Stirring up memories
Coma ti yi youpy ...
June 20, 2007
Come along, boys, and listen to my tale,
I'll tell you of my troubles on the old Chisholm Trail.
Coma ti yi youpy, youpy yea, youpy yea,
Coma ti yi youpy, youpy yea
The white Jeep (its mileage is getting 'way up there) has bumped the Pandos west several times this year. Almost every trip we've run into the same thing—The Chisholm Trail. It's no wonder, since it stretches from the Rio Grande across Texas and Oklahoma all the way into the middle of Kansas.
But I did wonder about the trail, the cowboys and, of course, the cows. Turns out it was a bit of an economics problem. I liked that since I used to teach economics. So I set out to learn more.
In the years after the Civil War, the ranchers down along the Texas-Mexican border had a problem. They had a lot of scrawny, funny-looking cows worth about three bucks apiece. Those same animals would have seemed neither scrawny nor funny looking in the hungry markets to the north and east—they'd look like dinner. Hungry Yankees were willing to pay up to $60 a head. Quite a spread there; some profit to be made.
Naturally, there was a problem how to get the beasts from here, almost in Mexico, to there, faraway Chicago. Those were the days before 18-wheelers and superhighways. There was nary a railroad in sight. Wait! The trains came right through Abilene, Kansas, a mere 1,200 miles away. And there was a trail to Abilene—the Chisholm Trail.
Jesse Chisholm had a Scottish dad and Cherokee mom. He knew the territory and he was good at business. He set up a trading post in Kansas and began to look around. There was business to be done to the south. Using his ingenuity and "family" connections he blazed a trail down from Kansas across what was then the Indian Territory clear across the miles and miles of Texas into Mexico. He used the trail as a trade route. But there it was, and where goods can go, so can cattle.
In 1867, those Texas cattle drovers started their herds up the Chisholm Trail. Jesse died 1868 without ever knowing his name would be legendary. Jesse was a good man. The words "No one left his home cold or hungry" emblazon his grave marker in Oklahoma.
Until 1872, Jesse's trail thundered with the sound of pounding hooves. Across the five years more than 3 million cattle made the journey. So did a lot of tough cowboys. They had to be tough—it was a rough trip. They hurried across the arid lands of Texas, but once they reached the lusher lands of the Indian Territory, they slowed so the herd could graze and fatten up. The whole trip took about four months.
The cattle may have been fattening up, but those tough hombres, the cowboys, weren't. Whether in Texas or the Indian Territory, they had to depend on the chuck wagon for dinner.
Usually a rough fellow named Cookie ran the operation. Don't cross Cookie. (Not too much steak along the way—it's not good to eat the merchandise.) All the food for the drive was on that wagon, and there was no refrigerator, there was no cooler. That meant most of the food was dried or salted. Dried beans, dried beef, dried apples, salt pork, bacon and, of course, sourdough bread. Most of this was cooked over a campfire.
Now where do you get fuel on those arid plains of Texas? Why, generally Cookie used chips. I don't mean corn chips. I mean buffalo or cow chips—when they were sufficiently dry they mad a fine if somewhat aromatic fire. If they weren't sufficiently dry, Cookie brought them along in a hammock slung under the chuck wagon to finish the process. No wonder you didn't want to cross Cookie.
For beverage there was a choice. Water, or coffee cooked over the campfire. Any cowboy caught taking a nip of something stronger immediately became an ex-cowboy.
No wonder everybody, cow and cowboy (not to mention Cookie), was glad to get to Abilene. The cows didn't know what was coming. The cowboys did.
Abilene has a biblical name (Luke 3:1) meaning "city of the plains," but in those hard trail driving years, it was plenty wild and woolly. The cowboys had to make up for those four months of trail time!
The tiny frontier hamlet had dozed away with log cabins and dugout since it was founded in 1857. The most excitement was when the stagecoach arrived. When the railroad came through and the cattle showed up not long after, things changed. The population exploded from 300 to 3,000. Naturally, those new residents brought not only stockyards for the cattle, but hotels, general stores, saloons, gambling dens and other business establishments to relieve the wranglers of their pay.
Things could get wild! Why do you think they called one U.S. marshal who tried to maintain a little law and order Wild Bill Hickok?
Abilene's more settled, staider citizens didn't like this one bit. All the rowdy activities were restricted to south of the train tracks, and cowboys weren't permitted north of them. In 1872, with a good bit of civic encouragement, the trail drives moved west and found new shipping points. Abilene returned to drowsing in the Kansas sun.
Not all campfire food is dried beans. Here are a couple of recipes associated with Abilene's most famous son, the 34th president, Dwight D. Eisenhower. They are both campfire favorites. Both are from "Eisenhower Recipes," available at the Eisenhower Library in Abilene, and appear to be in the President's own words.
Ike's Outdoor Steak
Build a charcoal fire on the ground and let it burn until it is a bed of red hot coals. Get a sirloin steak, 2½ to 3 inches thick. Roll the steak in a mixture of fine salt, black pepper and garlic powder. Throw the steak on the fire. After about 10 minutes nudge it over once and let it stay in the fire for a total of about 20 minutes. Take it out, brush off, and slice on the diagonal.
Maybe this is the world's easiest recipe. My Eagle Scout son, Patrick, calls this "caveman steak" and recalls cooking it at the Philmont Scout camp in New Mexico. It is popular all over the world. If your steak is thinner, be careful with the timing or you'll end up with a cinder. And be sure and use wood or charcoal. Buffalo chips are a bad idea.
Of course, the cowboys crossed a few streams on the trek north, and you can bet your boots they went fishing.
President Eisenhower's Cooked Trout
In a pan over an open fire, fry some bacon and cook the fish in a combination of bacon drippings and butter. Before frying the fish, dredge the trout in a sack of corm meal seasoned with salt and pepper. It only takes five or 10 minutes to cook.
It will work with any fish a cowboy catches.
A final word on Abilene: If you go and check the city out, be sure and allow time for dinner at the Brookville Hotel just north of town. They only have one menu item—no choices. Fried chicken and the fixings served family style. Do folks come from miles around? Well, they've been in continuous business since 1915. It's great!
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Trilla Pando is a member of the Southern Foodways Alliance & the Story Circle Network