Cowboy Cooking: Fried Soda Biscuits

A 1902 edition of the once popular magazine Recreation presents a charming article on the finer points of cowboy cooking. “A Mexican, with a grimy sack of flour, a little water, a little baking powder and a fire of sage brush, can in a few minutes prepare most excellent biscuits,” the article claims.

And just how are these most excellent biscuits prepared? “With the simplest kind of cooking outfit,” the article continues. The clever Mexican cowboy just “unfastened that dingy sack of flour from his saddle, placed it squarely upright on the sod [and then] scooped out a hollow in the flour and poured in some water.” This mixture was the basis of his biscuits, which the cowboy cooked in bacon fat in a cast-iron skillet in front of his camp fire until “he had a panful of beautiful biscuits, white within a browned to a turn on top.”

These hearty cowboy biscuits were a staple on the high and lonely plains, where a taxing life was rewarded with good, wholesome food. The cooking outfit of the typical camp “round up” was simple, but the cook was paid handsomely for his talents — about $40.00 a month as wages. These wages were indeed well earned: the cowboy cook had to work his culinary magic with austere provisions — canned vegetables, dried fruit and beef — and under the pressure of daily changes of camp location. Even in the worst weather, the cook had to tumble out of bed at three in the morning and begin preparing the day’s meals.

Recreation provides us with a fascinating glimpse into the early morning activities of the cowboy camp:

The cook turns out about 3 o’ clock in the morning. No matter what the weather may be it must be done. In wind storm or rain storm breakfast must be served. About 4 o’ clock he wakes the remainder of the crew. The sleepy cowboys turn out reluctantly because their sleep was sweet and their bodies tired from much hard riding. They souse their faces in buckets of cold water. If there is a spring or creek near they prefer to perform their ablutions there. Then they saddle their broncos, after which there is a call to breakfast. Each cowboy is supplied with a knife, fork, spoon and a large tin plate. Of course there is a good sized cup of coffee, for that grateful beverage is drunk in unlimited quantities in the cow camp.He has a plate or 2 for side dishes. Then each cowboy marches up to the campfire where there is a smoking row of pots and kettles and helps himself to what he wants. He retires and allows another to take his turn. After supplying themselves they all sit a short distance from the fire in a picturesque group on the ground and partake of their morning meal. That is the only regular meal of the day as they come in from the range at all hours until sometimes late in the evening. The cook replenishes his pots and kettles and as the cheap restaurant man says gives meals at all hours.

Here is a recipe for fried soda biscuits from The Heritage Cook Book. The cowboy cook would pinch off pieces of dough the size of an egg, instead of bothering with a biscuit cutter, which he thought superfluous. He would shape the dough into flat rounds and then fry them in oil in a Dutch oven. Serve these biscuits with chili at dinnertime or with honey and jam for a filling breakfast.

Fried Soda Biscuits

2 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup shortening
3/4 cup buttermilk or sour milk
Shortening

Stir together flour, soda, and salt. Cut in 1/4 cup shortening till the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Make a well in the dry mixture; add buttermilk or sour milk all at once. Stir just till the dough clings together. Knead gently on a lightly floured surface 10 to 12 strokes. Melt enough shortening in the deep skillet to give a depth of 1 inch. Heat to 375 degrees F. To shape each biscuit, cut off about 1 tablespoon of the dough and form into a ball about 1 inch in diameter; flatten slightly. Carefully place biscuits, a few at a time, in the hot shortening. Fry till golden, turning once, about 2 minutes per side. Drain on paper toweling. Serve hot. Makes 24 biscuits.

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