Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
Aspen, CO, Colorado
“Try the parsnip soup,” the server said to my friend, somewhat like the spider to the fly, only different and without malice. A gastronomical pleasure (the soup, not the fly), perhaps; something different, definitely, in a town seemingly crazed for unusual and delightful concoctions created by well-known chefs.
In an expose of the opposite sort, a recent column by Andy Stone deftly pointed out that the local farmers market has turned into a “disastrous degeneration of a once damn fine affair.” No longer about fresh produce and things of the earth, it is now called the Aspen Saturday Market, a generic concept without panache, where one possibly could buy a “new hand-beaded, salvaged-scrap-metal jockstrap.”
To the outside world, we might appear to be an oxymoron within ourselves, lusting after root-based epicurean enchantments in exclusive restaurants while blatantly marginalizing the idea of homegrown vegetables in our local street market.
In the 1880s, when professional hunters provided the kill for Aspen’s miners, it sometimes was impossible to tell just exactly what kind of meat was in the stew – elk, deer, bear, beef, burro, mountain lion, mutton or coyote. My great-grandfather Jeremie Vagneur (1860 to 1950), up-and-coming farmer and rancher in Woody Creek, introduced rutabagas and parsnips into the local quest for gustatory diversity.
Any number of taxonomists could bore you with the origins of such root vegetables, but suffice it to say that Jeremie used the Italian varieties to entice business his way. “Rapa svedese” means rutabaga, and “pastinaca” equates with parsnip, if you’re bilingual in such a way.
But for the knowledge of a man by the name of W. Lucas Woodall, I wouldn’t know such basic historical facts, revealing how parsnips and rutabagas came to the Roaring Fork Valley. Woodall (1898-1985), known fondly as “Woody” or simply “Woodall,” was the owner of the Pitkin County Bank, a “Quiet Years” institution, located in the Cowenhoven Building. That bank location later became the home of Ute City Banque, an apres-ski joint catering to the older “grab-and-grope,” mostly singles crowd.
Woody ran a tight ship but had a fondness for late-night adventures around town, always with an eye to business. At 3 a.m. or later, it was not uncommon to find Woodall and a couple of customers in the back office, making deals over money to be loaned or paid back. Thus, Woody contributed to the local economy by making sure aggrieved creditors got paid while his bank got good interest from otherwise deadbeat debtors.
Always nattily attired in a three-piece brown suit, white shirt and colorful tie, cigar held tightly between his teeth in a rubber cigar holder, voice soft and worn after decades of bourbon and monetary explanations, Woody liked to occasionally talk about my great-grandfather, a man he admired. In his late 70s with a decade yet to go, Woody liked to host all-night poker games at his Hallam Street house, where the Ancient Age whiskey flowed like the Roaring Fork at high water.
Freddie Fisher saluted Lucas Woodall in one of his iconic letters to the editor, praising him for refusing to loan money to Wall Street player Wink Jaffee and his friends. In relationship to the less-well-off locals (such as himself), Fisher said of Woodall, “Anyway, you need it, and he knows it; he comes through.”
The big players get most of the historical mention, people you hear about until your ears hurt, but it’s important to tell the stories of the lesser-known folks who helped hold it all together, guys like W. Lucas Woodall and Jeremie Vagneur.
Loaning money to customers in a dark, after-hours closed bank or raising rutabagas and parsnips to provide variety to a town full of ravenous miners might not seem like much, but it all adds to the tapestry that makes up our history. And a good parsnip soup, offered to a friend in an upscale restaurant, speaks to the continuity of that legacy.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at email@example.com.