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Biscuits and Beans Most Every Day | Stories from the Chuck Wagon

Stories from the chuck wagon, recipes, and some good ole tips from a chuck wagon cook.

Dan Ryan

Howdy, from somewhere in the middle of the Arizona Sonoran Desert. I operate the Rocking R Chuckwagon as head cook and chief bottle washer. Operating a chuckwagon these days is very different than it was in the days of the cattle drives. In those days, the chuckwagon cook was typically the second highest-paid hand on the crew, right behind the wagon boss. Decent, hardy food translated into a content, more productive crew of trail hands.

Besides cooking all the meals for a crew of 10- 15 men, the cook was sometimes called into service as a barber, banker, dentist, or even a field doctor. In addition to these duties, the cook had to pack up, load the wagon, hitch up the team, and move to the next camp, where he would set up and do all of this over again. To help him with these many chores, the cook, or “Cookie,” usually had a helper called a “swamper,” “hoodlum,”  or sometimes “Little Mary.”

The “hoodlum” would wrangle wood for the cookfire, peel potatoes, haul water, help tend the pots, and do whatever the cook needed. While usually being the lowest man on the totem pole, the hoodlum played an important part in helping to keep things around the chuckwagon running smoothly for the cook.   

These days, the chuckwagon and cook are not on the trail for months at a time. Instead, we still set up on working cattle ranches and feed the round up crew, but many times we set up and feed much larger groups for weddings, family reunions, birthdays, corporate events and more.  As you might imagine, the job of the “hoodlum” is even more important these days.

I suppose you could say, that is how I started working with the Rocking R Chuckwagon and more importantly, with my partner and good friend Michael Ryan known as “Mr. Biscuit.” He earned  the nickname after baking hundreds and hundreds of biscuits in one day at a middle school. I started out as the “swamper” on the Rocking R chuckwagon with Michael Ryan as the wagon boss. In very short order, Michael and I were partners in the endeavor.

Dan Ryan and Michael "Mr. Biscuit cooking on the range.
Dan Ryan and Michael “Mr. Biscuit” cooking on the range.

I think he saw from the start that I knew my way around a dutch oven, which is key when you are feeding large groups off the back of a wagon kitchen. It didn’t hurt that I could play the mandolin and I showed up every time! What a concept! We had many adventures over the years.  

Michael was, in many ways, larger than life. He stood 6’3” tall and had a mustache that had a span rivaling that of a red-tailed hawk’s wings. He had a loud booming voice, which worked out very well when calling cowboys or city slickers to “Come and get it!” He  was born in Texas in 1949 and his father passed away when he was only 10 years old.

Michael "Mr. Biscuit" cooking on the range.
Michael “Mr. Biscuit” cooking on the range.

Later, his mother Katie moved the family to Tucson AZ, where she worked full time to support Michael and his three sisters, Sharon, Jolee, and Coleen. At some point in high school, Michael became restless and hatched a crazy plan to write a note (which he forged himself) excusing him from school as his ailing grandmother needed him. When the school called his mother to verify the veracity of the note, Katie surprisingly covered for him.

He was not completely off the hook though. His mother, understanding that he probably wasn’t college bound, told him that he needed to help out by making sure there was dinner on the table for the family when they all came home. As it turned out, he had quite an aptitude for the culinary arts. Later, he would take on jobs waiting tables, working as a prep chef, personal chef, while all the time learning and adding to his cocinero (chef) skills.  Eventually, he purchased an old chuck wagon out at Fred’s Roping Arena in Three Points AZ. Later, he would try his hand at his own line of salsas, and sausages under the Rocking R name.

Michael served in the U.S. army during The Vietnam War. Even though he was wounded and earned a purple heart medal, he was always proud of having served the country that he loved. Michael was most proud of his lovely, artistically talented wife (Mary) Lou, the love of his life. Whenever we planned and scheduled events, he took Lou’s needs into consideration first! Sadly, Michael “Mr. Biscuit” passed away in September of 2018.

Michael "Mr. Biscuit" and his lovely, artistically talented wife (Mary) Lou.
Michael “Mr. Biscuit” and his lovely, artistically talented wife (Mary) Lou.

He is very much missed by Lou, me and many folks around the state who came to know him. I count myself fortunate and grateful for the time we were able to cook, serve food and play music for folks all around the state. I’m trying out some new “swampers” these days for the Rocking R Wagon. Some are pretty promising, and I am confident that I will find someone eventually. I have to say though, they will have some pretty big boots to fill.  Here are a few of Mr. Biscuits recipes. “Chow down!” 


Cow Chip Biscuits

3 cups flour     

2 tsp baking powder

6 tsp lard

1 tbs sugar       

1 to 1-1/3 cup of canned milk (cut to half strength with water)

Sift dry ingredients together in a bowl. Cut in lard until flaky pieces form. Add milk to moisten mixture until sticky.  Preheat a 12-to-14-inch dutch oven.  Wipe a thin coat of either lard or butter on the bottom and sides of the oven.  Turn out the dough onto a floured board. Lightly flour the dough and fold over and knead three or four times, adding just enough flour each time you fold it to keep the dough from getting too sticky.  Pat or roll out the dough to about ½ an inch. Using a biscuit cutter, cut out the biscuits and place them in the bottom of the warmed, greased oven. Place the oven over 8 to 10 charcoal briquettes.  Put the lid on with 14 to 16 coals on top.  Bake for approximately 20 minutes. After about 10 minutes it is best to look at the biscuits to see the progress. Turn the lid a quarter turn to even out hot spots.  When lightly browned on top and bottom, serve warm with butter and honey or gravy.  Makes approximately 18 biscuits. 

Cow chips optional, depending on which way the wind happens to be blowing. 


Peach Dumpling Cobbler

2 ½ to 3 cups Bisquick         

Cinnamon       

Corn starch

Sugar

2 29oz cans peach slices in juice

Butter  

Whole milk

Preheat a 12-inch dutch oven with 18 charcoal briquettes underneath.  Use a quarter stick of butter to grease the sides and bottom of the oven.  When hot, add 2 cans of sliced peaches with the juice.  Sprinkle the peaches with cinnamon and stir. Mix in some diluted corn starch to thicken the peach mixture and stir.  In a medium bowl, pour in the Bisquick.  If you want the dumplings to be sweeter you can add some sugar at this time.  Real cowboys don’t like their dumplings overly sweet!  Whisk in milk about a ¼ cup at a time.  Continue adding milk and whisking until you have a kind of shaggy dough.  With peaches boiling, use a large tablespoon and get a heaping spoonful of dough. Using another spoon (Cookie used his finger), slide the dough off the tablespoon into the bubbling peaches. Continue doing this until the peaches are fairly well covered. You want some of the peaches showing through. Put the lid on and add 20 coals to the top. After 10 minutes, carefully check the progress of the dumplings. Don’t forget to turn the lid a quarter turn. When the dumplings are starting to brown, melt some more butter, about a ¼ stick, and spread evenly over top of the dumplings. You can sprinkle sugar and cinnamon on the top at this time. Move half of the coals from the bottom to the top. Watch carefully, as you only want to brown the top without burning it. Remove from heat. Let cool for 10 minutes and serve with Vanilla ice cream.

Dan Ryan

Date:

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