Texas has always been a place of contrasts, particularly when it comes to food. In 1883 the Ladies Association of the First Presbyterian Church of Houston published The First Texas Cook Book. The city at the time had a population of about 20,000, and telephones and electric lights were rare. But judging by the book’s 721 brief recipes, its middle- and upper-class citizens ate very well indeed. In that same year, the cattle drive era peaked, soon to be finished off by barbed wire, railroads, and drought. On the open range, though, cowboys still gathered around the chuck wagon for biscuits, bacon, and beans, with little variation. Prison food was hardly more spartan. Here’s a look at how some of our forebears cooked.


Dewberry Wine
With three pounds of sugar to a gallon of fermented juice, this wine was the dentist’s friend.

Jenny Lind Cake
Layers of white and spiced cake with chocolate meringue icing, named for the soprano called the Swedish Nightingale.

Baked Tomatoes
Dressed up with a pat of melted butter.

“Cold Slaw”
A hot dressing of vinegar, sugar, eggs, and cream livened up raw sliced cabbage.

Baked Gulf Fish
Mashed potatoes and tomato made a quick stuffing for fish.

Sally Lunn Bread
A buttery, sweetish bread dating to seventeenth-century England.

Green Corn Soup
Prepared with fresh kernels, broth from boiled corn cobs, milk, and butter.


Boiled Coffee
Each bag of Arbuckles’ coffee had a peppermint stick. Cooks used it as a bribe to get a cowboy to grind the beans.

Dried Apricots
Most chuck wagons stocked dried fruit, eaten plain or made into a Dutch-oven pie.

“Spotted Pup”
Sorghum syrup sweetened this pudding of rice and raisins.

“Whistle Berries,” a.k.a. Pinto Beans
Sadly, Beano had not been invented.

Sourdough Biscuits
A careful cook could keep sourdough starter going for an entire trail drive.

Some days salt pork—boiled, floured, and fried—was the only meat available.

SOB Stew
The ingredients—a calf’s liver, heart, sweetbreads, brains, and undigested milk solids from its gut—explain the name.