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Cowboy Coffee & Chili: Campfire Cooking 101

Need tips for cooking in the wild? Ask a cowgirl.

By Alice Levitt April 28, 2016 Published in the May 2016 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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Susan Franks has been riding the Salt Grass Trail every year since 1974, spending a week driving a mule team 90 miles—from Cat Spring to Houston—for the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo. And each year, she cooks meals for her entire family, over the entire week, over a flame. So it’s no surprise that she’s picked up some trail-ride tricks.

The first step for every campfire recipe is, well, fire. Franks uses oak wood exclusively (absolutely no charcoal, she says, for authenticity’s sake) and places a grate over the blaze. Finding the correct temperature, Franks admits, is a matter of trial and error: Add more wood to increase heat, and disperse the logs to cool it down. And even if your first attempts aren’t perfect, there’s no arguing that the aroma of wood smoke makes everything taste better.

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Cowboy Coffee

“The secret is not a big secret,” Franks says of her morning brew, which differs from classic cowboy coffee in its use of Maxwell House Instant Coffee. (Regular grounds end up as unwanted sediment at the bottom of the cup.) Fill a kettle with water, add 3/4 cup instant coffee, and place it directly on the fire. When it boils, it’s ready. Trying to replicate it at home doesn’t work, Franks says. Apparently, the instant stuff must be consumed outdoors to taste good.

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Bacon and Eggs

A heavy, cast-iron pan—the kind you can pick up in the camping aisle at Academy—is the secret to a perfect breakfast al fresco. That, and bacon grease. Cook the bacon first, reserving some of the grease after it’s done, then cook the eggs in the remaining pork fat. “They’re not pretty, but they’re delicious,” says Frank. She recommends placing bread or tortillas directly on the grate to toast them.

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It doesn’t take much to make a hobo-style chili. Franks says she buys a bag of supermarket chili seasoning and follows the directions, adding fresh ground beef and chopped onions. “Somehow,” she says, “cooking it over the fire just makes it taste so good.”

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