Why Hello There, and welcome back to the Ongoing Kitchen Catastrophe series “Meandering America’s Menus”. If you don’t remember this series, or haven’t read any of it yet, it’s the one where author Jon O’Guin makes fairly sweeping analyses and generalizations about the culinary scene of each American state. He hasn’t written one since like, late October, because he noticed he kept doing them right after his Culinary compendium ones, and thought that was something of a sloppy habit he should break, like talking in the third person at the start of his posts. Shit. In any case, so far, we’ve only hit Washington and Oregon, so now let’s hit the little boot of America, Idaho.
And just like its boot-brother Italy, it's mostly mountain.
And let me start this post with something of an asterisk: see, when I wrote about Oregon and Washington cuisine, it was from the position of someone who had lived his entire life in Washington, with an average of 1.6 trips to Oregon every year. (Until I was like, 15, I spent at least…36 days there a year between a month of summer and a couple holiday visits.) Now, with Idaho, it’s not like I’ve never been there: I lived 8 miles from the Idaho border for 8 years, and they had the good mall and more artsy atmosphere, so I went over probably twice, three times a month, every month, for 8 whole years. And while, yes, many of those visits were only for 20 minute quick shopping trips, or an hour or two of dinner/brunch, I also had weeks where I went 3 times for multiple hours, because I was doing shows over there. Even assuming my trips only averaged 2 hours that still means I’ve technically lived…about 1 month in Idaho.
So, obviously, my personal experiences are going to be a little weak here on out, getting less reliable as we journey across America. Of the states, I’ve personally BEEN to around 12 of them for anything longer than say, 3-4 hours. As such, we’re stepping more and more to secondhand sources, until/unless the Kitchen Catastrophe “Totally Not A Trainwreck Road-Trip” takes off and someone hands me a couple thousand dollars to spend two weeks discovering the “heart” of Utah cuisine.
Or at least the heart-attack.
But, Idaho I do kinda know, and, of course, I’ve been researching it, so let’s dig deep into the Gem state, and find out what’s cooking!
Step One: Remove Potato
In general American parlance, Idaho cuisine comes down to one word: potatoes. Idaho produces 1 out of every 3 potatoes in the entire United States. Which, interestingly, means they make 3% of the GLOBAL potato market. And if you asked if people from Idaho ate a lot of potatoes, the answer is probably “yes”. But you know WHY it’s yes? BECAUSE EVERYONE DOES. French Fries, mashed potatoes, baked potatoes. Italians, Irish, French, English, Germans, China, India, literally everyone eats potatoes. You know how I know that? Because none of the cultures I listed are even from the same CONTINENT POTATOES GREW ON.
I refer, of course, to the continent of Australia.
Yeah, Potatoes are, as you almost certainly learned at some point, actually South American. They just grow anywhere with mountains and rain, and trust me, Idaho has a TON of both.
So it’s marginally insulting to consider the Potato to be the End-All Be-All of Idaho cuisine. In fact, if you want to talk about Idaho’s culinary potatoes, there’s a far more important one to discuss.
A truly impressive ICP
That, my friends, is an ice cream potato. Vanilla ice cream formed into a potato, rolled in cocoa powder, and served with a whipped cream ‘dollop’. THAT’S the potato we SHOULD be talking about. Except not, because I’ve already written potato too many times, and I’m starting to forget what it means. Let’s talk about cool dudes instead.
Let’s Play Cowboys and Indigenous Rape!
In the history of the site, I’ve never been as proud of a joke I thought was too offensive to leave in a post. In my defense, I’m stealing it from Hank Azaria, but he did the live-action Smurfs movie, so it’s clear he’s a man with no moral center. I’m going to leave it in, because, hey, let’s all remember how shit a deal Native Americans got when we “found” this great new continent to live on.
Problematic history prominently reminded, let’s wave our hands through the smoke of burning lifestyles, and walk into the gentle fog of more romanticized history, with the great American Cowboy.
Cowboy? Check. Amber waves of grain? Check. Little red barn? Check.
We're in full America porn here, gentlemen.
Not at all a poorly educated manual laborer who spent suspicious amounts of time sleeping with other men and large animals, the American Cowboy is a quiet, strong man with a can-do spirit, a strong sense of personal freedom, and is remarkably more likely to be white than this historical counterpart was. There’s that pesky problematic history again, being a dick.
Anyway, Idaho cuisine is, in a large part, shaped by remnants of American cowboy culture. Idaho has something of the locavore phenomenon we see in Washington and Oregon, but taken a notably more macho way. See, Idaho really likes what I think of as “country food”
Even their state berry is a cowboy.
From Pheasant to Elk, Bison to Trout, Rabbit to Lamb, the Idaho table always hints “Maybe I shot/hooked/snared that out in the back country this morning, or maybe I got it from my friend’s farm his family’s had for six generations”. There’s a sense of the LAND in Idaho cuisine, an earthiness missing from Washington’s localized luncheons. I always feel closer to the dirt-caked hands and muddied boots of the producers in Idaho.
Just Basque in the Applause
The other notable facet to Idaho food is potentially based on a…weird demographic twist. And this may be a little awkward to talk about, but given my last section opening, I feel confident that we can push through this: See, the middle of America is…really goddamn white.
Not exactly the white I was referring to.
Idaho, for instance, has 1/6th the Asian American and African American proportions that Washington has. And Washington isn’t exactly a super melting pot in this regard: we’re talking high 70’s percent White. Idaho is closer to “Low 90’s.” (Both of those numbers do include Hispanics as white, because the census does, so that might affect your feelings about their diversity. Neither state is Maine, for example.) This has…perhaps predictable effects on the cuisine of the region in general, but it also serves to highlight the distinctions of what they do have. For instance, Idaho has the second highest population of Basque peoples in America, which, given its relatively low population, actually makes it the most Basque-dense state. So when you talk modern Idaho cuisine, you often have to discuss the Basque influence.
Basques, if you’re unaware, are a small ethnic group from basically right around where Spain and France meet. They have their own language, cultural norms, etc. They also make some delightful dishes like croquettas!
That's a croq of shit! HaHA- Wait, no, crap. I need that pun for next week. Shit, ummm. "If these are croquets, where's the delicious mallets?" That'll do.
I wanted to include them in the conversation because Basques actually tie into several of the points we’ve already covered. Basques were traditionally shepherds, ranchers, and fishermen in medieval Europe. It was a Basque man, Ignatius of Loyola (a Basque City) who founded the Jesuits. Basques moved to the New World, predominantly to the territory that would become Chile just as it started to throw off Spanish rule and become its own nation. During this time, historians note that 45% of the immigrants to the country were Basques.
God-fearing, hardworking people, connected to the high country of South America, and simple jobs producing respectable food. It’s not hard to see how the story of Basques connect to the story of Idaho. In a way, the Basque population is perhaps the truest exemplar of the American Cowboy motif held to by Idaho peoples: that a man’s race matters less than his work, that the land is what matters, and a quiet strength and faith will get you through the hard times.
And if all else fails, just deep-fry steak, and no one will question you.
I didn't make a single "Ho" pun this post. I'm proud of myself.
NEXT TIME: JON, MOTIVATED BY HIS BASQUE INTERACTIONS TODAY, DECIDES TO VISIT FRENCH CUISINE. MAN, IT’S LIKE I PLANNED THIS. (I DIDN’T.)