Between my freshman and sophomore years of college, my parents moved to Leadville, Colorado. My dad had sold the bakery in Nebraska and bought another one in Leadville. Living in the mountains of Colorado had been a lifelong dream of both Dad and Mom.
It hadn’t, however, been a lifelong dream for me. I was perking along happily at the University of Nebraska when they announced they were going to leave. So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, goodbye.
So I scrambled to find an aunt and uncle that would allow me to use their address as my home address so I could continue to pay in-state tuition at NU (not kosher then; not kosher now; sorry state of Nebraska). I drove out with my family to Leadville when they moved all their things from what had been home for almost all of their lives. Dad was the only one who had seen the bakery and the town. The rest of the family was moving sight unseen.
It was the first week in June, and as we came down the pass from Dillon to Leadville, it was snowing. I will never forget that. Snowing in June. I had a bad feeling.
We drove past the molybdenum mine outside of town (which employed probably 95 percent of the working population). The mine had taken over the mountain and pretty much destroyed the landscape (as mines do). It was not very pretty. My bad feeling grew.
We pulled into the town of Leadville, and it seriously might as well have been 1890 instead of 1974. Though fairly close to Aspen as the crow flies (though a difficult drive over a serious mountain pass to get there), unlike that ritzy mountain town, Leadville’s founding fathers had done very little to spruce the town up. They were likely too busy working in the mine. Leadville was not a tourist community. It was a mining town.
I eventually saw the prettiness in the Mosquito Range surrounding the town and even in the town itself. But it was a big leap from what I was used to in Columbus, Nebraska.
It was a mining town.
I know I keep saying that, but mining truly defined the town. And the people.
I lasted one more year in Nebraska before following my family to Leadville. I lived in Leadville for a year or so before moving to Boulder and completing my education at the University of Colorado. That year in Leadville is one I seriously will never forget. I have been talking about Arizona being the Wild, Wild West. Let me just tell you that the residents of Leadville still had gunfights.
The folks that worked in the mine made pretty good money. It was Union work. Hard work which you couldn’t pay me enough to do, but really good cash. They got paid every two weeks.
Here’s how it went down, at least for many of the Leadville residents.
They would get their paychecks Friday afternoon and make their way to the Safeway (where I spent a year working). They would cash their checks at the service desk, and then buy their groceries for two weeks. They would proceed to the electric company, the bank that held their mortgage, the gas company, etc., and pay their bills with cash. They would then spend the rest of the night — well weekend really — getting drunk and into bar fights.
My mom and dad’s bakery was right on the main street across from the court house. Every other Friday on payday they would lay awake in bed and listen to the fighting going on across the street. Generally knife fights but there was the occasional gun fight.
And then Sunday morning the miners would go to church and Monday morning it was back to work and a normal life.
The mountains outside of town (and they really were walking distance) were dotted with old abandoned mines. At one time, Leadville had been second only to Denver in population because of the gold and (mostly) silver mining. Prior to moving to Leadville, I had never heard of Horace Tabor or his pitiful wife Baby Doe. The Unsinkable Molly Brown’s husband made his money from a mine outside of Leadville.
I have mentioned before that my first taste of real Mexican food was in Leadville. It was at a restaurant called The Grill. I used to order two cheese and onion enchiladas with a fried egg on top. In 1974, the restaurant was kind of sketchy, bordering the unsafe neighborhood (as if our “safe neighborhood” across from the court house, where you had to literally dodge bullets, was so much better). Still, it was not a lovely restaurant but it had very good Mexican food. Thus began my love for Mexican food, the spicier the better.
I returned to Leadville recently and noticed the town leaders are making a concerted effort to clean up the town and attract tourists. The need for tourist dollars became critical when the Climax mine’s business plummeted in the 1990s. I was happy to see the improvement, but somewhat sad to see that The Grill had cleaned itself up and become just another Mexican restaurant. What’s the fun if you don’t have to worry about a potential stabbing?
Living in Leadville changed me in many ways, but not the least is in my food taste. I simply couldn’t live now without Mexican food. It’s one of the things I missed most when we were in Europe for three-and-a-half months. I probably eat Mexican food in some form or another three or four times a week both in Arizona and Colorado.
I recently had my brother over for dinner where I made pollo asado. What an absolutely delicious dish and so pretty to look at. Because the invitation was last minute, I didn’t have time to make the homemade refried beans I had been eager to try after watching a recent Pioneer Woman episode. So I Googled “refried beans canned pinto beans” and came up with what turned out to be a great recipe.
½ c. olive oil
½ c. orange juice (freshly squeezed if possible; save juiced orange halves)
¼ c. lemon juice (save the juiced fruit)
¼ c. lime juice (save the juiced fruit)
1 t. salt
1 t. black pepper
4 whole garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
16 whole chicken legs
2 whole onions, peeled and quartered
32 soft taco-size flour tortillas
In a bowl, combine the olive oil, orange juice, lemon juice, lime juice, salt, pepper, and garlic cloves. Whisk together.
Place the chicken legs, juiced pieces of fruit and quartered onions in large plastic bags or a bowl. Pour the marinade over the top tossing to combine. Cover with plastic wrap (if using bowl) or seal the bag up and marinate for at least 2 hours. Several hours is better. Toss a few times during the marinating process.
Preheat a grill. Grill the chicken legs until cooked all the way through, turning occasionally so the chicken is cooked on all sides, 10 to 12 minutes.
Separate the tortillas into piles of 16, and then wrap each pile in foil and warm over the grill for 10 to 15 min.
Serve the chicken legs with the warm tortillas.
Quick and Easy Refried Beans, courtesy Allrecipes.com
2 T. canola oil
2 garlic cloves, peeled
2 15-oz cans pinto beans
1 t. cumin
1 t. chili powder
Salt to taste
½ lime, juiced
Heat canola oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat. Cook garlic cloves in hot oil, turning once, until brown on both sides, 4-5 minutes. Smash garlic cloves in skillet with a fork.
Stir in pinto beans, cumin, chili powder, and salt into mashed garlic and cook until beans are thoroughly heated, about 5 minutes. Stir occasionally. Smash bean mixture with a potato masher to desired texture. Squeeze lime juice over smashed beans and stir until combined.
Nana’s Notes: I didn’t use chicken legs for the pollo asado; instead, I used boneless, skinless chicken thighs because I like to cut or tear up the meat and eat it inside the tortilla. Also, keep in mind that Ree Drummond cooks for a large number of people, so adjust your recipe accordingly. I made the same amount of marinade, but cut down on everything else. I marinaded the chicken for 2 hours, and it was absolutely delicious. As for the beans, they are so simple to make and I thought they were really tasty – better than store-bought refried beans. Finally, here in Arizona they have something new and awesome — uncooked tortillas that you simply cook in a fry pan or on a griddle for 30 – 60 seconds until they begin to bubble and brown. They are so simple and so delicious. I found them where they sell the canned biscuits and bread. I’m not sure if they sell them elsewhere. Hope so.