Cafe Society

Waugghhh to Go

Finally, I feel like a true Coloradan. I've eaten at the Brown Palace. I've eaten at Casa Bonita (and lived to tell about it). And now I've eaten at The Fort. That's the goddamn trifecta, isn't it? So where do I get me one of them "Native" bumperstickers? When do I get to start complaining about all the California real-estate speculators screwing the market and those goddamn New Yorkers messing up the traffic patterns?

For those of you who may have been in a coma for forty years or maybe just arrived here from Mars and have never heard of the Fort, let me try to explain its sometimes laughable appeal and its effects -- both good and bad -- on Colorado cuisine over the past four decades.

For starters, the Fort is a theme restaurant. There's no escaping that. It's been called better things (a museum of culinary history, a gastronomic time capsule) and worse (the fabulous obsession of one of the New West's great hucksters), but it's still a straight-through theme restaurant -- part Old West reliquary, part Planet Hollywood with cowboys. The servers all wear costumes (understated ones, thank God, but costumes, nonetheless), the walls are hung with artifacts of the trapper/trader/Indian fighter culture of Olde Timey Colorado, and the menu is an intellectual exploration of the West's close-to-the-land culinary past. And the place itself is, well, a fort. A brick-by-brick, 1-to-1 scale replica of Bent's Fort -- a trading post, army garrison and freight stop along the Santa Fe Trail in the early 1800s -- rebuilt in Morrison in 1962 according to original plans and drawings discovered by none other than Sam'l P. Arnold himself.

It took 80,000 adobe bricks to build this thing, plus the help of a double-dozen laborers brought in from Taos. Advertising man Arnold originally meant to live here with his family and...what? Walk the parapets at night, keeping an eye out for Indian attacks? I don't know. But somewhere along the way, it occurred to him that perhaps it would be slightly less crazy to use the place as a restaurant. Oh, and not just any restaurant (and museum, and meeting hall, and gift shop), mind you. No, a historical restaurant, specializing in authentic "food and drink of the Early West," featuring such mountain-man delicacies as bulls' balls, bison tongues, marrow bone "prairie butter" and lots and lots of steaks.

A truly eccentric, incurable obsessive (think Allie Fox from Mosquito Coast or that friend of yours from high school who was a little too into the Renaissance Faire) never knows when to stop, never recognizes when his passion has crossed some hazy border between hobby and fanaticism. And Sam'l P., he's world-class, right up there on the top rung with the new-old spelling of his first name, the Jeremiah Johnson costume he wears, his use of a tomahawk to crack champagne bottles, and trademark mountain-man cry of "Waugghhh!" But there's also some smarts down under all that weirdness. Because 43 years after he opened the Fort, the restaurant still packs people in.

Yes, he's half snake-oil salesman and half P.T. Barnum, selling his forty-dollar steaks and vision of the Old West to anyone in earshot -- but it works for him. It works for his restaurant. And it works for American cuisine. Because long before there was an Alice Waters talking about American product and American cookery -- back in the early days of James Beard and Julia Child -- Arnold was already out there, tirelessly promoting historic native cuisine, giving it the research, the time and the care that everyone else reserved for traditional French and classical Italian. The Fort has been serving buffalo meat for forty years, since long before Ted Turner "discovered" it and dedicated his chain of Ted's Montana Grills to the greater glory of the other red meat. As a destination restaurant its entire life, the Fort is at least partly responsible for Colorado's reputation as a meat-and-potatoes state, since generations of food tourists from both coasts have returned home with tales of this strange place where people still eat buffalo and tongues and steaks left hanging on the bone.

To this day, when a food writer visits Colorado, the Fort is on his itinerary. If a cooking show comes through Denver, odds are it's got some time blocked out for Sam'l to do his thing for the cameras. Even Julia Child visited the restaurant and, rather famously, ordered a second helping of marrow bones. That's a big deal: Julia never ordered seconds of anything.

So finally, I decided it was time for me to follow in Julia's footsteps. After all, I like marrow, too. I enjoy a nice, thick, bone-in steak as much as the next guy. I'd heard about the Fort when I was still back in New York, and I wanted to treat myself to the entire experience -- the tongues, the testicles, the handmade sausage and homebrew whiskey. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan

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