Cowboy Christmas Delight Courtesy of Chuck Wagon Bill

For the enjoyment of anyone who savors a good campfire dining experience, the following is a reprint of my latest piece of outdoor prose published as a Campfire Tale in the November/December edition of The Journal of Texas Trophy Hunters magazine.

“Just call me Chuck Wagon Bill,” the elderly cowboy said as he extended his weathered and calloused hand across the table at Las Cazuelas restaurant in Laredo.

    The local hangout was an every afternoon gathering spot for a select few seasoned border town citizens who enjoyed a “mariachi” (the local nickname for breakfast tacos) and cup of coffee while solving all of the world’s problems.

    “Took that name from my grandpa who worked a few trail drives and cattle roundups back in the old days.  He was a crackerjack cook. The hands called him “Mr. Bill’ to his face and probably a lot of other things behind his back.

    “He had a special knack for keeping them cowboys filled up with some good grub, but he always seemed to be on the prod – short-tempered as all get out.

    “He took a shine to me and I spent many a day listenin’ to his yarns and learnin’ my way around a cookin’ fire.”

    Chuck Wagon Bill was a chance encounter down Laredo way one brisk November day when white-tailed deer season had brought visitors to the border town in search of big bucks, good food and engaging (mostly truthful) conversations.

    My ticket to the center of this universe was courtesy of my late father-in-law, H. Eugene McKendrick.  His grandfather had sailed across the big pond from England and traveled to Laredo in the mid-1800’s to try his hand at raising cattle.

    “He used to say that back then the grass was shoulder high and brush or trees were so scarce that a cowboy had to pull up a handful of grass, wrap his reins around it and then bury it in the sand just to keep a horse tied up,’’ Old Gene reminisced.

    Old Gene – he hated his first name of Horace and always went by Gene – and Chuck Wagon Bill were like two peas in a pod.  Their wisdom had been acquired over years of hard labor alongside cowpunchers and ranch hands that had to get tough or die.

The subject at hand that afternoon turned to what type of cowboy fare that was typically available when lean, rawboned men would spend up to 14 hours a day in the saddle working mule-headed beef.

    “Them cowboys were always hungry.  Never seemed to get enough to eat.  They was mostly living on beef, beans, bacon, biscuits and black coffee,” Chuck Wagon Bill said, relating memories shared with him by “Mr. Bill.”

     “I asked him one time: “Weren’t it hard work keeping up with them cowboy’s growling stomachs?

    “Hell yes it were hard.  If’n it was easy, old women and little kids would do it,’’ he said “Mr. Bill” barked back at him.

    Chuck Wagon Bill said one particular story his grandfather would share with his kin around the holiday time involved a cowboy delicacy he worked up during a December roundup.

    “Just happened to have a young calf break a leg a couple days afore Christmas and I jumped on that like a chicken on a June bug to cook up my special treat,” the old man related.

   “First thing I did was cut up the marrow gut into small chunks and got it to simmering with a handful of bacon grease in my biggest stew pot.  (NOTE: Marrow gut is the connection between a nursing calf’s two stomachs.  Inside the gut is a substance that resembles bone marrow and this helps give the stew its distinctive flavor.)

   “You got to take time to render out that marrow gut fat or your stew ain’t worth spit.   While that were cooking down, I diced up the heart and a couple pounds of neck meat. 

   “Then I went to cutting up the kidneys and sweetbreads; skinned out the tongue, chunked it up and throwed it all into the browned marrow gut a bit at a time.

   “Topped that with a big old peeled onion all nice and diced; about six or eight peeled and mashed garlic cloves; six or eight dried chili pequins from my pepper stash; and a hefty pinch of salt.

   “Stirred it all together and cooked that down for about three hours – had to add a ladle or so of water from time to time to keep it from getting too thick – and served it up for dinner with some hot biscuits and a big pot of black coffee.”

    “Mr. Bill” bragged that the hands gobbled down that concoction with gusto and when one of them finally got up enough courage, he asked what they were eating.

   “Don’t you mind what I call it, just eat the Son of a Bitch,’’ the old cook said he told them, always breaking into a broad smile remembering the look on the faces of the chow-happy cowboys.

   Chuck Wagon Bill pointed out that he doubts if his grandpa was the original cowboy cook to work up a pot of “Son of a Bitch Stew,” but said the old man regularly laid claim to the accomplishment.

    “Of course, it weren’t a good idea to question “Mr. Bill” about anything to his face, especially if his favorite cooking ladle was close by.  Didn’t take much to get him to whack you with that ladle – it smarted quite a bit,’’ Chuck Wagon Bill said.

    For those Campfire Tales cowboy cooking fans who may be a little squeamish about cooking or eating “Son of a Bitch Stew,” the following is one of Chuck Wagon Bill’s recipes created as a sweet treat for about 10-15 hungry hands. This is a modern adaption of a South Texas favorite.  Feel free to cut down the amount of ingredients by half or quarters if cooking for less hungry groups of campmate compadres.

Sweet Pan De Campo (Camp Bread)

  • 5 pounds flour
  • 1 pound lard at room temperature
  • 3 tablespoons baking powder
  • Hefty pinch of salt
  • 2 cups diced dried apricots or apples
  • 1 can evaporated milk mixed with a can of water

   In a large bowl, mix together first four ingredients with your hands until the mixture is crumbly. Mix in dried fruit. Slowly add milk and water to flour mixture a little at a time, mixing well with your hands until dough is firm enough to be flattened into round loaves about one-quarter to one-half inch thick and about 4-6 inches in diameter (looks like a thick tortilla). Heavily butter the bottom of a large Dutch oven and pre-heat to about 350 degrees. Place two or three loaves (whatever will fit on the bottom of the oven and not be crowded) in the hot butter, cover and cook about five minutes or loaves are lightly browned on the bottom. Lift the lid and flip each browned loaf to cook the other side another five minutes or so. Set browned loaves off to the side on a warm plate. Repeat with all the loaves, adding more butter to the oven if necessary. Serve warm, sprinkled with cinnamon and granulated sugar (1 part cinnamon to three parts sugar) or fresh honey.