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About the cover

 

D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e    March 2008

Voice of a Ranch Woman
Fifth in a Series

 

Queen of the Feeds

When it comes to feeding cowboys, you should always have food left over, because that means everybody got all they wanted to eat.

By Linda McDonald, as told to Victoria Tester



This first-person reminiscence is excerpted from recordings of Linda Nielson McDonald at her home on the McDonald Ranch. Established in 1903, the McDonald Ranch is among the five oldest continuously working ranches in Grant County. Linda McDonald, born in Moab, Utah, in 1942, is the wife of Jerry McDonald, the son of Jonnie McDonald and Evelyn McCauley. These recordings are a collaboration between McDonald and author Victoria Tester, whose book Miracles of Sainted Earth (University of New Mexico Press) won the nationally recognized Willa Cather Literary Award. Their efforts mark the beginning of a project by the two women to record and publish a book of oral histories of ranch women in southern New Mexico.

 

 

Feeding cowboys is a tradition that started years ago when they had the cattle drives. Jerry's grandfather, Jeremiah McDonald, was on these cattle drives. They were moving these cattle, and they had to make provisions for the cowboys being fed, so they had a chuck wagon. They would keep the food in the chuck wagon, and they usually had a camp cook, and that was a man.

Cowboys getting tailgate dinner at
Evelyn McDonald's chuck truck, 1965.

Because women didn't travel on these trail drives. It was all men.

So the cook would be a man. And Grandpa told me, "They talk about having beans on these trail drives. They didn't have that many beans. Because it takes a long time to cook frijole beans."

Mostly what they fed the men was beef, because that's what they had available. Then they might have canned corn and maybe canned tomatoes, and then dessert — maybe they had a sugar pie that they'd make out of leftover biscuit dough. They would have biscuits — biscuits are something they could cook quick. I don't hear about them using cornbread on the trail drives. I think they mostly just did biscuits.



A trail drive is where they want to move a bunch of cattle from one place to another, and usually the only time that they gathered these cattle up was to brand them and to ship them. That's the way we do it now. You work the cattle in the spring and you work them in the fall. The spring is when most of your calves are born, and in the fall you pick up the rest of the little calves that have been born since then, but your main objective in the fall is to ship your cattle.

But in the old days, they'd start these cattle drives way ahead. They'd start in the summer driving these cattle to a location where they could ship them, so that was called a trail drive. And these cowboys wouldn't actually move these cattle fast. They'd move them slowly, so they could graze as they went so they were actually gaining weight and not losing weight. So it wasn't something that went fast. It went over a period of months. They'd start in the summer and when they got to their destination, wherever it might be, wherever they could ship the cattle, it would be cold by then.



There would be a camp cook and I think he would stay with them the whole trail drive. They always said cooks were very cranky, though. If you complained about the food, that didn't make them happy at all. They might get you to be the camp cook.

Usually the cook would take their flour and lard and salt and whatever they needed to make their biscuits with, and then they'd butcher a beef. The men would eat that beef and have their biscuits and I'm sure they had sugar and they probably just all drank coffee back then. Nowadays we serve Kool-aid or something like that, or some people serve tea. I don't know what in the way of sweets they had. Probably sugar on a biscuit.

I don't know why the cook was cranky, but probably because those men were coming in hungry and he had to have the meal ready and they were probably over there gettin' their coffee and gettin' in his way and messin' with his fire. Just stay out of his way and let him cook. Build all those fires and all that. And if you've never cooked a meal on Dutch ovens, let me tell you, you have a lot of Dutch ovens and they're spread out all over. So it takes a lot of good oak wood to cook. They would haul that wood and so it took more than just the cook to get the chuck wagon going.

If I was a cook I'd sure be cranky and say, "Get out of my way so I can get this done."

I'm sure, if anybody complained about the meal, they were in big trouble.

J.R. Williams was an old cartoonist, and he's got the best cartoons about all the ranch life, and about cooking. And of course Ace Reid is a recent one about them makin' comments about what the cook is makin'. They'll make snide remarks about it. But I bet those cowboys didn't really tell that cook that!



Years ago, Grandpa and Grandma McCauley, Jerry's maternal grandparents, had places leased around in the county, and they weren't necessarily going to be back home. Sometimes Grandma Nancy McCauley would go off and stay at Thompson Canyon, when they were working over there, and she would cook for the men. There was a house there that she could stay in, so she didn't necessarily have to camp out, but she'd go off and leave a lot of her family at the home place to go to Thompson Canyon and cook for the men over there.

Nancy's daughter, Granny, Evelyn McDonald, would tell the story about when she was a girl and her Dad took her over to Thompson Canyon. He called her Soxy. He says, "Oh, Soxy, you could boil a pot of beans." He'd take her, and maybe her friend Ruth St. John, over there. Granny and her friend made biscuits and they were so horrible they buried them or something. But I guess she did boil the beans and she eventually became a very excellent biscuit cook. She wasn't very big when he would take her over there, she was maybe 10 or 12, but that was her beginning to learn to cook biscuits and feed cowboys.

Today I'm making green chile stew for lunch and that was a favorite dish of Grandma Mitchel McDonald's, and we'll be eating at the table that was Grandma and Grandpa McCauley's, their first table after they got married, and they got married the 6th of January 1912, the day New Mexico became a state. And we're going to be eating on tin plates that are out of Granny's old chuck box.



When did it change to the women becoming the cooks? Jerry says it probably changed when they started fencing this country, which Grandpa told me was about the turn of the century, in the early 1900s. Jerry's dad and uncles, they were all involved in building the fences here, which are all falling down now because they were built with posts and those posts rotted out. Those posts don't last forever.

I also think when the railroads came in that had something to do with women becoming the cooks, too — when there were more railroads. Though we do have an old photograph of Grandpa Jonnie McDonald at the Silver City railroad, and it has a picture of the chuck wagon there, so the men were still the cooks then, at that time.

But when the railroad came into Silver City, then they didn't have to take the cattle so far. They could just drive them to Silver City.

On those long trail drives they'd be gone for months, so it didn't make sense for a woman to go along. But after the country was fenced, it was all closer, the women were available, and they'd take their little kids and go cook.



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