From miners to millionaires: Aspen’s food scene is one for history books
Special to Aspen Times Weekly
Eat Your Way Through History …
Since eating and drinking go hand in hand, we thought we’d share these two throwback recipes still on local menus.
Poppycock’s Health Drink
This recipe appeared in a 1977 cookbook, “A La Aspen,” featuring recipes from local restaurants. You can get a similar drink at Poppycock’s today, although they now add protein powder and have replaced the peanuts with walnuts.
• 6 oz crushed ice
• ½ banana
• 3 fresh strawberries
• 1 tbsp. blueberries (fresh if possible)
• ¼ cored apple with the peel
• 1 tbsp. raisins
• 1 tbsp. raw peanuts
• 1 tbsp. yogurt
• 1 tsp. honey
• 1 cup milk
• Blend all ingredients in a blender until smooth.
Yield 16 oz
Red Onion French Onion Soup
This has been on the menu for as long as most people can remember. Manager Brad Smith said he found it on “every menu I have found in our history,” including one from 1960 that also featured chateaubriand for two and frog legs Provençale. This is the current recipe.
• 2 large sweet onions, Vidalia, thinly sliced and julienned
• 2⁄3 cup apple juice
• 2 teaspoons dried thyme
• 1 bay leaf
• 1 qt chicken stock
• 1 qt beef stock
Caramelize onions until golden (while the Red Onion didn’t share their exact process — chef secrects, you know — this process can take upwards of 40 minutes and is enhanced with the addition of some butter or oil). Add remaining ingredients and simmer until ready. Ladle and finish with sliced French bread crouton and Swiss cheese in the broiler. Or, you can save yourself the work and simply go to the Red Onion.
The two-week countdown to Food & Wine Classic in Aspen has begun. And this is the time to decide if it’s better preparation to fast, over-indulge, or simply practice moderation, and to remember a polite way to eat a bone-in French cut ribeye with your fingers, while also holding a glass of wine — because obviously.
Long before Food & Wine, before caviar nachos at 7908 and Shake Shack pop-ups, before Matsuhisa’s sushi sorcery and chefs trained in Michelin-starred restaurants, Aspen was a food town. While early settlers had to survive mostly on what they brought with them or could catch or hunt, functional and fancy foods have coexisted since rail lines made it to town in the 1880s. Mining success brought money and culture, as well as white-tablecloth restaurants, European wine and delicacies such as oysters and fresh seafood brought in from the coasts. However, stick-to-your-ribs fare has always had a place. Think how good a burger and fries taste after hiking up and down Ajax. For the prospectors, miners, ranchers and workers who built Aspen, hearty food was even more critical.
Because of Aspen’s remote location, much of what those early residents consumed for sustenance was local. Farm to table was the way of life. Locally raised food was also organic because, again, it was the only option. So, what was on local menus? Mountain trout, steak and lamb were popular. Cattle farming came early, and menus advertised not only fresh beef, but also butter and ice cream. Harvests from local produce gardens and orchards rounded out the offerings, although it still made the paper when a proprietor had “all kinds of dried fruit” available. Farmers soon discovered that potatoes grew well in the Roaring Fork Valley, making them a menu staple, and a popular crop to sell outside of the state. An agricultural report from 1907, referencing the local potato harvest, stated: “Few places can compare with the Carbondale District either in yield per acre or in quality of product.”
In 1883, The Clarendon, an early hotel and restaurant in town advertised as “the only modern hotel in the camp,” had “40 head of stock connected with the hotel.” Delmonico marketed itself as the most metropolitan place in town, while the Metropolitan Restaurant claimed the best cook and a reputation as a place for good living. If you wanted something other than whiskey or coffee to drink, WM Webb would deliver three barrels of fresh spring water (water was already an issue 136 years ago) to “any part of the camp” for $1. Aspen’s first luxury hotel, the Hotel Jerome, was built in 1889, complete with a French chef to run the kitchen. The Red Onion, then known as The New Brick, was built in 1892.
While the EMP Winter House was in town this winter, and Bumble has the Kirby Ice House coming this summer, pop-ups are nothing new in town. In September 1884, a temporary peanut and fruit stand in the post office building made news in the Rocky Mountain Sun.
According to Nina Gabianelli, vice president of programming and education for the Aspen Historical Society, when the train stopped running to Aspen around 1918, so too did the flow of epicurean delicacies. Town’s well-established hunting culture became even more important during the Quiet Years, with locals eating whatever they could harvest. If you like squirrel pie, you would have been in luck — no wonder they’re so skittish. The Hotel Jerome went from a luxury property to a boarding house, charging $10 a month for room and board. In July of 1925, they hosted The Big Bean Meal for miners and their guests, and it included the “regular miner’s repast” of beans, tomatoes in the can, corned beef and cabbages, spuds with jackets in condensed cream, more beans, creamed corn, crackers and more.
When skiing took off as an industry in the 1950s, many of the early ski pioneers brought hearty European mountain fare to town. Restaurants like the Copper Kettle, Pomegranate Inn, Golden Horn and the Wienerstube opened in the 1960s, with menus featuring old world and local delicacies. Longtime favorites such as Hickory House, the Stew Pot, Pine Creek Cookhouse, Poppycock’s (which originally served crepes and lemonade) and Little Annie’s came on the scene in the 1970s.
Believe it or not, in 1982, Marian Burros declared in her restaurant review for The New York Times, “After all, you don’t go to Aspen to eat.” To Burros’ point, the late ’70s and 1980s may not have been the height of Aspen’s epicurean history, but there was still good food to be had. As Aspen’s cache developed, the local restaurant scene followed suit, paving the way to the creative restaurant scene we appreciate today. Now, even the Aspen School District Food Service Department serves meals made from locally grown, sustainable ingredients to the greatest extent possible.
Instead of mines and millionaires, we now have those mining the local lifestyle and billionaires. And still, everyone has to eat. Considering Aspen’s long and storied culinary history, anyone wanting to make their mark in the local restaurant scene should spend an afternoon at the Aspen Historical Society rifling through old menus for eye-opening proof of the statement “everything old is new again.”
I’ll pass on the squirrel pie, though.