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1950s Archive

Comstock Lode

Originally Published May 1953

Nevada is my adopted state and I will defend it to the death. Nowhere in the Union is so low and comfortable a way of life available as in the One Sound State, the Hard Money State, the Sagebrush State. It is, among oilier things, the only state in the Union with no public debt, no income, inheritance, sales, or other nuisance or confiscatory state imposts. It is the only state where gambling, high, wide, and handsome, flourishes around the clock, and one of two-Louisiana, I think, is the other where the saloons never close. Storey County, where I reside in the seedy grandeur of a Victorian mansion, is so poor that no offense requiring a jury trial ever reaches the bar of justice. Malefactors, including a recent murderer, are booted across the county line and told not to return.

Best of all, there are hardly any people in Nevada, only about one inhabitant for every square mile, which is as dense a population as I, after twenty odd years on Madison Avenue, care to put up with. When from my dressing room window in the morning I look across the one hundred seventy-five miles separating Virginia City from the Reese River mountains. I can comfortably reflect that there are hardly twenty odd people in the intervening countryside.

As I say, Nevada is the best of possible worlds.

But Virginia City, to one who for two decades accustomed himself to Jack and Charlie's, Henri Soulé's, and the Plaza, has its drawbacks. They arc all gastronomic. Dining out is not one of its stellar attractions. Folk from all over the world come to gape at Piper's Opera, to sit at Mark Twain's desk in the Territorial Enterprise, and to view the mine shafts through which the wealth of the Hearsts, Mackays, Floods, and Fairs once ascended.

Hut nobody, to the best of my knowledge, has ever toiled up the Gieger Grade attracted by visions of grenouilles meunière or médaillon de ris de veau Montpensier. To be sure, Old Pancake Lane, inflamed to incandescence by an old copy of GOURMET which she found in the lobby of Florence Edwards' hotel, once essayed poularde a l'estragon, but since, in some inexplicable manner, a quantity of catnip found its way into the sauce, the venture was not altogether a success.

The art of dining, as decreed by Brillat-Savarin and Escoffier, should be characterized by tranquility and undertaken in devotional attitudes.

In Virginia City, within my experience anyway, it has been characterized almost altogether by tumult, uproar, and low comedy. In bonanza times, the legend has it that the fabled Washoe Club imported at vast expense a chef certified to have come from Delmonico's, and the International Hotel was the scene of unbelievable routs among the terrapin and double magnums, but that was long ago.

When we first moved to Nevada, the Comstock did indeed boast an inn that was locally believed to be conducted on a scale of almost foolish luxe. It was maintained by a one time Boston debutante who might well have been on bowing terms with, say. Bronson Alcott, and her husband, who was supposed to be a relative of unspecified proximity of the King of Sweden. Ginny could, and did, upon occasion cook very well indeed, and the prices were strictly Colony, but a great deal of the “Continental cuisine” at the Bonanza seemed to be based on the amount of vinous or spirituous liquor that could be insinuated into such usually prosaic arrangements as scrambled eggs or leg of mutton with caper sauce. An evening at table at the Bonanza Inn might as well have been spent at the bar of the Brass Rail down the street. The effect upon diners was indistinguishable, and the Attorney General of the state once suffered a severe concussion from falling down an entire flight of stairs after too much peach Melba. It was occasionally possible to discover a bit of turtle meat floating in the bath of boiling sherry which represented clear turtle soup, hut the least skirmish with the macédoine of fruits rendered a customer unfit to operate a motorcar.

More than one patron had to be helped out by his wife after a presumably innocuous dinner of calf's liver and bacon. Unsuspecting old ladies who had driven up the hill from Reno for the air and had decided to patronize the Bonanza for a light supper ended up in fist fights in the more tumultuous resorts of C Street, and the sheriff once locked up a disorderly sailor from San Francisco. The charge on the blotter was self explanatory: Continental dinner at the Bonanza.

Ginny and Halvor were among their own most enthusiastic customers. Life at the Bonanza began to assume overtones that might have been described as Dionysiac with suggestions of Belshazzar's feast from Cecil De Mille's “Fall of Babylon.” After sampling a few spoonfuls of almost any plat du jour, the management was in no mood for sordid details of business, and guests were invited into the kitchen to have dinner on the house. You could tell it was the kitchen because there was a stove, but otherwise it might have been the bar.

This way of life could obviously end in nothing good. Breakfast at the Bonanza was mostly served in glasses, although a customer was reported to have modified this custom on one occasion by pouring a brandy milk punch over his Mother's Oats. Dudes putting up at the Inn for the six weeks which Nevada requires for “the cure” were, by the time they got their decrees, candidates for Alcoholics Anonymous. And although the owners were meticulous in paying liquor bills, they began neglecting the meat market and the poultryman.

The Bonanza Inn on the Comstock is now only a fragrant memory perfumed with Four Roses.

The next restaurant to achieve local fame, if not for its food at least for its way of fun, was the Delta, maintained by the management of the Delta Bar. which felt it might be well if the regulars could now and then be persuaded to ingest something solid.

The Delta lunchroom was and, happily, is presided over by a chef named Four Day Jack. because this is the invariable length of the toots or sprees upon which he embarks with enthusiasm and regularity. There is a well-established belief that nobody can be a good cook who is a temperance advocate, and on this basis Four Day ranks with Scotto and Louis Diat. Jack has been a chef in every bonanza town of the old West from Tonopah to Dawson City and from Rawhide to Rhyolite. His cooking is on the hearty side as a result. A two pound T-bone in his lexicon is a “breakfast steak.” and three or four fried eggs invariably decorate his hash and veal dishes. An awed newcomer to the Comstock once discovered no fewer than six eggs, one of them with two yolks, in his breakfast eggs Vienna. This son of thing meets with local approval and incurs no misgivings on the part of the management. which runs a vast saloon and gambling parlors next door.

Now and then, however, the Delia has known times of crisis. One of them was upon the occasion when a new waitress served the window display.

Four Day is inordinately vain about his window display, which usually consists of something simple and solid like a boiled ham surrounded by half a dozen apple pies. Nothing pretentious, you understand, but definitely artistic and on no account to be used for eating purposes. On the occasion mentioned Jack had wandered through the door separating the restaurant from the bar and was taking something for his stomach's sake in company with Eddie, the day barkeep, and the superintendent of public schools, who doubles as roulette dealer after scholastic hours. A new waitress was on duty when a busload of Shriners from a convention current in Reno descended upon her tables. Running short of ham and pie in the pantry, the unfortunate woman reached into the window and started serving the prize pies and aesthetic ham to the customers.

The Shriners were halfway through a nourishing lunch when Four Day returned. Horror and incredulity clouded his visage. Not since the sack of Constantinople by the Turks. Jack was sure, had such sacrilege been perpetrated. Seething with indignation and Old Overholt, the mad chef attacked the fezes and pantaloons. With screams of rage and anguish he snatched at slices of ham already partly consumed and half-eaten wedges of apple pie, trying to fit them back together as a child might attempt to repair a broken toy. With banshee screams he overset the fraternal Islamites, denouncing them the while with choice epithets from a lexicon amassed during sixty years on the frontier. Fezes, Shriners, tables, mustard pots, and the bellowing chef rolled together in a hideous farrago of confusion on the floor.

In the justified belief that riot and civic tumuli had arisen, townsfolk rushed in from the bar and had at the quivering haberdashery. In a cloud of White gaiters and red breeches, the ranks of the Shriners broke and they fled, screaming for mercy, to their bus, with on avenging Four Day at their heels. Flodden Field or Bull Run were trilling defeats by comparison, and it wasn't until the window display was replaced. somewhat the worse for wear but still recognizable, that Jack could be pacified.

The waitress never served the window pie again. She's not there.

Last summer the Comstock House, an amazement of marquetry, ormolu, and other Victorian splendors, imported a chef direct from Maxim's in Paris, France. Virginia City was shaken to its foundations. The great days were back. Howard tbermidor and grenadins de veau Beauséjour, suitably translated, were back on the menu. But the chef, a notably temperamental artist, was not altogether happy in “the West's liveliest ghost town, ” as Virginia City likes to call itself. The patrons, in many cases, wanted Nevada steer meat instead of timbale d'écrevisses Nantua and rognons en casserole chez soi, A low fellow from Carson City made bold to criticize the pigeonneau au plat (83.75) and the chef declared he was departing. It chanced that evening a stylish dinner party from Reno was due and just before taking the down stage, the imported artist turned down the icebox control to its coldest depth, freezing its entire contents beyond all thawing for days, and chopped the butane gas pipe in the back yard with a meat axe, allowing all the fuel to evaporate.

Since his departure, things have been quieter on the Comstock, but we all know this tranquillity isn't here to stay. The chef at the Sawdust Corner has invented a sandwich known as the “Virginia City Terrible,” which contains eleven ingredients of meat, cheese, and dressing, and Pancake Lane was seen reading an article on French cuisine in the Sunday San Francisco Chronicle, and there is no telling when a rash of caneton bigarade aux pommes soufflées will break out in C Street. The Comstock likes its public dining in a state of tumult, and a restaurant called Bedlam House would make a pot of money. That's for sure.

lucius beebe,