Dude Food Ideas for the Holidays

When I was researching my book American Dude Ranch, I loved reading about the food that dude ranchers served their guests. It was hilarious to find stories about people eating chili for the first time, or advice on how to serve cottage cheese ten different ways during World War II because cooks had to get creative with rationed goods.

So, I thought it would be fun to give you a few typical dude ranch menu ideas and recipes as you plan your holiday season meals this year.

Let’s start with breakfast. This recipe for Bacon Breakfast Bread was published in the July, 1951 issue of The Dude Rancher, the magazine of the Dude Ranchers’ Association:

  • 1 egg
  • 1 cup milk
  • 2 TBSP sugar
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 cup yellow cornmeal
  • 1/2 TBSP salt
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 3 slices bacon

Beat egg, add sugar, cornmeal, and milk. Sift flour, salt and baking powder. Combine with first mixture. Pour into greased pan (8″x8″x2″). Dice bacon; sprinkle on batter. Bake in hot oven 20 minutes. Place under broiler – heat to brown if necessary. Serve immediately.

Yes, in 1951 everyone knew what a “hot oven” was. In 2022 it means a temperature between 400 and 450 degrees. I baked this at 400 and also put it under the broiler for a few minutes. It’s kind of a cross between a biscuit and a cornmeal muffin. If you don’t want to use bacon, slathering this with butter and/or jam would also be good. My cat Jesse thought it looked delicious.

OK, on to the midday meal, sometimes called dinner but most often called lunch or luncheon at the dude ranch. The Valley Ranch outside of Cody, Wyoming was one of the biggest and most influential dude ranches, run by an equally influential if prickly New York native named Larry Larom. He made sure meals at his place were packed with interest and flavors. A typical Valley Ranch lunch menu from 1939 included the following tasty items:

  • Spanish Omelette
  • Lyonnaise Potatoes
  • Bran Muffins
  • Spinach Salad
  • Banana Cream Pie

(Lyonnaise potatoes are thinly sliced potatoes and onions sauteed in butter until crisp, then tossed with parsley.)

Time to plan the supper menu. How about a hearty Campers Stew, as served by the owners of the Beartooth Ranch in Nye, Montana in 1964?

  • 1/2 pound bacon, cut into 1 inch lengths
  • 2 pounds of wild game (you can also use beef)
  • 5 onions, sliced thin
  • 6 carrots, sliced thin
  • 4 large potatoes cut into 1/2 inch cubes
  • 2 large potatoes sliced thin lengthwise
  • 3/4 cup water
  • Salt and pepper

Brown the bacon in a dutch oven and spread the meat over the bacon. Salt and pepper lightly. Spread the onions over the meat, put the carrots on top of the onions, and the cubed potatoes over the carrots. Salt and pepper again. Top with the sliced potatoes. Add the water. Cover tightly, bring to a boil, then move to a very low heat to simmer for 1 1/4 hours. The recipe includes this comment: “Do not cook too fast.” I haven’t tried this yet, but with all those potatoes in there, it must be yummy.

Finally, dessert. Dude ranch cooks were especially good at coming up with sweet ideas. Here are just a few treats I found in some of my research: Date-Nut Pie, Sour Cream Chocolate Cake, the aforementioned Banana Cream Pie, Orange Cake, Spice Cake, Floating Island, and “Cowboy in a Sack.” I’ve written about this before: it’s a basic English boiled pudding made with raisins and nuts, served with either lemon sauce or hard sauce (whiskey, butter, and sugar).

I’ll leave you with this after-dinner drink: “Rancher’s Coffolate,” which I found in a newspaper from 1939.

  • 4 TBSP ground decaf coffee
  • 6 cloves
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • Dash of salt
  • 4 cups milk
  • 2 squares unsweetened chocolate, cut into pieces
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 TBSP flour
  • 1 beaten egg

Add the coffee, cloves, cinnamon and salt to the milk. Heat in a double boiler until the milk is scalded. Strain and return to the double boiler. Add the chocolate and heat until it is melted. Beat with a “rotary egg beater” until blended. Combine the sugar and the flour; add gradually to the chocolate mixture and cook until thickened, stirring constantly. Then continue cooking for 5 more minutes, stirring occasionally. Cool slightly. Pour the mixture over the beaten egg, blend, and chill. Then pour the chilled drink over cracked ice in tall glasses, and top with whipped cream. (You can also add some brandy.)

Why was this called a “Rancher’s” drink? Probably because it appeared in an article about throwing dude ranch themed supper parties in your own home. Just be sure to serve BBQ’d meats and decorate your table with plaid linens and tiny cacti, and tell your guests to “…come in whatever version of Wild West regalia they can manage, even if they have to borrow Junior’s 10-gallon cowboy hat.”

I think Wild West regalia would be perfect at Christmas, and to prove it, I’ll leave you with this delightful vintage photo of my brother-in-law, Doug Achterberg.

Happy Holidays!

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