For Your Holiday Table: “Cowboy in a Sack”

When people go to a dude ranch they want two things most of all: good horses to ride, and good food to eat.

When I was researching my new book, American Dude Ranch: A Touch of the Cowboy and the Thrill of the West (coming March 2022, and please excuse the shameless self-promotion) I discovered that one of the most valuable people on the dude ranch staff was the cook. Because if the dudes didn’t eat well, they would go home and tell their friends, who would book a dude ranch vacation someplace else.

Dude ranching and great eating have always gone hand in hand, and marketing executives used this to their advantage. Companies like Southwest Food Products (in the image above) evoked ranching in their product name from World War II until the 1960s. The menu for the Dude Ranch restaurant in Long Beach was pure cowboy in its design, and the place flourished in the 1940s.

Dude ranch owners probably thought this culinary homage was cute, but they took the care and feeding of dudes very seriously.

Responsibility for the smooth running of the kitchen usually fell on what was called the “dude ranch wife.” She was really the equal partner in the ranch’s management, and knew how important her role was. In 1932 a new column debuted in The Dude Rancher magazine, the official organ of the Dude Ranchers’ Association. It was called “House Management” and was written by the women of dude ranching. It had everything from advice on vermin control to organizing food for a pack trip to dealing with guests who were always late for breakfast.

Food was a big topic in the House Management column, and became even more crucial during World War II when essentials were rationed. Sugar went on the ration list in May of 1942, coffee followed in November, and by March of 1943 meat, canned meat, fats, cheese, and canned milk were on strict rations. Many ranches had their own chickens and cows, so eggs and milk weren’t too much of an issue. But the ladies still had to get creative, and they shared their advice and recipes in the pages of The Dude Rancher.

In 1943, for example, a recipe for Tomato Juice Cocktail could also be heated and served as soup on cold days: “One can tomato juice, one tblsp. vinegar, one tblsp. lemon juice, one-half tsp. celery salt, salt and pepper to taste, a few drops Worcester sauce.” (Add some vodka and you’ve also got a Bloody Mary.) Many of the ranchers made their own cottage cheese, and in April of that year women sent in some very interesting recipes, from fried cottage cheese balls to cheesecake.

For decades, a holiday staple was a traditional boiled pudding, which might not have been familiar to all guests, but it was easy and cheap to make. It was a combination of suet, sorghum (a cereal-based sweetener), brown sugar, eggs, dried fruits, nuts, and spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. Baking the pudding was easy, though it took a while. And in order to make this thrifty dessert sound more appealing (and Western), the women decided to give it a new name: Cowboy in a Sack.

Hard sauce, by the way, was whiskey, butter, and sugar.

Dude ranch food started moving into American kitchens after World War II. Ranches were becoming more popular, and nods to dude ranching began appearing everywhere. In the mid-1950s the dining car on the Denver Zephyr passenger train was called the Chuck Wagon, and its serving plates were decorated around the rim with the brands of Colorado dude ranches. Recipes like Dude Ranch Mulligan appeared in the food section of newspapers all over the country in 1949. Mulligan stew was a mish-mash of meat and vegetables, and one reporter was so taken with the concoction she ate at an Arizona dude ranch she created a recipe, renamed it Dude Ranch Mulligan and published it in her column, advising housewives to serve it with rice, corn muffins, and Iceberg lettuce salad with French dressing.

Cowboy in a Sack continued to grace dude ranch holiday tables, though it had a different name out in the world. In December of 1947, the Sperry Flour Company ran a big ad in newspapers touting the culinary delights of the Rancho Carmelo dude ranch in California. The owner, Mrs. Mathiot (known for her prize-winning palominos) was apparently a hostess with a flair for great desserts, which she made with Sperry flour, of course. The ad included a recipe for Silver Fruit Pudding from a well-known cookbook author named Martha Meade. Despite its chipper name, it was nothing more than an elevated Cowboy in a Sack.

Martha Meade told her readers to serve Silver Fruit Pudding with Golden Sauce, which was basically hard sauce in which whisky was replaced with pineapple juice. (No thank you, Miss Meade.)

Cowboy in a Sack made its final appearance in The Dude Rancher in July of 1955. The recipe was pretty much the same, but with the addition of dates and chopped citron, and it was also still steamed in coffee cans. However, hard sauce was long gone. Instead, the recipe called for Lemon Sauce only, which was probably better than the aforementioned Golden Sauce. Why had whisky gone away? Probably because more kids were sitting at dude ranch dinner tables.

Want to serve this historic dude ranch dessert at your holiday celebration this year? There are plenty of recipes online for traditional boiled pudding. If you’d like a copy of Martha Meade’s 1947 recipe, let me know in the comments and I’ll post it.

If you do make this pudding, just remember that dude ranches found a way to make it their own by giving it a name that no one else would dare copy: Cowboy in a Sack.

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