While Wyoming's cuisine is mainly a mix of cowboy cooking and Native American culinary traditions, many dishes bear influences of other cultures. Settlers of numerous nationalities flocked to the state during the era of westward expansion, each bringing their own native dishes and adding their own twist to recipes.
The Shoshone and Arapaho Diets
Several Native American tribes occupied Wyoming's lands at various times, but the Shoshone and Arapaho have been the state's main tribes, currently still residing there. Overall, their diets were quite similar, though some differences did exist.
The Shoshone ranged over territory in Wyoming's southwestern region, with one band sticking to the prairies, while another preferred the mountains. Both bands relied on hunting and gathering for food, following their preferred big game throughout the seasons. The prairie Shoshones hunted pronghorn antelopes and buffalo as their main food sources; the mountain Shoshones were so fond of bighorn sheep that they earned the nickname "the Sheep-Eaters."
A number of other animals and plants rounded out the Shoshones' diet. They hunted other big game species like elk and deer, as well as small game such as rabbits, prairie dogs, and fish. Birds like sage grouse, ducks, and geese added more variety. Root vegetables were also important, particularly biscuit root, which tasted much like a seasoned potato. Mountain Shoshones ate several other types of root vegetables as well, including camas, sego lily, and spring beauty bulbs. Seeds from Indian Rice Grass were pounded into a nutritious flour, or stored to be used later. Summer brought abundant berries, like strawberries, raspberries, serviceberries, and buffalo berries. Serviceberries (also known as Juneberries) ranged in color from red to purple to black and tasted much like blueberries. Buffalo berries bore a similarity to large currants, with a sweet, delicious flavor. Another summertime treat the Shoshone enjoyed was rose hips, the fruit left behind after rose flowers died off. They used rose hips to make tea and added them to soups and stews. Other plants they ate included prickly pear cactus, goosefoot, juniper berries, and pine nuts.
Like the prairie Shoshones, the Arapaho in Wyoming were part of the Plains buffalo-hunting culture. Most of their diet consisted of meat, favoring buffalo, elk, and deer. They cooked meat in pits, as well as drying it into jerky to preserve it. To make pemmican, they pounded buffalo jerky into small pieces, and then mixed it with buffalo fat and dried berries. They supplemented their diet with fruits like chokecherries and with root vegetables. In addition, they acquired corn, beans, and squash by trading buffalo with farming tribes in the Dakotas and the Spanish in the Southwest.
Foods of the Settlers
Until the mid-1800s, only Native Americans lived permanently in Wyoming, though fur traders and pioneers making the journey along the Oregon Trail had already been traveling throughout the state. A few settlers and prospectors began trickling in around 1851, setting up homesteads here and there.
The foods of early settlers were simple and basic. The first homesteaders ate many potatoes while waiting for other crops to grow. Beans became an important staple, with Great Northern, pinto, and navy beans growing especially well. Settlers ate meats like bear and venison, and they followed the Native Americans' example by making jerky from buffalo, elk, moose, deer, and beef. Dishes like hominy cooked with dried beef, and rice flavored with honey and cinnamon, also graced their tables. Their favorite kitchen tool was the Dutch oven, whether used to boil, braise, or bake. Coffee ranked high as a popular beverage, but when settlers had none, they'd substitute just about anything else they could roast over a fire and grind up to brew.
Railroad construction in the late 1860s attracted many more people to work new jobs created in Wyoming, and these new settlers spanned many ethnic groups. In the town of Rock Springs alone, representations of 47 different nationalities were in the population before 1900. The Chinese had an especially strong presence, and their cuisine has had a lasting influence on the state's cooking. Of course, people from other backgrounds introduced their own foods to other settlers, too. The French brought their signature dishes, such as duck confit, as well as pastries like croissants and éclairs. Greeks contributed sweets like almond cakes, spice bars, and halvah. Wienerschnitzel and cheesecake came via the Germans, while Norwegians prepared cold fruit soups. During World War II, many Japanese lived in Wyoming internment camps, and after the war ended, some of them stayed to work their own farms. Japanese culinary traditions then mixed in with the rest, adding a new dimension to the already-prevalent Asian influence on Wyoming's cuisine.
Along with railroads and mining, ranching quickly became big business for settlers in Wyoming. Because groups of cowboys traveled the open range on cattle drives, they had special culinary needs.
The chuckwagon served as a place to store food staples and kitchen tools like Dutch ovens, which were just as crucial to cowboy cooks as to homesteaders. Common food staples included potatoes, beans, bacon, canned tomatoes, canned and dried fruit, and tea. An especially well stocked chuckwagon also had luxuries such as sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, and other flavorings.
Chuckwagon cooks had a grueling schedule, rising at three in the morning so they could have breakfast ready by the break of dawn. Biscuits and plenty of strong coffee formed the cornerstones of a cowboy breakfast. When available, cooks served eggs or salt pork alongside them.
During the day, cowboys riding the range brought lunch items with them. Dried beef, dried fruit, and biscuits were easy to carry and wouldn't spoil quickly. Those who could fit a coffee pot in their saddlebags could wash lunch down with a fresh cup of coffee. They might also bring necessities like bacon, salt, flour, sourdough or baking powder, and a frying pan for cooking.
Cowboys loved beef, and cooks served it up in a number of ways. Pan-fried steak was a favorite dish, especially with biscuits and gravy on the side. "Son-of-a-gun-stew" (at least, that's what they called it in polite company) rivaled steak in popularity. The stew used the meat, organs, and other parts of a cow, preferably an unweaned calf. Flour and brains thickened the stew, while onions and chilis added flavor. To use all parts of the cow, cooks made "calf fries," which were calves' testicles either roasted or fried with seasonings. In addition to beef dishes, cowboys also ate wild game like buffalo and deer.
Sweets were another thing cowboys craved. Desserts ranged from basic treats like stewed prunes with syrup to cobblers and fruit pies. A really fancy fruit pie might even have a meringue topping. By far the most coveted dessert was "son-of-a-gun-in-a-sack," which consisted of dried fruit and nuts mixed into a spiced dough. The dough was placed in an empty sack and then either boiled or steamed until done. The final product resembled an English pudding.
Back at the ranch, the same types of dishes were often served. However, meals there offered a bit more variety. Milk-can suppers proved an excellent way to feed a crowd easily. To make a milk-can supper, ingredients were layered into steel milk cans, which could hold up to 10 gallons. Typical ingredients were potatoes, carrots, cabbage, onion, corn, sausages (usually Polish or German), and beer or water. Once full, the milk can was loosely covered with its lid and set over a fire to cook for about an hour and a half.
Wyoming Cuisine Today
Many of the past influences on Wyoming's culinary styles are still evident today. Cowboy cooking remains popular, with the addition of dishes like chili. Milk-can suppers have turned into Wyoming's version of a clambake, where friends and family gather together for a good time. Wild game makes it onto local menus, from bar foods like bison burgers to more sophisticated dishes like elk medallions served with a berry reduction. Particularly at upscale restaurants, travelers may find a mix of dishes and ingredients from different cultures, with Asian and French influence being especially strong. And with Wyoming's rivers teeming with trout, it's the most popular fish served in the state.
Visitors to the Cowboy State can easily satisfy their culinary curiosity, whether for traditional chuckwagon cooking or foreign flavors. Wyoming's cuisine offers much more than one might expect.