Cowboy Christmas

A chuckwagon chef shares his frontier menu for your holiday table
LINDA LAU ANUSASANANAN

East of the crags of the Organ Mountains in southern New Mexico lies the San Augustine Ranch, owned by Rob Cox's family. The ranch has been in the family since 1893, when Rob's grandfather W. W. Cox, fleeing Texas and a vindictive gunfighter, bought it and began running sheep.

History haunts this ranch in the water-scarce Tularosa Basin, New Mexico. The property's cluster of five crystal-clear springs attracted Indians, explorers, soldiers, settlers ― and adventure: in wilder times, sheriff Pat Garrett gunned down one of the ranch hands right in the Cox kitchen.

In those days the chuckwagon, a kitchen on wheels, was essential when the ranch crew took to the open range. On one end of the wagon, a box with compartments held utensils, staples, dishes, and medicines. Its hinged door flipped down to become a worktable. Food was cooked in heavy cast-iron pans over the campfire or right in the hot coals.

Rob, a cattle rancher, and his wife, Murnie, have kept some frontier traditions alive, occasionally sharing a real chuckwagon Christmas dinner with close friends Edson and Jenny Way of Las Cruces and Art and Wanda Evans of Chuchillo.

Ed Way provided the old-timer recipes, following the sage advice of cowboy cooks: use what you have, work with what you scrounge up. They may hunt for quail and gather watercress, but they always depend on long-lasting root vegetables, and use once-standard chuckwagon supplies ― vinegar, sugar, shortening, and flour ― for the makings of an ingenious pioneer dessert, vinegar cobbler (it mimics apple cobbler surprisingly well).

Cowboy coffee goes with the cobbler. When water in the big enamel coffeepot boils, ground coffee is added. Then the pot comes off the fire, and crushed eggshells are thrown in to settle the grounds.

Certainly this meal is easier to prepare in a contemporary kitchen (and while our menu serves six, you can easily expand it into a party buffet).

But Christmas was made for traditions ― even chuckwagons. And as the shadows grow long and the air gets chillier, the Old West feels very real on the San Augustine Ranch.