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Cow Camp Pinto Beans

I do not profess to be an expert at camp fire cooking. That is a precision based talent that comes from a life-long dedication of the art. But I do love history, a good beef steak, and I’ve always held an obsession for the American West, so it was a fortunate opportunity that I got to include all these things in my newest book, KEEP ‘EM FULL AND KEEP ‘EM ROLLIN’: The All-American Chuck Wagon Cookbook.

It was early pioneer and cattleman Charles Goodnight who is credited for inventing the chuck wagon. In my research I found several accounts that gave credit to his wife, Mary Ann Goodnight, for the idea to load a mule-powered wagon with chuck to feed cowboys as they pushed wild Texas Longhorns up the trail. Affectionately known as Aunt Molly, also known as “Mother of the Panhandle” because of her nurturing spirit towards all of their cowboys, I can believe that about her.

The meals had to be hearty. High energy and high protein food for men who spent most of their days and nights in the saddle. Beans played an important part in their diet. When he rode into cow camp, a cow puncher would most likely find a bean pot bubbling on the fire and a 5-gallon pot of black coffee.

In my research, earlier recipes called for simply “beans”. In the late 1800’s a 20- pound sack of dried beans cost $1.10 and could withstand the harsh environment of the trail. In south Texas, the pinto was more common particularly with cooks of Hispanic heritage. Beans also referred to other types, such as navy, northern, or red beans.

Pinto beans. Photo by N. Bright.

I grew up in a small Texas town and my mother kept a pot of pinto beans bubbling on the stove every week or so. Sometimes that was all we had for dinner along with a buttery wedge of cornbread (for a cornbread stick recipe, follow the link to my blog here). Pintos are the perfect side to just about any main dish you want to cook. When my husband moved from Texas to Colorado, he remembers his mother being frustrated because she couldn’t get her pinto beans to soften and cook at the higher altitude.

As the cow tailing outfits moved northward into higher elevations, the northern or navy beans were more common as they restocked the provisions on the chuck wagon. The white northern bean or the smaller navy bean cooks faster than the pinto and are more suitable to the northern parts of the American west.

Ranches continue to feed their cow punching crews; a tradition that began over 150 years ago with Goodnight’s chuck wagon.
Cowboy B.P. Vinson rides in the dust of the drags. Texas Panhandle. Photo by N. Bright.

Most authentic bean recipes called for salt pork, which is fatty cuts from the under belly, salt-cured and could last for several months wrapped in a tarp at the bottom of the chuck wagon. For today’s purposes, you can easily substitute bacon. If you do use salt pork, you may want to decrease the addition of extra salt. Taste to be sure.

Eugine’s BBQ Beans, Cocklebur Camp Chuck Wagon Crew

Watching these cooks at work was an unforgettable experience. From the chuck wagon cooking team of Cocklebur Camp, Odessa, Texas, here’s a flavorful bean recipe. They recommend you cook the day before you serve ’em up, for best results.

1 pound pinto beans
1 quart water
2 tablespoon cooking oil
4 onions, chopped
2 cloves garlic
1 pound ground beef
1 large jalapeno pepper
2 teaspoons chili powder
1/2 teaspoon rosemary
1/4 teaspoon oregano

Wash beans and put in a 4-quart kettle, add water and bring to a boil. Boil for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand for one hour. Heat oil and saute onions, pepper, garlic, and meat. Add to beans with all the seasonings. Cover and simmer 3 hours.

For more recipes from the Cocklebur Camp Team, you can order their cookbook here.

For more bean recipes, check out my new book, KEEP ‘EM FULL AND KEEP ‘EM ROLLIN’. It’s available for pre-order now. If you don’t have a fire pit, no worries! The cow camp recipes selected for this book can be easily prepared and cooked in your kitchen. You’ll find authentic recipes from the trail as well as modern, cowboy approved dishes from experienced chuck wagon and ranch house cook houses. Dig out your best cast iron kettle and stir up a taste of the old West for your family.

Available NOW from TwoDot Books (Rowman & Littlefield)

For more reading about the cattle driving era, I highly recommend WE POINTED THEM NORTH by E.C. “Teddy Blue” Abbott. For more information on fire pit cooking I recommend the very entertaining YouTube videos by master cook Cowboy Kent Rollins. And on Instagram @just_a_mountain_dude cooks up some delicious looking food on his camp fire.

Natalie Bright is the author of the upcoming book, KEEP ‘EM FULL AND KEEP ‘EM ROLLIN’: The All-American Chuck Wagon Cookbook. With over 100 recipes, cattle drive history, archival photos, and her Texas ranch photography, you can bring a taste of the old West to your kitchen! Available now for pre-order at all online bookstores. She is also the author of the Trouble in Texas series for middle grade readers.

The 2020 pandemic has impacted book publishers in a big way as they struggle to keep their employees safe and adjust production schedules. The release date of KEEP ‘EM FULL has been pushed to spring 2021. If you have already pre-ordered my book, thank you for your support and understanding.