Who would have thought that William Thompson, the rugged frontiersman who was instrumental in the founding of Alder Gulch, Montana, was also a published author? Perhaps this explains the penchant of descendants toward things literary.
Asked by the Anaconda Standard to reminisce about his first Christmas at Alder Gulch, Thompson relates in avuncular Western style his attempts to salvage a decent holiday meal from bear meat by lacing it with cinnamon and cooking it with onions. The story, first published on December 17, 1899, can still be found on the internet thanks to the Montana Historical Society.
“Bear Meat and Frozen Onions–Virginia City, 1863” is written with the kind of self-effacing humor that would characterize later Thompsons. In family fashion, Thompson quickly resorts to the colloquial, recalling that at the time he was “baching” it with his partner, Joe Griffith, and two other “trail blazers,” Nunley and Clanton, whose first names apparently weren’t worth remembering, if he knew them at all.
Thompson, who didn’t marry until he was 37, writes that “in due time” the group set out to prepare a Christmas feast. He’s clearly remembering a time when he lived at his own pace, when he still had his future to create, and when family obligations didn’t dictate that meals be eat early, presents be given, or trees adorned. Born and raised in Ontario, Canada, the one-time mayor of Butte, Montana, clearly enjoyed his early freedom in “the far west.”
Elsewhere in the story, characteristic Thompson resourcefulness, not to be confused with insensitivity or sloth, is on display. For instance, we learn early on that the centerpiece of the meal is a piece of bear meat that has been given to them by a friend–they didn’t acquire it themselves. Then, Thompson, who probably remained a stranger to the kitchen for most of his life, quickly hands off the cooking to Griffith.
Thompson’s lone contribution to the meal, in typical male family tradition, is to know where some onions might be had to make the bear worth eating. He sagely remembers onions that had been thrown out in the trash after the first cold spell of the season.
Though we may never know for sure, Thompson probably knew the onions had turned bad. In allowing this inference, he seems to be laying out in the finest literary tradition a kind of foreshadowing of the story’s conclusion. He never vouches for the onions, even though he seemed to overpay for them–$3 for “several” pounds. One can only wonder how much that would be by today’s standards. $50?
The onion incident also reveals an almost cavalier attitude toward vegetables evident in later Thompson males. Reading liberally between the lines, Thompson must have decided that vegetables needed to be eaten–thus his almost instinctive need to ferret them out. But that he snatched them from a garbage heap, and then mightily and overpaid for them, evinces an almost nihilist attitude toward the provision of vegetables for a holiday meal.
Read another way, vegetables and their procurement must have meant a lot to the young man. Going for vegetables must have been something imbued in his early conscience from his life back east. He may have even eaten a vegetable or two when he was young. But now that he was out on his own, eating or enjoying vegetables, as we later learn, was a far different story.
The menu cobbled together for that early feast was indeed a peculiar one–bear meat, onions, salt-rising bread, coffee, cake, and sugar. How the quartet procured the ingredients is almost as revealing as the partaking of them.
For instance, Clanton, clearly the low-brow of the group, apparently spent Christmas afternoon at the saloon, playing cards, trying to “win” a gallon of whiskey for the feast. Nunley, his methods no less prurient, spent the afternoon trying to “rustle” up some ingredients for a cake.
We may never know what Nunley did to procure the ingredients. It looks as though the group had sugar. Did Nunley steal the flour and eggs? Was their icing on the cake? If so, where did Nunley get the butter to make that? We know that Nunley visited a farm, because the group availed upon a perhaps unwitting farmer to use his cookstove to bake the cake.
Thompson, who clearly enjoyed roughing it, calls using the acquaintance’s cookstove was a “priviledge,” apparently one that our rugged frontiersmen, who later went on to fame and fortune, didn’t often enjoy. No, he was baching it, roughing it, rustling up ingredients for a holiday dinner.
Eventually, the group sits down for their Christmas “spread,” a classic bit of irony. Then, in a move reminiscent of later family males, Thompson quickly moves the onions to one side of the plate. He had no intention of actually eating the only vegetable offered. Providing them was apparently enough.
Interestingly, Thompson is the only one of the group who doesn’t eat what he has provided. Joe digs into the “rank and stringy” bear meat and doesn’t seem to taste the onions. It looks as though Clanton gets drunk on the whiskey he provided. And Nunley, who had worked his ass off that day, devours nearly the entire cake just to prove that it’s edible.
Interestingly, and perhaps significantly, the next day Nunley has to call the “medicine” man. Which brings us to the delicious moral of this tale–only a fool would eat what he brings to the holiday feast. It’s not making too much of a leap to assume that the whole idea, in Thompson’s mind at least, is to make other people sick.
A literary masterpiece, no. A revealing portrait of the twisted Thompson psyche, yes.