The way we cooked

Old recipes prove Boulder County pioneers had pretty sophisticated palates


Avocado-topped ahi quinoa power bowls were not on the menu if you went out to dinner in Boulder 160 years ago. It would be four more years until the first eatery opened. But it’s not like the white folks who settled in what was called Boulder City were eating twigs and berries.

Yes, Boulder County’s culinary offerings have come a long way, but looking back provides a chance to see what the first European-descendant settlers in the area ate. Surprisingly, or maybe not, some things never changed.

In 1859, nearly 200 men and 17 women were in attendance at a Christmas dance held in the only cabin in Boulder that had a wooden floor, according to Phyllis Smith in ‘A Look at Boulder from Settlement to City.’ Dinner was a Paleo-friendly menu of black-tailed deer, rabbit and fish, which was a pleasant change from the usual parched corn.

For that event, coffee was served “from washtubs,” but that doesn’t mean that beer wasn’t involved in early Boulder. The nearby town of Sunshine was formed in part because miners heard rumors that a plot of land had been traded for a keg of beer, which was not legal. An account from 1859 in ‘Frontier Boulder’ by Dick Fetter notes:

“We had no doubt that a lot had been sold for a keg of beer, but the beer was drunk, and drunk or sober the title was just as good as if the consideration had been money.”

In 1863, Daniel and Mathilda Pound opened the two-story Colorado House hotel near Pearl and 13th streets, the likely site of Boulder’s first dining establishment. Thus, it was also the probable location of Boulder’s first customer complaint about the size of the entrees.

While Yelp and Twitter were still a few decades off, the local press included ads for local shops that show that Boulderites were eating fairly high on the hog. That was true at least for locals who could afford to shop at Tourtellot & Squires, the Alfalfa’s Market of its time. The Oct. 12, 1869 Boulder County News included an ad for the shop offering: “Bacon and ham: 30 cents a pound; oysters, 40 cents; eggs, 50 cents a dozen; butter, 40 cents a roll; trout 22 cents a pound. Porterhouse and sirloin steaks, 16 cents a pound.”  

Fresh produce was already being grown locally, including such luxuries as asparagus, strawberries, raspberries and blackberries. Boulder would start to get a reputation for growing dozens of varieties of apples.

By 1876, restaurants were still a rarity so church suppers filled the void for working people who wanted a night off. In the first recorded example of someone abusing an all-you-can-eat buffet in Boulder County, the Colorado Banner for Dec. 28, 1876 shared this note from an attendee at a Methodist Church dinner: “I had my money’s worth. I ate $2.50 worth of supper for 25 cents. I ate two chickens, one ham, one mince pie, three dishes of pickles, a three-pound cake and drank six cups of coffee.”

No word whether there were complaints from the people in line behind this guy.  

One of Boulder’s early cookbook pamphlets was ‘Recipes from King’s Daughters of Grace Church’ in Denver 1892 and sold at Fonda’s Pharmacy in Boulder. Recipes ranged from the fairly exotic Mulligatawny Soup (an Anglo-Indian creation) to doughnuts. Like similar books, this one included helpful medical hints such as: “Bite of serpent: Apply fire in some form, followed by whiskey to intoxication.”

The collection’s Chicken Salad No. 2 recipe starts with these measurement-free instructions: “Boil until quite tender a full grown chicken; remove all the skin and fat and put the meat into a wooden bowl and chop fine; then chop as much celery as you have chicken.” It assumed a lot.

One cookbook reminds us that Boulder’s reputation as the epicenter of the American natural foods movement did not start with long-haired hippies collecting herbs for tea in the foothills in the mid-1970s. Published by the Woman’s Relief Corps of the Grand Army of the Republic in Boulder in the late 1800s, ‘The Nathaniel Lyon Cook Book’ features the usual recipes for Lady Cake, Indian Pudding and Whipped Cream.

The roster of these early Boulder-branded natural food products includes many that would be right at home on kitchen counters in Table Mesa: “Graham Crackers. Toasted Wheat Crackers. Granola. Oatmeal Wafers. Almond Butter.” We’re not so sure about the Nuttolene and Granose Flakes.

By the early 1900s things were getting fancy at Boulder tables based on the recipes in ‘Dainty Dishes and How to Serve Them’ by the Ladies’ Aid Society of First Baptist Church.

Recipes in the tea sandwich category included one for Marshmallow Sandwiches that may be the culinary ancestor of both the FlufferNutter and s’mores. A list of etiquette notes included: “The lips should be closed during mastication.” It’s still good advice.

The cookbook’s introduction includes a lament not uncommon in these collections, which were generally meant to only be read by women:

“Ask a woman what cooking means. It means the endurance, the long suffering and martyrdom of Joan of Arc. … It means perspiration and desperation and resignation. … Then she must rise above it all and be a lady.”

However, there was a glimmer of hope. ‘Dainty Dishes and How to Serve Them’ included an ad from Western Light and Power proclaiming: “Let Electrical Servants Do Your Housework.” The “staff” for sale included electric toasters, grills, percolators and waffle irons.

Historic Boulder snack recipes

Saratoga Fried Potatoes: “Cut in thin slices, put them in cold water over night with a small piece of alum to make them crisp. Rinse in cold water and dry with a crash towel; fry light brown in hot lard.” — From ‘Recipes from King’s Daughters of Grace Church.’ 

Marshmallow Sandwiches: “Take small size crackers, spread with peanut butter, put marshmallow on top, brown in oven.” — From ‘Dainty Dishes and How to Serve Them’ by the Ladies’ Aid Society, First Baptist Church, Boulder

Beef Tea with Hydrochloric Acid: “Chop fine half pound sirloin steak. Put one drop hydrochloric acid into a cup of cold water, add to chopped meat, set in the refrigerator for two hours to digest. Strain, season with salt. Serve in a red wine glass.” — From ‘The Boulder Cook Book’ with recipes by Mrs. F. W. Leland Cooked with Boulder Natural Gas (late 1800s)