Culinary delights of the last century |

Culinary delights of the last century

Tim Willoughby
Aspen Times Weekly

My father used to sing an old American classic, “Can she bake a cherry pie, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?” whenever he wanted to remind my mother to bake another pie. My mother’s cooking skills were limited when she married, so her mother-in-law coached her on pie baking because father, like most miners of his time, expected a slice of pie in his lunch bucket.

If you are familiar with photos of miners that have been printed in this section of the Times Weekly, then you will know that “obese miner” is an oxymoron. The intense physical labor performed by underground workers burned calories as quickly as they were consumed. A miner’s appetite may not surprise you, but their tradition of high culinary standards may.

A restaurant rush ran concurrently with each Western gold rush. Miners parted with their gold for food, even at highly inflated prices. Just as cowboys were paid and then spent their hard-earned money in the saloons of cattle-drive terminuses, miners took their bags of gold to San Francisco or Denver and spent freely at restaurants. Competition for a reputation as the “Delmonico’s of the West” was stiff, with each establishment trying to outdo others in the quantity and quality of their fare.

In the 1860s, Denver advertised dozens of restaurants, many of them featuring seafood. Chinese restaurants were common, especially in California mining towns, where they served Cantonese cooking. One Chinese restaurant in San Francisco had a seating capacity of 400. French cuisine (or at least listing menu items with French names) was popular, and every establishment had wine lists that could rival those of contemporary Aspen restaurants.

In industrial mining towns like Aspen, where miners worked in shifts, it was common for restaurants to run around the clock to accommodate miners’ work schedules. Boarding houses served breakfast, lunch and dinner in heaping portions. Miners immigrated from many countries, so restaurants catered to their ethnic tastes: Cornish, Irish, Swedish and German.

Scurvy was not only a seaman’s problem. Forty-niners in isolated gold camps also suffered from the vitamin deficiency. As a result, fresh fruit sold for a premium in stores and restaurants. By the time Aspen developed, railroads connected the western states, making fruit supplies plentiful, but fresh shipments sold out quickly.

Miners and prospectors celebrated new discoveries and bonus paychecks with oysters and Champagne. Oysters became an American rage, and miners would not go without. Oyster beds close to cities like San Francisco were depleted rapidly, but the high prices that miners were willing to pay brought shiploads from far away. The shellfish were transported to inland cities like Aspen on beds of ice. Canned lobster and sardines were also popular, but at more affordable prices. Even turtle soup shipped in cans was served at prices that wage-earning miners could afford.

Meat and fish, especially local game, were popular: venison, duck, antelope, elk steaks, bear, trout and mutton. Potatoes, most of them mashed, provided the bulk of the calories. Vegetables (except onions, in season) were more of an afterthought. Anything with jam spread over it constituted a dessert. A variety of baked apple recipes and pies signaled the end of multi-course meals.

The 1894 Hotel Jerome menu shown here was typical of mining town restaurants. Even in transient mining camps, where restaurants occupied temporary tents, chefs turned out a variety of menu items limited only by the season. The myth of miners surviving on cans of beans implies great sacrifice, and many a miner dined on little more, part of the time. Had miners been forced to consume today’s fast food it is likely that most silver and gold would still be buried underground.