Rest assured, at the 2020 National Western Stock Show, there is no shortage of meat to taste: Throughout the two-week event, chefs are preparing 4,000 pounds of steak alone — some 600 ribeye cuts, the same for NY strips, and 300 filets.
But here’s what you won’t find to eat at the stockyards this year: a final, free feast with six tons of smoked meat — two bears, four buffalo, 150 possums, five elk. That tradition started and ended in Denver with the great barbecue riot of 1898. Heard of it?
So through a 21st Century lens, yes, it might seem ironic, even cruel to go to the stock show to eat. But at the first Denver National Stock Growers’ Convention 122 years ago, “no event … garnered more enthusiastic headlines than the grand barbecue that was promised to follow the stock show,” according to the Colorado Encyclopedia.
To finish off the event and impress all those visiting cattlemen and officials, Denver’s Union Pacific Stockyard planned to host a free meal for 25,000 attendees.
If you think brisket nachos and veal sausages sound exciting, well, back then they were serving up South American bay leaf-spiced bear meat, mint-sauce mutton and possum with sweet potatoes on the side.
You could wash it all down with beer donated by Denver’s then-largest brewery, Zang.
Imagine buffalo and beef cuts so big, the cooks were using mops to baste them by the minute, according to the Rocky Mountain News.
While more than 700,000 people attended the stock show in 2019, it took only 30,000 hungry attendees to storm the stockyard in 1898. Before the dignitaries could make their way in, residents of the “city’s slums” arrived in droves, according to the Denver Public Library’s Western History department.
The corralled mob pushed through a roped partition, collapsing the table of prepared food. “Police officers and state militia cavalry troops tried to hold back the crowd, as terrified waiters threw chunks of beef and loaves of bread at the mob,” according to the Colorado Encyclopedia.
The Rocky’s editor, William Byers, had volunteered as a waiter that day.
Reports of police brutality appeared in papers by Friday, Jan. 28, 1898, along with estimates of looted items like 2,000 tin cups and 1,000 steel knives and forks. The rioters also took barrels of beer. One man, Claude Wilson, was killed in a fistfight that broke out that day at the stockyards’ hotel.
Fast-forward to 2020 and the most excitement food-wise at the stock show are Nutella funnel cakes.
“We’re really trying to elevate everything, but still make it approachable and stock show-centric,” the event’s executive chef Mike Van Trabert told a room full of press at a pre-show tasting event.
During the 16 days of the 2020 show, the National Western Bar & Grille operates as a sit-down restaurant and steakhouse. There’s also Big Bubba’s Bad BBQ, Coors Cowboy Bar, a TX Whiskey Tavern and more food stands.
But a bear and possum barbecue for the whole city to ransack? You’ll have to do without.