Urbavore's Dilemma: Fort owner Holly Arnold Kinney uses her garden to dig into her past

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Joel Warner
Holly Arnold Kinney and neighbor Matt Slater in Kinney's greenhouse
Urbavore's Dilemma is an ongoing web series detailing city dwellers' commitment to urban homesteading. From May through September, Westword writer Joel Warner will get his hands dirty, covering everything from backyard chickens to front-lawn gardens, from greenhouses to co-ops and food-sharing. Check out the full series here.

Holly Arnold Kinney is as close to Colorado culinary royalty as you can get. She was literally born into local haute cuisine, having grown up on the upstairs floor of the Fort, the celebrated adobe-style fine-dining restaurant her father built as a dream house for her mother amid the hills of Morrison in 1963. Now owner of the Fort herself, Kinney's known to have amassed a treasure trove of gastronomic wonders, from original 18th century cookbooks used by New World missionaries to a built-in Wolf steamer installed in her home kitchen.

So when I heard Kinney had begun dabbling in urban gardening at her south Denver home, I knew I had to check it out. I needed to see what, exactly, a backyard garden looked like under the tutelage of Denver's first lady of food.

That's what led me on a recent afternoon to Kinney's home -- a spacious, modern residence, all picture windows and patios, overlooking a quiet creek. I'm here for a luxurious lunchtime feast she'd cooked up with the help of her assistant, Mary Martha Pappas -- all of it straight out of her backyard. First there's zucchini and summer squash soup with goat cheese, sautéed onions, herbs de Provence, sweet vermouth, bacon and pureed corn, then a lettuce salad topped with organic Golden Girl heirloom tomatoes and white balsamic vinegar. As an added treat, Kinney's longtime friend and master gardener, Matt Slater, has stopped by with fresh kohlrabi, a crisp, cabbage-heart-like veggie he grows in his impressive home garden a few blocks away, where thirty strains of wine grapes grow under the shade of a towering willow tree.

As we sit at the immaculately set table and dip the kohlrabi in toasted sesame seeds and bits of dried seaweed, Kinney explains that while spending most of her professional life in a smaller house a few blocks away, she'd always wanted to garden. But between being a single mom and running the PR firm Arnold Media Services, Inc., she says, "I had the space to garden, but I worked too hard."

That changed a few years ago when she married Jeremy Fowler Kinney, president of the Kinney Oil Company, and later joined forces with her father in running the Fort. Now she finally had the time to get her hands dirty -- and when her husband moved her into this sizable home, she had more than enough yardage to make it happen. Now much of her backyard boasts a raised garden overflowing with greens, squash and tomatoes, and a small climate-controlled greenhouse stocked with lemon, lime, grapefruit and Arabica coffee trees. "It's a little bit indulgent," Kinney says sheepishly.

These projects, plus the bins collecting compostable food scraps in her kitchen and by her upstairs coffee machine, are fueled in part by her growing awareness of the country's food problems. "It will change the world if we can get people gardening and connected again with their food source," she says. It also doesn't hurt that she estimates she's saved $1,500 in grocery costs this summer alone.

But for her, there's a deeper, more personal impetus for the fruits and veggies. To explain what it is, she shows me her legendary cookbook collection, which is spread over several rooms of her house and is currently in the process of being formally catalogued by a DU library sciences doctoral student. There, amid White House cookbooks and first editions of books by family friend Julia Childs, Kinney has stashed away one of the gems of her collection: her great grandmother's cookbook, filled with newspaper clippings and handwritten recipes for ginger beer and snowflake cake. "We've all been foodies for all these generations," explains Kinney, gingerly fingering the yellowed pages.

When she cooks from these pages, she says, "It's like she's talking to you." And lately, she's needed a way to remember her family, since over a recent five-year period, Kinney lost both her parents and her brother.

The gardens are a part of that family connection, too. Her mother, who grew up gardening on a Georgia plantation, started a garden in the courtyard of the Fort when the restaurant first opened. She used seeds purchased from the Museum of the Fur Trade in Nebraska, since the building was a replica of the Colorado trading post Bent's Fort. But eventually the garden disappeared, since Kinney's mother separated from her husband and left her family and the restaurant for thirty years.

She returned, and reconciled with her family, when her daughter became co-owner of the Fort. There, during the last few years of her life, she told Kinney, "You have to put the garden back at the Fort."

And now Kinney's done so. After lunch, she takes me up the foothills to the restaurant, where, in the dusty courtyard, she's planted corn, beans and squash -- the sacred "Three Sisters" of Native American gardens -- as well as Mandan tobacco.

Soon there should be even more stuff growing at the Fort. On the land around the restaurant, she plans to build raised garden beds and year-round greenhouses, with the produce going straight into the kitchen. It's all creating her own food cycle, she says -- but it's also about reconnecting with her family. "It's reconnecting with life," she says. "It's healing to reconnect when you have lost so many people. The plants become your babies, they become your children."

And now that she's honed her skills in her backyard, she's ready to expand her "grand experiment" to one of the most renowned eateries around. As Kinney puts it, "My father had his vision for the Fort, my mother had her vision, and this will be my vision."

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