Sam Arnold, proprietor of The Fort, is known for serving up historically accurate cuisine at his restaurant, a replica of the original Bent's Fort. Committed to presenting "the food and drink of the Early West," the kitchen specializes in such delicacies as bison tongue, marrow bones and rattlesnake cakes.
But Arnold's interest in preserving the Old West goes beyond exploring gastronomical frontiers. The Fort routinely hosts lectures (such as the one last week about malting and applying adobe) and events such as a cannon-shooting on the Fourth of July, performances by nineteenth- century military brass bands in the summer and a ceremonial lighting of farolitos in celebration of Santa Lucia in November and December. This weekend, The Fort's inhabitants will go so far as to present an entire Day in the Life of Bent's Fort. Inside the courtyard, chefs will be cooking that buffalo tongue over an open fire and baking bread horno-style, letting it rise in a hot beehive oven while Indians make bows and arrows and turn rawhide into handmade leather artifacts.
"The day is designed to re-create all of the activity at Bent's Old Fort between the 1830s and 1840s," says organizer Nancy Niero. "It'll be what visitors would have walked into at that courtyard then. We'll have a strolling musician -- he and his family specialize in northern New Mexico nineteenth-century music. A group of Native American dancers will be in the courtyard during the day, and there will be a demonstration by the re-enacting group the U.S. Topographical Engineers. We want to make the whole event a richly faceted day."
As The Fort's official historian, Niero designs the special-events series, takes care of the art collections and helps staffers understand the importance of the fur-trade era -- all of which furthers the mission of Arnold, a Yale-educated author and public-television personality as well as a restaurateur. Arnold's latest endeavor is the Tesoro Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the artistic treasures of the past -- culinary and otherwise -- and presenting them to the community.
"We would like to recognize people who are holding on to those traditions and promote their work," Niero says, "whether it's a gunsmith or quilter who is using the same technology as in the nineteenth century, a blacksmith, a weaver retaining the art form from northern New Mexico, or the traditional work of Plains Indians. We're thankful that there are people learning about those art forms, talking to elders, researching and providing us with a sense of how these things were made, built and used. Sam is very committed to providing a vehicle for honoring that kind of work." The Day in the Life of Bent's Fort is the inaugural event in the foundation's first season. "We think that the overall day will have a wonderful feel and flavor and smell of that time at Bent's Old Fort."
But, Niero admits, certain elements just don't translate to modern times, no matter how earnest a historian's efforts at accuracy. "We're not going to be providing all of those smells," she concedes, laughing. "To be honest with you, there were animals, there was a corral at Bent's Old Fort that had animals, and there were also peacocks. And when it comes to outdoor latrine areas, there's ongoing research right now at Bent's Old Fort about exactly where that spot was on the property."
For that bit of history, however, it looks as if we'll have to wait for the next Day in the Life.