One of history buffs’ favorite tales concerns an aging Buffalo Bill, a prodigious drinker. It goes something like this: Told by his doctor to limit his liquor consumption to two shots a day or the result would be calamitous, the showman agreed and told a bartender to serve each shot in a tankard.
Not so, says Steve Friesen in “Galloping Gourmet.” Buffalo Bill loved his liquor, so much so that his business manager made him swear off drinking during show season. But in later life, the showman gave up drinking altogether. Who would know this better than Friesen, the retired director of the Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave in Golden and author of the spectacular “Lakota Performers in Europe?” In “Galloping Gourmet” — “the title belongs to a man who graduated from meals on the Great Plains to dinners at the Waldorf,” writes the author — Friesen has done considerable research into the drinking and eating habits of Cody, his friends and his employees.
Buffalo Bill started his career as a scout and guide, and that was where he developed a fondness for drink. Perhaps the best-known man in the world at his peak, he dined with royalty and plainsmen and even his performers. Cody insisted that his employees eat as well as he did. That meant a large traveling staff that could set up a kitchen and dining room in an hour, even in Europe. The dining room, incidentally, featured tables with tablecloths and was staffed with waiters. Cooks fixed up to three meals a day for 1,000 employees and guests.
Separate meals were prepared for the Indians. Reformers, who felt Cody was exploiting his Indian performers, complained that they were underfed. In fact, it was on the reservations, where the government often failed to deliver food rations, that the Indians faced starvation. Told they could eat as much as they wanted at the show, the Indians sometimes got sick from overeating.
On his first day at the show, an Indian named Crow’s Ghost ate seven large steaks. Warned that such indulgence might kill him, the Indian replied, “To die from eating too much would surely be a happy death.”
Cooks made sure favorite foods from back home were available to performers. Europeans caught on, and so Buffalo Bill popularized popcorn and popcorn balls, peanuts and tamales and a variety of cocktails.
The rich and famous sought out invitations to meals with Cody. He entertained royalty as well as old friends from his scouting days. Artists, too, attended the show. Rosa Bonheur created more than 50 drawings and paintings of the show. She attended the show several times a week and often dined with Cody and his Indian performers.
Buffalo Bill himself drank lemonade and soft drinks during his months on the road. His business partner said he saw the showman drunk only five times in 18 years. In all his years in show business, Buffalo Bill missed just 10 performances, and not necessarily because of drink. At home in Wyoming, his cook prepared him a Buffalo Bill cocktail: two fresh eggs, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, salt and pepper. The next morning, writes Friesen, “he was up early enough for a big breakfast of ham or bacon, two eggs, and three sourdough pancakes.”
“Galloping Gourmet” disputes a number of Buffalo Bill myths. One is that as an old man, Cody was seen lying drunk in the gutter. Another is that the showman died destitute. In fact, he had a $90,000 estate.
The research in “Galloping Gourmet” is impressive, but even more impressive is that “Galloping Gourmet” is just fun to read.
Sandra Dallas is a best-selling author and book reviewer in Denver.
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