Gunfighter Gourmet

Sherry Monahan wrestles old dishes from Tombstone's history

Until the HBO series Deadwood came along, I knew little about the culinary aspects of the Old West. However, even David Milch's TV Western gives short shrift to the food produced for gunfighters, miners and saloon owners.

For too long, the history of the West--real and imagined--has only mentioned the chuckwagon as the primary source of gustatory indulgence. (The chuckwagon, of course, was a wagon that transported the foodstuffs and cooking utensils during a surveying expedition, cattle drive or what have you.) Rare is any discussion or presentation of a proper Old West restaurant (unless you count John Williams' Butcher's Crossing).

Sherry Monahan provides a much-needed corrective with her history/cookbook Taste of Tombstone: A Hearty Helping of History. Initially published 10 years ago by microscopic Oklahoma-based press Royal Spectrum, Monahan's genre-mixing nonfiction is getting a much bigger profile with its recent republication by the University of New Mexico Press. No doubt the success of Deadwood and 3:10 to Yuma inspired--and continues to inspire--more studies of the gunfighter era.

As Monahan notes, however, it wasn't all bullets and booze. The Old West was the territory of small businessmen (and women), some successful, and many not so much. Her first chapter, "There's the Silver in Those Hills!" outlines Tombstone's origins: In 1877, prospector Ed Schieffelin lays claim to a vein of silver ore on the Goose Flats plateau. He calls it Tombstone in light of a passing soldier's prediction that the Apache-plagued territory would result in Schieffelin's discovery of the rock known as "tombstone." Given the town's initial industries, a more accurate name would have been Tent City:

Most early businesses began in tents, rather than in frame or adobe structures. Tents were practical for several reasons. First, building supplies and lumber were very limited in the immediate area. Second, mining was a risky and unstable business, and tents were easily moved if the mines did not prove fruitful. Even the first hotel to open in Tombstone began in a tent.

One of the earliest entrepreneurs in Tombstone was Samantha Fallon, who opened the San Jose Lodging House, drawing miners with her reasonable rates. And one of the first culinarians was 22-year-old Bavarian baker Otto Geisenhofer, whose CityBakery "offered a variety of fresh baked goods including rolls, rye bread, pies, cakes, cookies, and candies." Tombstone's first proper hotel, meanwhile, was the Grand Hotel, which a local newspaper described as "the most elegant hostelry in Arizona." To give readers an idea of what the Grand and other establishments were about, Monahan provides old drawings, advertisements and bills of fare (menus), which combine to produce a real sense of what it must have been like to enter and order food in Tombstone.

Taste of Tombstone also gives you a sampling of some of the unique marketing efforts that went on back then:

The (Maison Doree) regularly advertised that fresh oysters were always available and that it only employed French cooks. Publicizing such things was not uncommon; it was actually considered smart advertising at the time. Some restaurants also advertised "no Chinese employed" and "white cooks only."

There was, naturally, the famous gunfight in Tombstone in the year 1881, and Monahan documents all the eateries that surrounded the event, with some of the business owners even chipping in to raising bail money for Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. But it was during the next few years--and only the next few years--that Tombstone thrived and grew more cosmopolitan.

When silver-mining operations began digging up nothing but dust, the city dwindled. This didn't stop Tombstone from selling itself as "the most prosperous town in Arizona." Indeed, as Monahan notes:

Despite their efforts, people continued to leave Tombstone for something better. ... Even though its future was uncertain for many years, residents could count on its first-class accommodations and fine-dining establishments. Though there are many ways one can obtain a sense of the rise and fall of this once-great mining town, the history of its food industry is one of the most interesting.

Even more interesting are the 140 recipes Monahan gathers in Taste of Tombstone, most from Tombstone restaurants of the 1880s. I actually attempted a few of these, albeit on an old avocado-green General Electric stove/oven made circa 1970. The results were pretty great, particularly the chicken giblet soup and the molasses cookies.

If you want to eat like an Old West gunfighter, Taste of Tombstone gives you a real shot.

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