Skinny Girls Roadshow LIVE from Lake Tahoe — Partying, Donner-Style

Our friend, Heather, thinks our pig, Henri, is evil. It’s my own fault — she once remarked that he had an evil look in his eyes, and I said it was because I fed him bacon. I didn’t really, but the image stuck with Heather.

I like to write posts while I’m on vacation, as I am right now. I hadn’t realized, as we drove up into the Sierra Nevada to join my childhood pal Curtis and his family at their spacious chalet in Lake Tahoe, that our route would take us through Donner Pass, and past Donner Lake and the Truckee River.

Truckee Lake viewed from Donner Pass, 1868

Truckee Lake viewed from Donner Pass, 1868

It takes only a slightly malevolent leap of imagination to connect a food blog to the name “Donner”. For those likely very few of you who may not be familiar with this particular piece of western lore, I’ll give you the Cliff Notes version. The Donner Party was a group of 87 pioneers — men, women, children — who set out by wagon train in 1846 from the midwest for the promised land of California. They had the grave misfortune of arriving in the Sierras during one of the worst winters imaginable. They occupied some cabins near Truckee Lake — now Donner Lake — and a campsite on the Truckee River. By the time the last rescued member of the group arrived at Fort Sutter in April 1847, nearly half had succumbed to starvation, exposure, infection, trauma and murder. Those who survived did so, in large part, by eating first the flesh of their starved pack mules, oxen and horses, then in final desperation, the flesh of fallen members of their party.

At least where I grew up in California, the Donner Party was synonymous with cannibalism, and just the name inspired a shudder. But zombies, cannibals and flesh-eating in general have become somewhat vogue in popular culture. I remember a favorite cult horror/comedy film of mine when I was a kid, called “Motel Hell”. Guests checked in but they never checked out — and you can guess where they wound up. “It takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent’s fritters!” the tagline for the proprietor’s successful sausage business went. I read something recently about a woman somewhere in Central America cooking her husband and serving him to her restaurant customers. Husbands sometimes deserve cooking. But in reality, it’s usually the worst of circumstances that compel people, usually against everything they stand for, to eat another human being.

Our current uncomfortably close proximity to the Donner site is not the first time we’ve been in close contact with people and places of cannibal legend. My wife — girlfriend then — and dear friends Dan and Ronni were on an Alaska cruise for a client of ours some dozen years ago, and the guest speaker on the voyage was Nando Parrado. Nando was part of a Uruguayan college rugby team en route over the Andes to a match in Argentina in 1972, when their plane went down onto a glacier high at 11,800 feet. His mother and little sister were among the quarter of the passengers who perished in the initial crash, while another eight were killed by an avalanche. The 16 survivors who lived over two months in the wreckage were, like the Donner Party, forced to cannibalism.

Nando Parrado, left, and a fellow rugby player upon being rescued after hiking 10 days out of the Andes

Nando Parrado, left, and a fellow rugby player upon being rescued after hiking 10 days out of the Andes

Dan and I, I’m embarrassed now to say, spent the better part of the cruise making bad cannibal jokes, arguing over which one of us had the more tantalizingly succulent hams, and each pointing to the other and swiping a finger across his throat when Mr. Parrado happened to get on the same elevator as us. I had the fortune to sit down with Nando for an interview for a publication I edited for the cruise line, and he was one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met. I highly suggest reading more of his story.

So now, sitting here warm and well fed at my computer, glass of wine in hand, a mere 10 or so miles from where the Donner Party spent that hellish winter, I have no idea of the hardships others have had to endure that would lead them to resort to cannibalism. In my almost embarrassing comfort, my mind turns toward a beautiful lake trout I purchased at a market nearby, which I will brine and smoke. Curtis, a cowboy who demonstrates his roping acumen lassoing anything in site, will put ribs both beef and port on the grill. And we will embrace our good fortune, dining and wining, and raise our glass mindful of those who passed through these parts before us.

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4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Michelle
    Mar 27, 2013 @ 10:59:55

    Not sure what it says about me that I have read several books about the Donner Party, Alive (hey, it was big news when I was in Jr. High) and Parrado’s book. 🙂

    Reply

  2. pal-O
    Mar 27, 2013 @ 16:58:11

    When I was a young church goer I was told I was eating the body of christ and drinking his blood. I think there is something spiritual & profane in the cannibal concept that for me is best not practiced nor fantasized over. The book about the Rugby players was fascinating reading. Everytime Lori & I pass through the Donner region (too many to remember) we always have the same cannibal conversation.

    Reply

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