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Tastes of history

by Nancy Christofferson
HUERFANO — About a month ago I wrote about all those “good things to eat for Christmas” that included your basic pickled pigs feet, lamb’s tongue, bear meat, head cheese and all the other delicious (?) treats that would truly catch your family’s attention if you put them on the festive table, or any other table for that matter. And perhaps not the type of attention you were striving for.
The fact these edibles were offered means they were indeed eaten at the time. It just goes to show how different tastes are, from decade to decade and place to place. Those folks would probably welcome a lamb’s tongue or some scrambled sweetbreads before they sat down with a bowl of edamine (and who would blame them?).
Food is a common denominator – everyone likes it and everyone has opinions about it. Thus we have evolved from early “receipts” passed from mother to daughter to all manner of glossy magazines dedicated to gastronomical delights to suit the most discerning palates.
Looking back through the pages of Huerfano history, we can find several examples of the fondness of the chef to share recipes. The earliest in print is a small book that recreates the resourcefulness of Emaline Alexander, an Army wife whose husband was charged with the task of building a military post near La Veta. One day Emaline learned she was to entertain a famous guest, no less a personage than General William Tecumseh Sherman. One would assume traveling with the troops might limit her larder, but Mrs. Alexander was up to the challenge, and determined to please her distinguished guest. She published her menu of the day, which was beef vegetable soup, saddle of mutton with jelly, green peas, kirshaw squash, cabbage, beets, soft custard, blanc mange with cream and sugar, and coffee. That was in September 1866.
About the same time frame, several Germans, including Fred Walsen, traveled out to a Cucharas plaza for a visit with Miguel Vallejos. L.B. Sporleder recalled hearing that the visitors were lavishly treated at his table with fresh “hunks of meat”, frijoles, and hot baked bread and tortillas.
Some of the earliest stores licensed to do business in the county were groceries, and they were located in most every plaza and along every trail. These likely specialized in canned and preserved foods and staples like flour, rice, sugar, coffee, things people could not raise themselves or procure with a rifle.
In 1882 you could go to D.N. Roberts’ grocery in La Veta and get “Albercioques, Cerezas y Ciruelas Frecas”, which was translated to fresh apricots, cherries and plums, though it sounds better his way. Once the railroad reached communities in Huerfano County, all types of comestibles were obtainable.
Consider oysters. The same year the special Christmas feast was served at Todd’s Depot Hotel, which served fresh oysters, turkey, chicken salad and fresh fruit. Not only that, but afterward you could go to the Mayflower Saloon for clog dancing, songs, jigs and a prize fight, perfect activities for digesting.
Those fresh oysters were a real treat in a frontier town. Oysters and other perishables were one reason the Denver and Rio Grande railroad bought so much of the ice harvested each winter in La Veta and stored it in sawdust. Packed into a freight car, the ice kept foods cold long enough, hopefully, to reach their destination many hours or possibly days from the source. Women’s organizations, such as the ladies aid societies of the different churches, the temperance union and club auxiliaries, found oyster suppers to be real fundraisers. In 1915 the Methodist ladies made $67 on theirs. Another time the Presbyterian women earned about $27 on an oyster supper, and the editor of the paper remarked they would have done much better had the oysters not been spoiled. Young men’s clubs and celebrations also relied on fresh oysters, and they often appeared on the menu for election day dinners. On those special days, dinners were popular with the country folks who came into town to cast their ballots, and brought their appetities with them instead of the usual basket lunch.
Then there was the 4th of July special in the Cuchara Camps Hotel back in 1916. Fifty cents would get you cream of chicken soup, fricasseed chicken and dumplings, roast or corned beef, corn, tomatoes, peas, mashed potatoes and a beverage. The fresh air was free.
Some bakeries had restaurants, many of which were open 24 hours a day. While the short order meals were tasty, most people went for the baked goods. The American Café of the 1920s offered 35¢ meals, or a patron could buy a ticket good for 24 meals at $8.00. The proprietor also had a deal for 11 loaves of bread for $1.00. One famous day he baked 600 loaves! Even at 11 for a buck, that’s a lot of bread.
For her grand opening of the Park Lane Hotel in 1936, Mrs. Benefiel advertised a five course dinner. For $1.00 you could have spring chicken as the entrée, but there was also the mountain trout for 75¢ or Virginia baked ham for 50¢.
Evidently reading about food was the vogue even back when. And when something is popular, it often inspires a spoof. Andrew Francisco provided one in the 1880s when he was managing a restaurant west of La Veta. His menu, titled the “Bill of Fare for the Sulphur Springs Hotel De Francisco”, included chipmunk ala mode soup, speckled trout with sulphur sauce, wild cat with quaking aspen sauce, potatoes, beans, soapweed, and bedbug pie smothered in flies for dessert. We assume this was tongue-in-cheek (after all, it might have been August when all foods in Huerfano County may be smothered in flies). These delicacies came gratis with the “best of wine and cigars”, except for the Canary Island Widow Cigar which cost a nickel. Twenty years later the resort hotel could offer fresh trout and chicken, homemade ice cream, butter, eggs and garden vegetables, all from its own backyard.
Well, you’ll have to excuse me now – I think I need a snack.