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Saturday, April 21, 2012

History of the Cobbler - The Cheerish Dessert of the Chuckwagon

California Artist - Al Martin Napoletano "Chuck Wagon" oil painting

A favorite dessert among modern chuckwagons is Peach Cobbler.  Just as in the days of the trail drives, the cobbler with it's delightful fillings triumphs any appetite leaving the cravings for more.  The cooks along the trail drives of the 1800's often improvised, much as the early American settlers did when they first arrived to the new colony bringing with them their favorite recipes.  Not finding desired ingredients, they used what was available.

The cowboys often gave nicknames to the various staples that the cook served up, just as American colonist had done to the many related delightful dishes. Each much like a cobbler were given some unusual names.  These early American settlers served the dish often as the main course, though it was not until the late 19th century that they became primarily desserts. 

The cobbler is a later variation of the pie which dates to 9500 BC, in the Egyptian Neolithic period also known as the New Stone Age.  The use of stones for grinding grain improved the baking processed of cereals including the creation of flour that provided a more reliable source of foodEarly pies were in the form of Galettes wrapping honey as a treat inside a cover of ground grains.  Common cereal grains of oats, wheat, rye and barley were domesticated about 12,000 years ago by ancient farming .  These galettes developed into a form of early sweet pastry or desserts.  Although, pies often were filled with meats and the knowledge of baking the dish was past to the Greek, then the Romans who controlled what is today northern Europe to southern Spain.

Through the middle ages, the pie would take shape with many recipes eventually making it's way across the Atlantic to the New World, though the Cobbler was just taking form.  The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology states,  "Cobbler- A kind of pie baked in a deep dish, 1859, American English, but perhaps ultimately related to, or even developed from unrecorded use of cobeler, n. 1385, a kind of wooden bowl or dish."

The earliest meaning of the word "cobbler" refers to one who makes and mends shoes. It also took on a semantic slang that came  to mean "to put together clumsily or roughly" according to the American Heritage Dictionary.  Influenced by European heritage, the cobbler is much an American Dish.  It requires less precision of crust or the placing of the filling which may derived the name.  The first printed recipe of Cobbler listed the dish as "Peach Pie-or cobbler as often termed" in the Kentucky Housewife by Lettice Bryan.  The use of cobbler to describe the dish may also have been the slang use of the word given more for it's appearance as the crust baked to a golden brown perhaps resembling the cobblestone streets of colonial America or perhaps due to it's simplicity. 

Some cobblers are cooked using one selected fruit as the filling although combining fruits will also make a delightful dish.  Peaches, apricots, apples, pears, cherry's and plums make great fillings.  Additionally, most berries such as blueberries, raspberries, blackberries and strawberries will make a savory dessert.  You can also combine fruits to make your cobbler even more unique. Blueberries with cranberry or Apricot with Peach and one of our favorites is Pineapple with Apples.  If one fruit requires a longer cooking time over the other, such as mixing apples with peaches, one can stir fry the apples prior to adding them as a filling and mixing with peaches which will cook more quickly.

Fruits are often sweet yet may yield slightly tart where one can also add honey, brown sugar or molasses to increase the sweeten taste of tart fruits.  Adding a teaspoon of lemon juice helps combine the flavors of tart and sweet when mixed with a pinch of citrus. 

Cooks of early America, as well the chuckwagon cook carried an array of spices in a  toteware box.  As spices once were extremely valuable and controlled under lock and key, using a medley of spice including cinnamon, all spice, pumpkin spice or nutmeg will also enhance flavors.  A pinch of grated ginger or orange zest will also provide a savory tang to ones palate when adding to many courses for a delightful dish.

Peach has long been a favorite fruit for making cobblers.  Although, early pioneers  forged  for wild berries found in North America. Wild cranberry, Huckleberry, Golden currants, blackberries, strawberries and dewberries were often turned into jams, jelly, pies and even cobblers.  The native American Indian often dried berries for later eating along with using other parts of the plants as early medicines. The chuckwagon cook sometimes carried dry fruits requiring to rehydrate soaking in water before cooking.

Regardless of where the word Cobbler came about for this hearty dessert, it remains the favorite dish to finalize any meal during round up season and the competitive choice of dessert with the American Chuck Wagon Association cook-offs held across the nation.  Perhaps the only argument today is deciding whether to serve it up warm or cold if one can restrain their self long enough for the staple to cool.  Most cowboys enjoy eating it either way and the little buckaroos will always enjoy the adding a scope of vanilla ice cream to make the dessert into an "a la mode."

Check out the Peach Cobbler Recipe:   Below is a list of related desserts to the Cobbler:

Betty or Brown Betty - A Betty consist of a fruit, most commonly apples, baked between layers of buttered crumbs.   Closely related to the English bread pudding dessert or the French apple charlotte, the Betty is also much like a cobbler and very popular during colonial times in America.

Bird's Nest Pudding - A pudding containing apples whose cores have been replaced by sugar. The apples are nestled in a bowl created by the crust.   Also called Crow's Nest Pudding.

Buckle or Crumble - Is a type of cake made in a single layer with berries added to the batter. It is usually made with blueberries. The topping is similar to a streusel, which gives it a buckled or crumpled appearance.

Cobbler -  a deep-dish fruit pie with a rich biscuit crust, usually only on top.  While the word origin dates around 1250-1300: Middle English Cobelere, or to cobel is also known as a shoemaker, it is believed the patching of biscuit dough on top of the early dish was hence given the name cobbler.  

Crisp - Sliced fruit, frequently apple or cherries, is topped with a loose mixture of butter, flour, brown sugar and occasionally oats. The top turns a golden brown and presents a lovely contrast. Because this “crust” is fairly sweet, crisps work best with fruit that is slightly tart. If you’re using apples, add a tiny amount of water to the fruit before adding the crisp topping, for moister fruit that cooks more quickly. Some people see the crisp as a completely different dessert than a cobbler, especially since the crust is so much lighter than biscuit or scone dough.

Dump Cake - Like Wacky Cake and Crazy Cake, the Dump Cake merely takes its name by the technique of mixing, (Dumping the ingredients) into a bowl before baking.  Although,  while cooking some dump cake recipes are more cake like, many are cobbler like merely dumping a selected fruit into a baking pan,  then adding either Yellow or White cake mix directly over the fruit along with a stick of thinly sliced butter evenly placed on top of the mix.  Whether cooked in a dutch oven outdoors or in the kitchen oven using a baking dish, the fruit juices mixed through the powder cake mix along with the butter as it melts giving the dish a tasty top crust.  While the name dump may not sound very inviting, it surely is deceptive to the excellent taste.  The simplicity makes it an excellent choice to have your little buckaroo's assist as it is as much fun to cook as the joy of eating. 

Dutch Babies -  Also a delightful treat, the Dutch Baby is a 20th century dish cooked like the reversal of a cobbler and more like a pancake derived from the German Apfelpfannkuchen.    Also sometimes called German pancakes, a Bismark or a Dutch Puff, the dish starts as baking a cake then allowing the center to fall adding the fruit filling in and often topped with whip cream.  While the dish is most often is served at breakfast,  it too makes a superb dessert.  History of Waffles, Crepes, Hoe Cakes and Pancakes

Galettes  - is a general term used in the French cuisine to designate various types of flat, round or freeform crusty cakes, garnished with egg, meat, fish, cheese, cut vegetables, apple slices, berries, or similar ingredients. The Galettes dates to the earliest forms of pies which through time has influence pancakes, crepes and even cobblers.   In many regions, Galettes replaced bread as basic food and one notable type is the Galette Des Rois or King's Cake eaten on the day of EpiphanyThe king cake of the New Orleans tradition  varies, but came to the southern United States with the early French and Spanish Colonist known as Carnival.  
Grunts or Slump - Early attempts to adapt the English steamed pudding to the primitive cooking equipment available to the Colonists in New England resulted in the grunt and the slump, a simple dumpling-like pudding (basically a cobbler) using local fruit. Usually cooked on top of the stove. In Massachusetts, they were known as a grunt (thought to be a description of the sound the berries make as they stew). In the regions of Vermont, Maine, and Rhode Island, the dessert was referred to as a slump.

Pandowdy - It is a deep-dish dessert that can be made with a variety of fruit, but is most commonly made with apples sweetened with molasses or brown sugar. The topping is a crumbly type of biscuit except the crust is broken up during baking and pushed down into the fruit to allow the juices to come through. Sometimes the crust is on the bottom and the desert is inverted before serving. The exact origin of the name Pandowdy is unknown, but it is thought to refer to the deserts plain or dowdy appearance.

Sonker - A sonker is a deep-dish pie or cobbler served in many flavors including strawberry, peach, sweet potato or cherry filling. Popular among the Carolina states, the Appalachian dish is event the main event during the annual Sonker Festival held each year on the first Saturday of October in Surrey County in the community of Lower Gap, North Carolina at the Edwards-Franklin House.   


  1. Now that is a great list of Chuck Wagon desserts! I forgot about the dump cakes! Used to do them over the fire growing up on the ranch...

  2. This is great history and clear details. Peach Cobblers have evolved and is the go to dessert during the Peach season. However, you have shared so many variations that make this dessert still work, fresh, canned, dried, mixed with other fruits and most of all...still great for so many occasions.

  3. enjoyed the history of cobblers and where it derived from...the Egyptons.

  4. I am interested in reproducing the image you used by Al Martin Napoletano "Chuck Wagon" . Do you know where I can get a high-resolution version of this image and who holds the copyright for it that I might get permission to use it? Thank you.