemed to thrive on it, and certainly earned their keep.

In their spare time, when roundup time was over, one of their pastimes was conducting rodeos on Main Street in Payson, doing what they had been doing day in and day out to make a living: riding, calf roping and tying, and other events, to compete with one another. Many have lived long and happy lives, as Taylor, now in his late 80s, has. They have fond memories of their life on the range, and the companionship they enjoyed telling tall tales around the campfire, before rolling up in their bedrolls to get some sleep. Soon, they were awakened by the smell of coffee being brewed, to start another day of chasing those evasive critters through the thorny mesquite and catclaw.

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