What was the typical food a cowboy ate for dinner?

Cowboys in the late 1800s and early 1900s endured long, grueling days out on cattle drives or working on ranches. At the end of the day, they were eager to sit down to a hearty, filling dinner to replenish their energy. While cowboy cuisine varied based on location and availability of ingredients, there were some standard dishes that appeared frequently at the dinner table.


Meat was the centerpiece of most cowboy meals. Beef, of course, was plentiful, since cows were the entire reason for a cowboy’s job. A thick beefsteak cooked over the campfire was a typical dinner offering. When cattle were slaughtered, lesser cuts of beef like liver and kidneys made appearances at dinnertime as well. In cattle country, beef was king.

However, the cattle country of the Great Plains and Southwest was also open range for sheep, pigs, and goats. Mutton (sheep meat) shows up often in records of cowboy cuisine. In the South, pork dishes like bacon, ham, and smoked sausages were cowboy dinner staples. On the trail, cowboys ate cured, heavily salted meats that kept without refrigeration.

Wild game contributed variety to the cowboy diet when available. In the Pacific Northwest, venison and elk were on the menu. Buffalo and antelope were sources of meat in the Great Plains. Game birds like goose, duck, turkey, quail, and dove were favored when they could be hunted or caught. Meat made up the biggest portion of a cowboy’s dinner plate.


Beans and cowboy cuisine went hand-in-hand.豆类和牛仔食品是并肩的。 Dry beans were a convenient, non-perishable food that could be transported without spoiling and quickly cooked up into a hearty pot of beans. Pinto beans, kidney beans, black beans, and tepary beans were common types cooked at cowboy camps.

Beans provided an important source of protein and carbohydrates. They were often cooked with salt pork for added flavor and fat. Other times, chopped onions or peppers lent flavor to simple pots of beans. Chili con carne, a spicy bean stew containing chunks of beef, was another favorite way cowboys enjoyed beans.


Breads and other baked goods were essential to provide filling carbohydrates. A Dutch oven was the cowboy’s oven, used to bake breads and biscuits over a campfire. Cast iron cooking generally called for heaping coals on the lid of the Dutch oven, as well as underneath it. This produced even heating and allowed the cowboy cook to bake golden brown breads and biscuits.

Sourdough biscuits were a cowboy favorite. The sourdough starter added a tangy zest and allowed the breads to rise without yeast. Bacon, potato, or baking powder biscuits were also common fare. Cornbread, pancakes, and bread puddings also appeared at the cowboy’s dinner table, when time allowed for baking.


Potatoes were an excellent frontier food. They were inexpensive, stored well, and were easy to cook by boiling, roasting, or frying.Cowboy cooks prepared them in all these ways, serving up plates of mashed potatoes, fried potatoes, roasted potatoes, and scalloped potatoes.

Potatoes also featured in regional specialties adapted by cowboys. Western cooks borrowed potatoes au gratin from French cuisine, substituting game meats for pricier cuts in their version. Potato dumplings and potatoes cooked in stew were dishes borrowed from German and Eastern European settlers. The humble potato was an adaptable staple in the chuck wagon.

Coffee, Tea, and Other Drinks

Cowboys loved their hot drinks. Coffee was the beverage of choice for most. Arbuckles was a popular mass-produced coffee favored by cowhands. Drinking coffee from a tin cup became an iconic cowboy image. Cowboys took coffee black or sweetened it with sugar if available.

Tea also had its place at the cowboy’s dinner. Mint tea made from wild mint leaves provided a refreshing alternative to coffee. In the Southwest, cowboys drank red tea made from roasting and brewing sumac berries or pine needles. Chili pepper tea was another southwestern drink cowboys enjoyed.

Beyond hot drinks, cowboys would drink milk when they had access to it. Water was drunk from canteens, rivers, springs, and whatever other sources cowboys came across. Homemade beer and wine often accompanied cowboy meals on special occasions like the 4th of July or holidays.

Regional Specialties

While those dishes covered the basics of what cowboys ate, regional cuisine also impacted what cowboys cooked and ate. Local ingredients and cultural influences created area specialties enjoyed by local cowboys and adapted to camp cooking.

In Texas and the Southwest, Mexican and Native American food heritage shone through. Spicy chilis, tomatoes, onions, garlic, squash, and corn were common ingredients. Tacos, enchiladas, burritos and other Mexican dishes made with flour tortillas were modified for the trail. Menudo, a spicy tripe stew, provided an easy trailside meal.

In the Pacific Northwest, salmon was a cowboy dinner luxury when available. West coast cowboys also enjoyed Chinese dishes like chop suey that made their way inland from the Pacific coast.

Midwestern and Great Plains cowboys cooked with their region’s abundant corn and wild game. Cornbread, corn fritters, and boiled corn on the cob were favorites. Wild berries like chokecherries were made into puddings or jelly.

Florida cowboys cooked the South’s classic dishes like grits, catfish, hushpuppies, and cooked greens. Up north, New England dairy products like milk, butter, and cheeses made their way into cowboy fare.

While the foods themselves varied, the cowboy dinner across all these regions remained straightforward, filling fare designed to power hardworking men through their days.

Common Cooking Methods

Rustic outdoor cooking methods were the norm for preparing cowboy cuisine. Most foods were cooked over the campfire in simple cast iron pots and pans.

Frying was a common technique for meat, eggs, pancakes, breads, and potatoes. Food was typically fried in bacon drippings or lard. Cowboy coffee boiled in pots over the open fire.

As described above, Dutch ovens allowed baking dishes like beans, breads, biscuits, and cobblers. Ropes and chains suspended pots over the campfire, grill racks held pans at correct heights. Meat roasted on sticks over the flames.

For trailside meals, skewered meat could be quickly grilled over the fire. Stews allowed ingredients to simmer together in one-pot meals. Some foods like hardtack biscuits were cooked in advance and eaten on the trail.

Typical Meals

While cowboy fare varied day to day based on ingredient availability, a few typical dinner meals emerged as cowboy favorites.

Steaks – Cowboys loved their beef and a thick steak grilled over the campfire made a typical dinner. Steaks were sometimes pounded flat before grilling. Steaks might be accompanied by potatoes, beans, and coffee or tea.

Beans and Bacon – Pinto beans simmered with salt pork made a simple, hearty meal. Bacon grease or salt pork added flavor and fat. Biscuits and coffee were perfect accompaniments.

Sonofagun or Son-of-a-bitch Stew – This cowboy favorite included meat, potatoes, vegetables, and bread or rice. Leftovers and meat scraps went into the pot for this everything-but-the-kitchen sink stew.

Chicken Fried Steak – Tenderized round steak breaded and fried like chicken made this budget-friendly dinner. Milk gravy provided an iconic topping. Mashed potatoes and bread completed the meal.

Beef and Beans -Slices of beef and beans cooked together was a one-pot meal. Onions, peppers, chili, or other vegetables added interest. Fried potatoes or cornbread served on the side.

Chuck Wagon Fare

On cattle drives, the chuck wagon cook prepared the meals for the cowboys. The chuck wagon was equipped with the tools and supplies needed for feeding hungry cowhands three meals a day.

Breakfast was an early morning affair, with slaves often starting before dawn. Staples like bacon, eggs, pancakes, potatoes, beans, biscuits and gravy fueled the cowboys for their long days. Lunch served as more of a quick break, with dinner being the main hot meal of the day.

Chuck wagon fare needed to use non-perishable ingredients that traveled well and could cook quickly over the campfire. The chuck wagon cook planned meals along the route to take advantage of available game, fish, fruit and vegetables. Some cattle owners mandated that protein and green vegetables be included in meals for nutrition.

Cookie was the affectionate nickname cowboys had for their chuck wagon cook. Cookie fed as many as 25 hungry cowboys on the trail three times a day. It was a demanding role that required skill at preparing filling, hearty fare over an open fire.

Meals on the Range

When cattle work took cowboys and cattle far from camp, they often had to fend for themselves at mealtimes. Cowboys then relied on portable items from their saddlebags and easily prepared campfire fare.

Fatback bacon made a convenient meal. Coffee beans could be roasted over the fire and ground with a pocket knife before boiling up a cup of coffee. Biscuits or bread could be cooked in a Dutch oven. Dried beans soaked and quickly cooked up into a hot lunch.

For the most basic meals, cowboys speared meat on sticks and roasted it over the flames. Hardtack biscuits, dried fruit, and jerky were other convenient standbys for cowboy fare on the range.


Sugary desserts provided a real treat when chuck wagon cooks had the ingredients available. Here are some typical desserts and sweets cowboys enjoyed:

  • Cobblers – Dried fruit cooked up into a sweet stew, topped with a biscuit crust
  • Fruit pies – Baked pies with berries, peaches, apples, or whatever fruit could be obtained
  • Gingerbread – Spicy, molasses-sweetened cake
  • Puddings – Rice, bread, or fruit puddings cooked up from the ingredients on hand
  • Cookies – Simple cookies baked up in Dutch ovens when flour and sugar supplies allowed
  • Doughnuts – Fried sweet dough was a rare delicacy
  • Candy – Store-bought hard candy provided a sugary treat

With scarce access to refined sugar and fresh fruit on the trail, desserts were not an everyday part of cowboy meals. But after eating meat, beans, and biscuits day after day, cowboys welcomed any dishes the chuck wagon cookie could whip up to satisfy their sweet tooths.


Water – Water was the cowboy’s main beverage, drunk from canteens, rivers, springs, and whatever other sources they came across.

Coffee – Arbuckles coffee was a popular mass-produced coffee brand drunk by cowboys. Coffee provided warming caffeine to start the day.

Tea – Tea from herbs and plants like mint, sumac berries, or pine needles provided variety from standard coffee.

Alcohol – On special occasions, beer, wine or whiskey made appearances at the camp.

Milk – Fresh milk was a treat when available at cow camps.

Food Preservation Methods

Keeping food from spoiling was a challenge on the trail. Cowboy cooks used these main methods to preserve meat, produce, and other supplies:

  • Salting – Heavily salting meat was a primary preservation method. Salt pork and salt beef lasted for months.
  • Drying – Fruit, vegetables, and meat were dried for storage. Jerky was an iconic dried cowboy food.
  • Canning – When practical, canning allowed meats and produce to keep longer.
  • Pickling – Pickling foods like eggs and vegetables in vinegar extended their shelf life.
  • Smoking – Smoking meats helped preserve them.
  • Cold storage – Perishable items were stored in cold cellars, cool streams, or under wet burlap.

Careful food preservation allowed chuck wagons to stay well stocked on the months-long drives. With limited ability to purchase fresh supplies along the trail, these methods were essential to keep cowboys fed and healthy.


From massive steaks to pots of beans simmered with salt pork, cowboy cuisine reflected the lives of men who worked hard, spent long days on horseback, and needed hearty, filling foods. While trail drive meals often lacked variety due to ingredient constraints, cowboy cooks aimed to fill the cowhands with rib-sticking fare that powered them through arduous work.

Many cowboy dishes remain icons of Americana and the West, from strong black coffee to chicken fried steak to chili. Simple, hearty meals cooked over an open fire came to represent the spirit of the American cowboy. And as old as the romantic cowboy image remains, so too will the sturdy, rough and ready meals that fueled their work live on in our imaginations.

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