This is a specialist but none the less fascinating account of a relatively unconsidered aspect of Old West lore in one of it’s livelier towns; that is, what was for dinner? And breakfast, lunch and for snacks in between as well. After all, it couldn’t all have been gunfights, gambling and mining, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week – people must have taken a coffee break some time or other. As this book so thoroughly demonstrates and documents – they did just that. There are even recipes for what they would have had with their coffee; some of baker Otto Geisenhofer’s butter cookies, perhaps, or even some of his Nuremburg cookies, made with slivered almost and candied lemon peel. (The recipes for these are on pages 96-97)

Yes, the West was wild and sufficiently woolly to fuel about a century and a half of exciting dime novels, B-movies and television shows. A steady diet of those may leave one with the impression that no proper denizen of the wild West ever drank anything but whiskey or coffee from a tin pot hanging over an open fire, or anything but beans and salt pork cooked up and served in a cast-iron pan. People tend to forget that the late 19th century American frontier not only coincided with that high Victorian culture which saw the dining room as a temple and a well-set table as a high altar, but that efficient transportation networks and food-preserving technology made setting a splendid table a very achievable proposition. To put it plainly, they would have eaten lavishly and very well in 1880s Tombstone, probably at least as well as they can now, and this book proves it.

Six lovingly researched chapters, about half of this volume outline the growth of Tombstone and its commercial heart, from a waterless and desolate camp on the site of a nearby silver strike through its arc of success as a lively and cosmopolitan city and it’s steep decline when the mines closed; not just the hotels and restaurants, but the saloons, chop-houses, grocery stores and ice-cream parlors… yes, there was an ice-cream parlor. Canned oysters and fresh fish, all packed in ice was shipped in from the coasts, fresh vegetables and fruit from California along with dried figs and raisins, tea in sealed tins from Japan. Two thriving bakeries kept local restaurants and residences supplied with bread, cakes, pies and other baked goods. Interestingly, both bakeries were run by German immigrants from Bavaria. Other thumbnail sketches of business owners and entrepreneurs are included in this off-beat account of the commercial and culinary life of Tombstone.

The finer hotels and restaurants published their daily bills of fare in the newspaper. On an autumn Sunday in 1881 for example, the most popular hotel in town, the Russ House dining room offered a fish course of salmon with mayonnaise sauce, a choice of entrees which included chicken giblets, pot pie, stewed brisket of beef, veal cutlets, ox tongue with spinach, and a choice of string beans, tomatoes, sweet potatoes or mashed potatoes, with pumpkin or blackberry pie, sponge cake or floating island pudding for dessert. A few weeks later, the Occidental Chop House offered a fish course of salmon with potatoes or codfish, beef fillets with peas, turkey hash with dropped eggs, leg of lamb with oyster sauce, Westphalia ham, turkey with cranberry sauce, beef ribs with horseradish, and shrimp curry, East India style. Recipes for many of these culinary delights take up the rest of the book; gleaned from the specialties of Tombstone’s bakeries, ice cream parlors, grocery stores, restaurants and meat markets. All in all; a wonderful invocation of what, exactly was going on in the background of one of the Wild West’s livelier small cities.

“Taste of Tombstone” is available from the publisher, The University of New Mexico Press, and from online bookstores such as Amazon.com.

Sgt. Mom is a free-lance writer and member of the Independent Authors Guild who lives in San Antonio and blogs at The Daily Brief. Her current book “To Truckee’s Trail” is available here. More about her books is at her website www.celiahayes.com.

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