Fall and winter are seasons of festivity in North America. Whatever holiday traditions you celebrate, chances are they involve feasting and family. In the words of late chef Anthony Bourdain, “Food is everything we are. It’s an extension of nationalist feeling, ethnic feeling, your personal history, your province, your region, your tribe, your grandma. It’s inseparable from those from the get-go.” Archives & Local History houses a substantial collection of local cookbooks, both historical and modern. They capture food culture in the Rocky Mountain region, from rough-and-tumble buckskin and gravy cooked on a campfire to the refined art of creating a perfect meringue at high altitude. The history of food and cooking can say a lot about the cultural identity of a community, and that concept certainly plays out in Douglas County.
Living off the Land
Before settlers came along, Utes in Douglas County ate dried fish. They seasoned and preserved the fish with salt, which originated from their neighboring bands in Utah. The use of horses increased Ute consumption of bison, making hunting the vast and powerful creatures easier. Pine sap was a nutritious dietary supplement in spring, and the peeling of inner pine bark remains a sacred medicinal tradition today. (For more, see the Pikes Peak Historical Society’s article “Ute Culturally Scarred Trees.” Please note that as of 2019, the Southern and Mountain Ute tribes have released an official statement asserting that the Ute “prayer tree” or “bent tree” is a farce and not associated with Ute cultural traditions. Read more here.) From considering just these few food traditions, we learn about Ute trade networks, the impact of horses on their transportation and hunting, seasonal changes in diet, and the treatment of certain trees as sources of both food and spiritual and medicinal healing.
Pioneers Set the Table
The food culture of non-native Douglas County residents is, of course, quite different from that of the Utes, centering on sedentary endeavors such as agriculture and cattle-raising. Early Douglas County homesteaders primarily raised cattle because hilly geography is not highly tenable to farming. A few chose to farm wheat, like the Lowell family along East Plum Creek, and potato crops were profitable for a time in Larkspur and Greenland. The Cherry Creek Valley focused on dairying ventures, and German immigrants there ran the successful Cherry Creamery for decades. The Carlson-Frink Creamery in Larkspur also ran well into the 20th century. Some ranches, like the Diamond K near Highlands Ranch, raised poultry and small sheep herds.
Outside of Douglas County, other agricultural crops and products thrived. In 1880s South Platte Valley, sugar beets proved to be a major crop, and Colorado’s famous Palisade peaches from the Grand Valley first appeared around the same time. However, beef has always been king in Douglas County, especially along West Plum Creek. Douglas County ranchers remain avid participants in Denver’s Western Stock Show, and popular 4-H Clubs thrived in the mid-20th century. This passion for (and proximity to) cattle is clear in the recipes of pioneers and ranchers, which often include variations on beef and dairy.
Food Culture in Your Life
Douglas County today is growing more than ever, once again changing the landscape of local cooking and food culture. New residents bring different food traditions, longtime residents continue theirs, and other traditions will form from combinations of both. No matter what we’re eating this holiday season, take the time to consider how your meals bring community and identity into your life.