Hello and Welcome to another addition of our ongoing series Meandering America’s Menus, where Jon O’Guin spends about Five to seven hours researching a state’s cuisine and explaining it to you. Today’s post heads out to Big Sky Country, tackling the cuisine of Montana. And spends a lot of time mainly just talking about geography, bragging about being better than a celebrity critic from Michigan, and generally just wasting time.
Wave Bye Bye to the Big Sky
Why are we going to spend a lot of time talking about NOT the cuisine of Montana? Well, because Montana is kind of unfortunate in that particular regard. Not that it’s in anyway bad, the cuisine of Montana is hearty cowboy food, with fresh local beef, elk, and bison available basically everywhere. The PROBLEM is that, well, Montana doesn’t LEAD in anything. It has a fairly large Native American population…but only enough to put it in the top 10. So while there are cool things from the Crow, Blackfoot, and Cheyenne like frybread, horse relay racing, and so on, those features aren’t exactly unique to the state. It’s got a religious sect called the Hutterites who have some fun culinary twists…but there’s more of them in South Dakota.
Most of the state’s Asian population left during a wave of anti-Asian sentiment in the late 1800’s, so while they of course have chinese, Indian, and even sushi restaurants, they’re not exactly widespread. In short, Montana cuisine is like Idaho Cuisine, except when it’s like one of its other neighbors. It’s surprisingly average.
We serve this burger at the monument of Custer's loss at Little Big Horn. See what I mean?
I watched Anthony Bourdain visit the state to see if he had found anything I hadn’t, and his entire episode could be summarized as “I mean, it’s a real PRETTY state, and eating food you hunt is pretty cool. And there’s a bunch of cool history about public land use, and mining contracts, and stream-fishing laws.” The meals we see him eat there are: buffalo steak with potato salad and fry bread, a ‘supper club’ dinner that is basically a 2 course Italian dinner of pasta and anti-pasto, as well as potato salad and a steak, a pheasant he shot with collard greens, and a gourmet meal of smoked trout, partridge, and mushroom risotto. That’s two meals with steak, two with game birds, and two with potato salad.
I went to see what Andrew Zimmern had to say, and the answer was “nothing”. As far as I can tell, he’s never done a show in the state. He’s done at least FIVE in Florida, something like Six in California, but he’s never been to Butte or Billings. Hell, Bizarre Foods America, the version of his show that FOCUSED on the United States, went to CANADA and PERU before it went to Montana.
And, looking at the history, it’s almost kind of fitting: Montana is the 4th largest state, after Alaska, Texas, and California. Despite that, it’s the 7th LEAST populated. On average, there’s only 7 people per square mile. And it makes sense: in the Bourdain episode, we see a 100,000 acre plot owned by ONE guy. That’s a brick of land almost the size of Barbados! There’s…not a ton of people up there. And fun fact, there was a BIG push against the land even BEING Montana. Depending on which Romance language you decided to sleep through in high school, you may be aware that Montana is just clearly the white-guy writing of Montaña, the Spanish for “Mountain.” Because when the Spaniards were exploring the continent, they hit the Rockies, and just filled in “Montañas del Norte” on that section of the map. That name is “The Northern Mountains.” They basically wrote “And fuck if we’re going up there, it’s cold and rocky.”
Of course, our follow up name of "The ROCKIES" wasn't particularly inspired either.
When America got the land, a dude on the House Committee of Territories said “We should call this the Montana Territory”. Two other guys said “That’s dumb. You’re dumb. Montana doesn’t MEAN anything, we’re calling it Idaho.” That argument is actually fucking hilarious, because “Idaho” is a made-up word. Some lobbyist CLAIMED it was a Shoshone word for “Gem of the Mountains” or “the Sun Coming Down from the Mountains”, but he also later admitted “Yeah, I just made it up.” The closest anything comes to it is that the Apache called the Comanche “ídaahȩ”. So, the territory got called “The Idaho Territory”. A couple years later, they had to divide up the territory into governments, AND THE SAME GUY WAS STILL IN CHARGE, so he said “We’ll just call THIS part Montana”. To which another senator went “This land is 2/3rds NOT mountains. Why would we call it that? Shouldn’t we name it after a Native American word or something?” To which the government eventually said “Look, the Committee picked the name, and that’s its job, so we’ll just live with it.”
All of that is cool, or dumb, to be sure, but it’s not particularly FOOD based, now is it? So, let’s buckle down and talk about what Montana get the munchies for.
We’ll Meet at the Mine, and sample this Meat of Mine
As noted earlier, the majority of Montanan cuisine can be tied to meat or potatoes in some way. Montana, like I mentioned with Idaho, has a strong hunting culture, and as such has a wide array of game meats and riverfish in its diet. Trout, Elk, Pheasant and Bison are all regular attendees of the average Montanan meal, but none so common as Beef. Montana is cattle country, at least, the two thirds of it that aren’t mountains, and that comes across in the cuisine. Burgers, steaks, and more esoteric forms of beef delivery were the means of the day.
Two of those means are just silly enough to talk about, though one I’m going to skimp a little on: the Pasty is a regional dish, in the sense that “Every state East of Idaho, North of Oklahoma, and West of Iowa” is a region. Basically, it’s the original hot pocket: a pastry crust filled with meat and cheese or veggies.
Granted, as with most foods, it LOOKS better than a Hot Pocket.
It was very popular among tin miners in Cornwall, and when several large mining ventures opened in the Moutain states, those Cornishmen came running, brining pasties with them. Another dish I learned of is called the Wagon Wheel, a dish served at a single Montana restaurant, consisting of a burger served on toasted bread, where the bread had been sealed shut and crimped. I found this mostly interesting as a potential origin for Schmucker’s Uncrustables.
Of course, meat isn’t the ONLY thing on the menu. Montana has a wide array of berry-based dishes as well, with a real focus on Huckleberries. Huckleberry pastries are seen as a seasonal treat of the state in bakeries all across its many miles. After huckleberries, Flathead cherries are another popular fruit, as are Chokecherries.
Which are apparently called that because they're poisonous to cattle and horses, but not to humans. Which is...weird. Most foods go the opposite direction on that split.
I did find two drinks that were of some interest in terms of their consumption: sure, Montanans love their beer. Interestingly, if the sites I perused are to be believed, they have a focus on microbrewing, especially Montanan brewing, reconnecting the idea of food coming from the land to their drinks. Anecdotally, my brother tells me that a specific IPA sold by his old brewery owes an amazing percentage of its draft sales to a single restaurant in western Montana, in one of those “huh, wonder what that’s about” moments you run into in large distribution centers. The other is the Hot’n’Tot, a Coke with cinnamon syrup added, a drink I discovered as a Montana treat, but further research revealed is sold in North Dakota and Minnesota as well. That at least explains why Pepsi recently thought a Cinnamon Pepsi might be a good idea.
I'd say "though that doesn't explain why I thought it would be a good idea", but let's be honest: the instant we learned there was a Cinnamon Pepsi, we all knew I would at least TRY it.
So you can see my conundrum, though again, none of this is intended as a slam against Montana: most reviews I’ve read say that Montanan meals are just as good as any across the nation. It’s just that Montana doesn’t need to do anything particularly NEW. I searched for “fine dining” in four prominent Montana towns, and got 5 steakhouses, a French restaurant, 3 Italian places, and a semi-experimental restaurant whose first two entrées are still “Cheeseburger” and “Pastrami on Rye”. I searched “fusion cuisine” and got asked if I meant “Asian”.
Montana is a land without culinary pretension. It makes the foods it knows how to make, and it makes them well. And that’s respectable. There’s something to be said about a good steak, some fresh veggies, and a nice potato side. When some of the finest chefs in the country say their intent is always to simplify, they could learn a thing or two from Montana.