Not surprisingly, the miners wound up being the better part of the deal at the June 4 Sowbelly Dinner in Idaho Springs. Held at the Idaho Springs Elks Club and sponsored by the Clear Creek County Metal Mining Association, the event was the 53rd annual commemoration of the discovery of placer gold on Chicago Creek in 1859--and, like the 52 dinners before it, featured food just like the miners ate 135 years ago.
In fact, I think we got their leftovers.
For a few politicians and myself, the dinner was also an opportunity to press palms and meet some local characters--although the crowd of about 175 was smaller than it's been in years past, what with the mining industry being in a slump. Either that, or many people just can't take any more sowbelly, which is your basic salt pork, which is your basic slab o' fat with a few pig hairs stuck on the bottom and a couple of dried-out pieces of dark-pink meat clinging to it. As Tye DeMass, a transplanted Texan with a mischievous mustache who's an environmental something-or-other at Rocky Flats, put it, "It ain't like the stuff I had in Nawlins."
With that, he and I started recounting our best meals in the great food city of New Orleans, but DeMass had a better way of putting things. "As they used to say," he began, and after saying it in French then translated: "That tastes so good it's like the sweet baby Jesus peed on my tongue." And although DeMass didn't tell me anything I didn't already know about Rocky Flats, he later admonished me, "If you print that, I'll sock you in the mouth."
Much less violent was the gentleman whose table we commandeered. We watched, amazed, as he actually ate the sowbelly, the bread, the beans and the coleslaw--and then went back for seconds. He mumbled something about having been there "when they started," and I wouldn't be surprised if he meant in 1859. Meanwhile, five of us picked gingerly at the one plate of food we'd purchased and soon found that, while the pig fat was a bit rich, the beans that had been cooked with the sowbelly were tasty, as was the coleslaw.
Marion Petrovic, who owns Marion's of the Rockies, a restaurant in Idaho Springs, was responsible for the cooking, a duty he took over from the "Navy mothers" a few years ago. "You know, the mothers of men in the Navy. They got too old, and they showed me what to do," he explained.
"Salt pork and dried beans were among the few things that stored and traveled well for the miners," added Petrovic, who cooks the food at his restaurant and carries it to the Elks Club. (A sign on the wall there says something like, "The first time you are a visitor, the second time you are a visitor, the third time you are an Elk," which means I have one visit left--but it could be worse: I could be a sowbelly.) Petrovic boils half of the sowbelly to get out the saltiness and cooks the other half with the navy beans, but that's not the full extent of his work. Later I overheard him tell someone, "I did a better job of shaving it this year.