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First, Catch Your Buffalo

History: Sam Arnold can tell you anything you'd want to know about Old West flavors--including that dash of gunpowder.

May 02, 1996|ARLINE INGE | Arline Inge is Food Editor of Modern Maturity

What has kindled the impish glint in the eye of this hearty buckskin-clad fellow? It's our talk of a rare delicacy, buffalo tongue ("Boil two hours with peppercorns, a little minced onion and a bay leaf--delicious!")

"It's said that Jenny Lind and Ulysses S. Grant dined on this tender, fine-textured meat at Delmonico's," he tells us, "and I would ask for it for my last supper. That would delay my execution because no one would know where to get it."

We're visiting with culinary historian Sam Arnold in the stockade courtyard of The Fort, his high-walled adobe restaurant near the base of the Colorado Rockies. This enfant terrible of Old West cuisine serves sliced buffalo tongue at The Fort; he has also served roast prime ribs of buffalo--to Julia Child, for one. "She loved it," he says. (Buffalo, low in cholesterol and fat, is commercially ranch-raised these days.) And his restaurant menu regularly features pickled devil's claws (an okra-like pod), Texas rattlesnake cocktail, elk and buffalo steaks, Rocky Mountain oysters (we warned you he's a rascal) and "trade" whiskey, which is spiked with old-fashioned black gunpowder, red pepper and tobacco.

This is a small but choice sample of the hundreds of lost dishes the Yale-educated researcher has uncovered in dusty diaries, letters and cookbooks left by the men and women who traveled the Santa Fe Trail, a vital freighting route to the West from the 1820s through the 1870s. The wagon trains gathered in Independence and later in Westport (now part of Kansas City), Mo., crossed Kansas to the Arkansas River, and went on to Bent's Fort--an early Colorado fur-trading post near La Junta--before turning south to Santa Fe, N.M. Sam Arnold's restaurant is a full-scale, painstakingly researched replica of Bent's Fort.

While working on plans for a family home in the 1960s, Arnold, then a Denver advertising man, became intrigued with a period drawing of the sprawling adobe landmark that had been destroyed in 1849. He got the idea to build a full-scale reproduction near Morrison, a 20-minute drive from Denver.

To bring 13,000 square feet of history to life, he brought a 25-man crew up from Taos, N.M., to make 80,000 clay and straw adobe bricks (each one weighing 45 pounds) at the site. He had the beams hewn the old way, with drawknives, foot adzes and hand planes. He had the floor made from a traditional mixture of earth and ox blood and ordered furniture patterned after New Mexican antiques.

To keep this gargantuan undertaking from becoming Arnold's Folly, he turned the place into an upscale Wild West restaurant--and his 30-year trek through the history and cooking of the pioneers had begun.

All through his long period of sifting through records and poking into out-of-the-way places, Arnold--who holds the prestigious Award of Merit from the Western History Association--has shared his penchant for interpreting food as history with a wide audience. From 1968 into 1985 he cooked and chatted over the campfire in his public television series, "Fryingpans West." Later he delved deeper with his lively book, "Eating up the Santa Fe Trail" (University Press of Colorado, 1990). The recipes, some frankly better in the telling than in the eating, reflect the lives of those who rode the historic Trail.

The freighters, for instance, were hard pressed for variety, so they supplemented their Spartan stores of flour, beans, cornmeal, coffee and salt pork by hunting buffalo as they went.

"Every inch of wagon space had to count, since their cargo of buttons and linsey-woolsey, pots and pans, and guns and powder was worth a load of precious furs and silver at the end of the Trail," Arnold explains. "Hard goods were so much in demand in the West that you could bring a 25-cent bottle of whiskey on the trip, drink it along the way and sell the bottle for 50 cents."

Those coming later to settle on the land brought more versatile larders, and their recipes reflect it. A typical wagon might carry one barrel of flour, 150 pounds of salt pork or bacon, 100 pounds of dried hulled corn, 25 pounds of apples or peaches, vinegar, a barrel of molasses, and a keg of beef suet as a butter substitute. While at Bent's Fort, the outpost of civilization, trappers and traders, Indians and Mexicans feasted on expanded menus that included fowl, sheep and goats, primitive mint juleps and Bent's water biscuits, made by a family member in Massachusetts.

Arnold has recorded, cooked and tasted hundreds of recipes left by the trappers, traders, settlers and soldiers as well as the Indian tribes and Mexican villagers the travelers encountered along the way. His files bulge with examples of pioneer ingenuity, some fit for today's kitchens, others essentially historical oddities. Among the latter: St. Jacob's soup (pork and potatoes) from a member of the Mormon Battalion and New Mexican trotter posole (hominy and pigs' feet).

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