AHA Annual Meeting

More Than Meat and Potatoes: The Forgotten History of Denver Food

William Philpott, December 2016

You will surely eat better in Denver than the gold-rushers Horace Greeley encountered in June 1859. Their diet, Greeley reported in An Overland Journey (1860), was bacon, beans, and bread. Happily, eggs and milk were about to join the menu, and hopes leaped that July might bring fresh vegetables—green beans! But the rains failed, and so did the bean crop. “The hope has vanished,” Greeley lamented.

Unlike the 59ers, Cheyennes and Arapahos found a bounty in this high-plains environment: bison herds, protein-rich prairie turnips, sweet groundplums, pungent wild licorice root, and chokecherries for juice, spice, pemmican, and soup.1 But the people who usurped these Indian lands insisted on importing all their food plants, animals, and ideas from outside. Ever since, the local food scene has blended ingredients and influences from seemingly everywhere else.

Today, Denver is a foodie’s paradise. But even among locals, its food history is not well known. One reason is defensiveness over the city’s long-standing “steak and potatoes” reputation. And what dishes supposedly originated here? The Denver omelet, the ice cream float, the cheese­burger (a dubious claim), the notorious Rocky Mountain oyster—hardly a distinguished list. But if Denver’s food heritage has gone unappreciated, it’s above all because so many of its historic foodscapes—the settings where food was produced or processed, and the neighborhoods where cooking anchored community identity—have vanished. Hints do remain, though, making for good history alongside good eating.

At the time of the gold rush, Denver’s founding event, there was none of the infrastructure that fed people back east—mills, canneries, packinghouses, farms—for hundreds of miles. But it didn’t take long to develop. Showing where local priorities lay, the first food-processing plant was the Rocky Mountain (later Zang’s) Brewery, established when Denver was just months old. Rival Colorado (later Tivoli) Brewery opened in 1866. While Zang’s is gone, the Tivoli is a rare old Denver foodscape that has survived. The brewery closed in 1969, but its classic brick edifice with mansard tower and smokestack now houses the Auraria Campus student union (shared by Metropolitan State University of Denver, the Community College of Denver, and the University of Colorado Denver)—and, aptly, a craft brewery.

After railroads arrived in 1870, Denver became a flour-milling and canning center, processing the produce of the high plains. These industries concentrated in Auraria, the bottomland between Cherry Creek and the South Platte River where the 59ers had first settled. Dairying flourished too, with numerous family dairy farms a few miles up the creek. Most disappeared with the rise of standardized, scientific dairying methods during the Progressive Era. But clues to this foodscape survive too. Many larger land parcels in southeast Denver, where parks, shopping centers, a high school, and a retirement community now sit, were once dairy farms or pastures. The area’s last dairy families incorporated the “suburb” of Glendale, wholly surrounded by the city, to avoid annexation. And the former Windsor Farm Dairy plant still graces the corner of 19th and Blake, in downtown Denver.

Auraria was redolent of New Mexican green chile and sour-marinated carne adovada, mingling with the smells of German, Irish, and Jewish cooking.

Denver’s “cow town” image came not from dairies, but from the ranches that once ringed the city (where suburbs now sprawl) and from the stockyards, slaughterhouses, and meatpacking plants that dominated Denver’s north side. Beef headlined the menus of Denver’s finest restaurants, and the city still has a hearty steakhouse scene, including its oldest surviving eatery, the vintage-1893 Buckhorn Exchange. The packing plants are no more, but the old stockyard pens and exchange building remain, on the river’s east bank just north of Interstate 70. And Denver still celebrates its cow town heritage every January, during the National Western Stock Show, which always begins with a parade of ornery Texas longhorns down 17th Street. The first day of the annual meeting (January 5) just happens to be the day of the 2017 parade. Find a spot along 17th for a true taste of Denver’s westernness.

Segregation also shaped Denver cuisine. African Americans, eastern European Jews, and other groups lived in enclaves with distinct food cultures. The earliest was Chinatown, or as whites derided it, “Hop Alley,” after the slang for opium. A devastating 1880 race riot shattered it into pieces, the largest stretching along Market Street from 20th to 22nd. It too has vanished, but in its day, groceries and mercantile houses stocked ginger, preserved fruits, teas, relishes, and other imported foodstuffs for Chinese Denver­ites, many of them seeking safety in numbers here after being driven out of mining towns in the mountains.2 In the new century, the Chinese population dwindled, but Chinese restaurants proliferated, catering to whites by serving sandwiches and steaks alongside chow mein and chop suey. The Denver omelet, with minced ham, onion, and green peppers, likely originated as a variation of egg foo young, either in a Denver restaurant in the 1900s (as was long claimed) or among Chinese cooks in western railroad camps (as others have surmised).3

Denver omelets carry the city’s name, but green chile, burritos, rellenos, and sopai­pillas elicit far more local pride. These dishes arrived with Mexicans and, even more, New Mexicans, whose numbers began growing in the 1920s. Recruited for seasonal labor in yet another foodscape—northeastern Colorado’s sugar beet fields—many of these migrants settled in Denver in the off-seasons, especially in the multiethnic, working-class “Westside,” whose heart was Auraria. Like Chinatown, Auraria disappeared: except for religious structures and one preserved block of 9th Street, it was obliterated by the urban renewal project that yielded today’s Auraria Campus. But from the 1920s into the 1970s, this neighborhood was redolent of New Mexican green chile and sour-­marinated carne adovada, mingling (before segregation deepened) with the smells of German, Irish, and Jewish cooking, and the odors of the Tivoli brewery and the cookie, bread, ice cream, pickle, and potato chip factories that also crowded the Westside.4

Here, too, food sometimes transcended culture and race. Auraria’s Casa Mayan restaurant, owned by a family from Chihuahua, catered to Anglos and hooked many of them on Mexican cuisine. So did the tamale and burrito vendors roaming the city, especially after 1945. By the 1960s, Denver’s Mexican restaurants were fusing New Mexican with California and Tex-Mex influences, typified by the “Mexican hamburger,” a Denver original consisting of beans and a beef patty wrapped in a tortilla and smothered with chile.5 More recent immigration and migration have enriched the mix, so what restaurant guides call “Mexican food” may actually combine New Mexican, Native American, Central American, Anglo, or regional Mexican flavors.

Italians, too, flavored Denver’s food heritage. Initially enclaved in the flood-prone “Bottoms” between Union Station and the river, they moved north to the Highland neighborhood, which until the 1970s was Denver’s Little Italy. Italian groceries, red-­gravy restaurants, sausage makers, and outdoor bread ovens gave Highland a distinctive feel. So did the many front-yard vegetable gardens. In fact, raising vegetables and fruits became a means of upward mobility. In Italian-owned truck farms outside the city, families would pick produce before dawn, haul it to the City Market (across Cherry Creek from where the Denver Performing Arts Complex now stands), and sell it to greengrocers, restaurateurs, and produce peddlers. 6 (Many Japanese families owned truck farms farther north, around Brighton.) But by the 1940s, family-­scale distribution was giving way to wholesaling. The new Denargo Market, located just north of today’s Coors Field, pulled produce by rail from across the nation, undermining local farms. Eventually, shipping by air and interstate highway made Denargo, too, obsolete. Another foodscape gone.

Today Denver’s food scene is booming. Chef-driven restaurants seem to sprout weekly in gentrifying neighborhoods, but fast-casual spots are also part of the mix. (Denver has spawned an oddly large number of national chains, including Chipotle, Noodles & Company, and Smashburger.) In other ways, Denver food is coming full circle. Immigrants—­Koreans, Indians, Vietnamese, Ethiopians, Russians, and others—continue to introduce new influences. Vigorous locavore and urban-homesteading movements are returning farming to the city, and local meat and produce to restaurants and grocery stores. Brewing has roared back, too: the Denver-Boulder area is one of the nation’s craft-beer capitals, now boasting nearly 90 small breweries. (The Wynkoop brewpub, Denver’s first, opened in a restored warehouse in 1988, helping to spark Lower Downtown’s revival and launching cofounder John Hickenlooper on a dizzying political ascent to become governor of Colorado.) Some chefs have returned to even older roots. The Fort restaurant in the foothills town of Morrison uses historically researched recipes to revive tastes of Colorado’s fur-trading era. And the fast-casual Tocabe serves up modern renditions of Southwest and Plains Indian fare.

You can still opt for beans and bacon—or steak and potatoes—but there’s much more to discover when it comes to Denver food.

William Philpott is associate professor of history at the University of Denver and author of Vacationland: Tourism and Environment in the Colorado High Country (2013). Co-chair of the Local Arrangements Committee for the 2017 AHA annual meeting, he is working on an environmental history of Denver. He thanks Shelby Balik and Carol Helstosky for their help with this article.

Notes

1. Elliott West, The Contested Plains: Indians, Goldseekers, and the Rush to Colorado (Lawrence: Univ. Press of Kansas, 1998), 73; John H. Moore, The Cheyenne (Cambridge: Blackwell, 1996), 57–59.

2. William Wei, Asians in Colorado: A History of Persecution and Perseverance in the Centennial State (Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press, 2016), 73–74.

3. See, for example, James Beard, James Beard’s American Cookery (Boston: Little, Brown, 1972), 110.

4. For vivid evocations of life in Auraria from the 1930s through the 1970s, see the oral histories in Auraria Remembered (Denver: Community College of Denver, 1991).

5. Gustavo Arellano explains and extols the Mexican hamburger in Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America (New York: Scribner, 2012), 261–62.

6. A rich source on Denver’s Italians is Alicia Zahller, Italy in Colorado: Family Histories from Denver and Beyond (Denver: Colorado Historical Society, and Virginia Beach, VA: Donning Company Publishers, 2008).


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