Across the country this month, Coloradans who believe in serving their fellow man are sitting down to a rare meal in honor of Alferd E. Packer.

In the days before bean sprouts and granola, when the West was raw and men ate men, Packer chewed his way into the hearts of Coloradans by devouring five gold-seeking companions.

Believed to be the nation's only convicted cannibal, Packer has become a somewhat beloved, if bizarre, hero. His bust stood in the state capitol next to those of governors and members of Congress. His strange story has been the subject of books, plays and a low-budget movie.

And each April, Packer societies in 13 states dine in celebration of the anniversary of the mountain man's death in 1907.

In Washington, D.C., The Friends of Alferd E. Packer had brunch Saturday at the National Press Club with Bloody Marys, hearts of palm and steak tartare, relishing the tale of their gruesome namesake.

In 1977 club members succeeded in getting the Department of Agriculture cafeteria named for the glutton, but a General Services Administration bureaucrat deemed the Packer plaque in "bad taste" and had it removed. At the University of Colorado's Alferd E. Packer Memorial Grille, hungry students have paid him homage for 16 years.

Packer Day events at the university include rib-eating, meat-tossing and Alferd Packer look-alike contests. The "Ballad of Alferd Packer" is sung by students sporting T-shirts with such slogans as "What's the Beef?", "Reach Out and Munch Someone" and "When You Care to Eat the Very Best."

As history records the Packer odyssey, the former Union soldier led a party of gold seekers across the rugged San Juan Mountains in the winter of 1874. The party was trapped in a blizzard. Only Packer emerged, wandering into a Lake City Indian agency with no appetite for meat and an unquenchable thirst for whiskey.

When the snows melted, the skeletons of the five men were found, their heads axed in. Packer was arrested, but escaped and wasn't recaptured until 1883.

After Packer confessed to killing and eating the five, District Court Judge Melville Gerry reportedly gave one of the West's most partisan sentences:

"Stand up, Alferd Packer, you voracious, man-eating s-- of a b----. There were seven Democrats in Hinsdale County, and you ate five of them. I sentence you to hang until you are dead, dead, dead as a warning against reducing the Democratic population of the state."

The Hinsdale sheriff sent constituents elaborately printed invitations to the hanging, but a quirk in the law saved Packer, who was retried and sentenced to 40 years in prison.

He was released in 1901 after The Denver Post, known in those yellow-journalism days as the "Bucket of Blood," led a spirited campaign to free the cannibal.

The grisly gourmand settled near Denver, where his stories and candy-filled pockets made him a favorite with children. He died denying that he had killed the victims, although he never denied having eaten them.

In the 77 years since Packer's death, Coloradans couldn't, or wouldn't, forget.

In 1928 the Lake City Ladies Union Aid Society erected a plaque on "Cannibal Plateau" in memory of the eaten. Republican legislators attempted to place a plaque in memory of Packer in the state capitol in 1952 but were rebuffed by angry Democrats.

That didn't stop Republicans from listing Packer as the Hinsdale County GOP chairman in 1965. Still, Gov. Richard D. Lamm denied Packer a posthumous pardon two years ago, saying that it was possible the cannibal got a "raw deal" but that the governor's fellow Democrats "would have a piece of my hide" if a pardon were granted.

And in Hinsdale County, where it all began, souvenir shops sell Packer T-shirts, tourists visit "Cannibal Plateau" and Republicans still greatly outnumber Democrats.