Peaches, 'oysters' and beer: Does Colorado offer a Mile High cuisine?

Regional foodways flourish across the United States, from Oregon to Louisiana to Maine. See what the land of Eastern Plains, alpine peaks and Western Desert offers.

Douglas Brown, Senior Retail Reporter

June 25, 2024

6 Min Read
Peaches and 'oysters': Does Colorado offer a Mile High cuisine?
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Most people have little problem identifying signatures of regional American cuisines: the South and barbecue. New England and clam bakes. New Orleans and gumbo. Southern California and tacos.

Colorado?

Blank stare.

We aren’t alone. The Mountain West in general lacks a crisp culinary profile. Whether it’s Wyoming, Idaho, Montana or Utah—or Colorado—associations tend to fix on meats like elk and bison, with a little trout thrown in. And they don’t go much further.

But as a 20-year Coloradan who has spent much of his time writing about food, I can tell you that Colorado food, at least, is about much more than bison burgers.

At the same time, however, I can’t argue for a range of dishes and ingredients that inform some sort of distinct sense of Centennial State cuisine. Where our neighbor to the south, New Mexico, puts chiles on its license plates, we emblazon ours with mountains.

Could that enormous north-south ribbon of gigantic peaks cleaving the state have something to do with its hazy culinary identity? The arrangement certainly mitigated European migration compared to places like New York, California and the Upper Midwest, where the culinary heritages of Italians, Chinese, Polish and others play a huge role in those regions' classic dishes.

Related:Explore Colorado’s food paradise before, during and after Newtopia Now

Colorado’s Indigenous people of course enjoyed centuries-old preparations using native ingredients. Sadly, much of this food legacy vanished during colonization. Meanwhile, between 1598 and 1821, Colorado was governed by the Spanish colony of New Mexico. Those centuries of Spanish settlement serve as the foundation of the varied cuisines of New Mexico. They failed to inform Colorado food to that extent, but did make a difference.

Along with migration, Colorado’s dramatic geography also influenced agriculture. Where the coasts and the Midwest enjoy rich soil and robust rainfall, neither is the case for Colorado.

People associate Florida with oranges and spiny lobster, and flock to Oregon for berries galore and Dungeness crab. They don’t, however, visit Colorado nursing dreams of French fries. They might, however, come for beer.

So there’s something. Beer.

Colorado breweries offer a variety of craft beers. Background photo: Matt Inden/Miles

During one of my twice-annual visits to spend time with my mom in a small town near Philadelphia, a guy in the liquor store who asked for my ID exclaimed when I handed it to him.

“Colorado!” he said. “I was just out in Denver for a long weekend, literally to do little more than drink beer. You guys have amazing beer!”

Cheers, Pennsylvania dude.

Colorado food reminds me, in a way, of two places I have lived: Baltimore and Albuquerque. Most people skip them as vacation destinations. For good reason, frankly. On first glance, they don’t have much to offer beyond Baltimore’s harbor and Albuquerque’s flank of pretty mountains.

Related:Newtopia Now: ‘The Black Nutritionist’ brings heritage-led eating to the fore

But I always tell people, there’s nothing obviously bewitching about either place. You’ve got to spend time there to understand them. Once you do, you fall in love.

The same goes for Colorado food. Prior to moving here in 2004, I knew nothing about the grandeur of fruit from the state’s Western Slope. The region’s high elevation keeps evenings cool. At the same time, it bathes in strong sun. The combination yields impossibly sweet, crisp fruit. I’ve lived all over the country, and I think our peaches, apples, pears, plums and cherries are as good as it gets. They all find their way into dishes. While a peach pie isn’t a distinctly Colorado thing, a pie made with fresh Colorado peaches is a uniquely special thing.

Also on the fruit front, our Rocky Ford cantaloupes, grown in the Eastern Plains, stun with bright flavor and pleasing texture.

Another hidden gem: chiles. I knew zippo about Colorado’s Pueblo chiles before moving here. Nobody really does, unless they’ve lived in the state. The chile peppers grown around the southern Colorado city of Pueblo, the Mosco variety, come on fiery and flavorful.

As a former New Mexican, I know my way around chile peppers. They are everywhere in the Land of Enchantment. Green chile in New Mexico is a thick sauce involving onions, garlic, possibly cumin and oregano. It’s bound together with a roux. Colorado’s rendition, which when done properly showcases hot Pueblo chiles, incorporates pork and tomatoes. Sometimes potatoes and even beans. It’s more a stew than a sauce.

It can be wonderful, and you’ll find it in Denver and elsewhere in the state.

One of Colorado’s strengths is its bounty of staples like potatoes, beans and wheat grown by farmers practicing regenerative and organic agriculture. While none of these things exactly scream regional cuisine, they are contributing mightily towards Colorado’s maturing culinary identity.

Grains like wheat and barley, for example, enliven some of the nationally prized local beers the Keystone State guy trumpeted. Colorado’s many award-winning distilleries, too, routinely turn to the state’s grains.

Ingredients like these also get tapped by Colorado’s many CPG brands. This farmer-brand two-step is due, in part, to the Colorado Grain Chain, an effort started in 2019 that brought together CPGs, restaurants and other culinary artisans with grain-growing farmers. The union invited a strong supply chain to develop, one advantageous to farmers and the people and companies in the state crafting gorgeous food products.

Three Colorado Grain Chain leaders—Eric Skokan, the owner of Black Cat Farm and Bramble & Hare restaurant, which recently won a Michelin Green Star; Kelly Whitaker, a star chef who this year won Restaurateur of the Year by the James Beard Foundation; and Claudia Bouvier, owner of Pastaficio Pasta—are slated to speak at Newtopia Now.

Enjoy their conversation in August. And for those heading to Denver for the big show, welcome to culinary Colorado! Eat your weight in green chile, Palisade peaches and Rocky Ford cantaloupe. Savor every sip of that Western Slope cherry sour beer, of the neat glass of Spirit Hound’s straight malt whiskey, which judges at the prestigious London Spirits Competition in 2022 and 2024 awarded as Whisky of the Year. Side note: One of the Spirit Hound owners also owns a natural and organic products retail store in the fetching Colorado town of Lyons.

Before you begin eating your way across the Mile High City or the Centennial State, a few suggestions.

  • Never order something called “Colorado pizza.” The style involves a thick, braided, whole-wheat crust flooded with honey. The tomato sauce is sweet.

  • Rocky Mountain oysters, which always get included in roundups of Colorado food by national media and bloggers, is deep-fried bulls’ testicles. Those who eat them, for the most part, are tourists noshing away in the service of winning a bet. The dish does not belong in the canon of Colorado food.

You’re welcome.

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Eric Skokan, the owner of Black Cat Farm and Bramble & Hare restaurant; Kelly Whitaker, a star chef who this year won Restaurateur of the Year by the James Beard Foundation; and Claudia Bouvier, owner of Pastaficio Pasta, all are scheduled to be panelist at The Flavors of Regenerative: Culinary All-Stars Share Insights into the Future of Food Service session at 11:45 a.m. Tuesday, Aug. 27, at Newtopia Now. For more information, visit the Event Experience page.

About the Author(s)

Douglas Brown

Senior Retail Reporter, New Hope Network

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