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6-22 mm western writer

MIKE McCLEARY/Tribune Author Sherry Monahan talks about being a western writer and researching America's Victorian west of the 19th Century during the Western Writer's Conference held in Bismarck on Wednesday. 6-22-2011

Sherry Monahan grew up in New Jersey, where she was the only student in her high school who wore a cowboy hat and cowboy boots for her senior picture.

That's the Western spirit, to do your own thing, she said Wednesday in Bismarck, where she is attending the Western Writers' conference.

Monahan loves the West, a passion she absorbed from her dad.

Now living in North Carolina, Monahan and her husband own 40 acres near Tombstone, Ariz., that will some day be their retirement home.

In the meanwhile, Monahan researches and writes about the Old West, including a food column called "Frontier Fare" for True West magazine, where she is a contributing editor. Each column focuses on a different aspect of food - bread, or coffee, or butter, perhaps. Currently she is doing research for an upcoming column on Mountain Man food, for example.

Monahan searches archives for quirky and funny stories to include with the food columns, such as the woman who added strychnine to her apple pie to dispose of her husband.

Her extensive research has made her the "go-to girl" for all kinds of people when they need expertise on the foods of the Old West, from the elaborate menus of the rich to the everyday foods of ranch hands.

In popular culture, ideas about the West are sometimes confined to just one inhabitant, the cowboy, she said. The West was not only composed of Anglo-Saxon English-speakers, but melded of immigrants from Italian to Asian to Scots to Hispanic, she said, each adding their food traditions to the Western cuisine.

Historically, America's experience of the West coincided exactly with the Victorian era, she said, and as people moved west, they brought their Victorian lives with them - the food, the dress, the mores, the etiquette - seldom portrayed in popular entertainment.

The frontier saloon, for example, was a gathering spot for men to discuss politics and business, but tablefuls of poker players would have been missing. The saloon consisted of just a rail and a bar, along with a long strip of cloth men used to wipe their mustaches, she said. Even the HBO series "Deadwood" got it wrong in one respect, she said - not even a prostitute would appear in public in her underwear.

Also missing from popular portrayals of the West are the exotic and unexpected drinks, foods and clothing that the wealthy of Denver and San Francisco enjoyed and that smaller communities emulated.

In books such as "The Wicked West" and "Taste of Tombstone," Monahan explores the hospitality business of the Old West from sources such as old newspapers and menus from the restaurants of the time.

The chuck wagon foods familiar from countless Westerns relied on nonperishables such as bacon, beans and bread, she said. But classic French cuisine was very much in vogue during the Victorian era and was served in the West as well. Western towns rich with silver mines brought in delicacies such as oysters, packed in ice and hay for their train trip from the East Coast. The wealthy folks dining in these restaurants wouldn't be wearing chaps and cowboy shirts, but frock coats and top hats, and for the women, exquisite Victorian dresses, she said.

Writing about the food of the West helps bring the era to life, Monahan said.

Her philosophy is, "if you can taste history, it's more interesting."

The Western Writers' group has scheduled a book signing from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday at Barnes & Noble Booksellers in Bismarck. Monahan's columns are available at http://www.truewestmagazine.com/stories/frontier-fare.

(Reach reporter Karen Herzog at 250-8267 or karen.herzog@bismarcktribune.com)

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