Idaho’s Basque Tables
A distinct Old World culture brought culinary treasures to the Gem State.
The Inchausti family’s Gem Bar, in Hailey, was a Valley institution. Revelers line the bar while David Inchausti keeps things in order, 1951.
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Sixty-two delicate coffee cups hang in neat rows from small metal hooks above the beer taps at a small bar in downtown Boise. There are no television sets, and yet it’s difficult to hear over the merry chatter. In many respects, this is a typical pub in a small American city. But a closer look reveals something distinct and even rare. This humble corner pub is rich with ethnic culture and tradition.
The menu reveals some of the story. There is lamb, pork and pimientos, then solomo, chorizo, paella and Spanish-style egg tortillas. The back of the menu announces “Beef Tongue Saturdays.” You have arrived. This is Bar Gernika.
-Alberto Santana Ezkerra, Professor of Basque Studies, Boise State University
There is a Basque saying, “Jan, edan euskalduna Izan.” Translated, it means, “Eat, drink, be Basque.” Anyone who has been to a Basque restaurant, attended a Basque festival or enjoyed a glass of wine in a Basque pub knows there is truth in those four simple words. Ask any Basque and they will likely tell you that preparing and sharing a good meal is at the heart of Basqueness.
“In the Basque Country a meal is more than a twenty- or thirty-minute event, and it’s about more than just fueling the body,” said Dan Ansotegui, the founding owner of Bar Gernika. “It’s an occasion to sit down with friends, and it takes some time, both to prepare and to eat. The social aspect of the meal is as important as the meal itself.”
A Second Religion
Nestled at foot of the Pyrenees and straddling the French and Spanish borders on the coast of the Bay of Biscay, the Basque Country measures just 100 miles from end to end. The fertile geography supports tens of thousands of working farms and an unlimited ocean harvest. This real estate, paired with a passion for good food, leads many to hail the San Sebastian area of northern Spain as the “culinary capital of Europe.”
“Eating is the second, if not the first, religion of Basques,” said Alberto Santana Ezkerra, professor of Basque Studies at Boise State University.
The first Basques immigrated to the American West to work as sheep herders in the late 1800s. Today, southern Idaho and northern Nevada’s Basque communities are some of the largest outside of Europe, and in and around Boise, the influence of Idaho’s estimated 15,000 Basques is strikingly apparent.
The Basque block on downtown’s Grove Street is the epicenter of this heritage. The pedestrian-friendly sidewalks and streets are home to the only Basque museum in the United States, Basque cultural and community centers, a specialty food market and the always-lively Bar Gernika. The city also boasts the nationally-touring Oinkari Dancers, the Ikastola Basque-language preschool and a Basque choir.
The downtown museum and cultural center are strong preservationist forces on the Basque block, but food and drink are the culture’s most enduring elements. If the museum is the Basque peoples’ Idaho office, restaurants and pubs are its dining and living rooms, the places where tradition and heritage are lived, not remembered.
Basques are familiar with the story of how their homeland’s cuisine made it to America, flourishing and evolving with every recipe passed down from generation to generation. Food and its preparation are as much a part of the Basque identity as music, dance and pala, a uniquely Basque paddle sport.
Chris Ansotegui, Dan Ansotegui’s sister, is owner of Epi’s Basque Restaurant in Meridian. She said that growing up in Boise, food was at the center of family life. “Basques love to eat,” she said. “At all our gatherings we cooked and ate, and then we’d talk about what we were going to cook and eat at our next meal.”
The early Basque immigrants were mostly young, single men with no cooking experience. According to Ezkerra, they developed skills as they tended sheep in the desolate Idaho mountains. The result was Basque cooking with a twist of the American West.
“What Americans know about Basque cuisine today is not necessarily traditional in the Basque Country,” Ezkerra said through a thick Basque accent. “It is a new form of Basque cooking, one that was adapted out of necessity and evolved in America after the Basques arrived.”
Because most Idaho immigrants came from the Spanish coastal province of Biscay (Bizkaia in the Basque language), they were accustomed to a diet of fresh fish and vegetables. Since codfish and many traditional Basque ingredients were not readily available in the mountains of Idaho, the men adapted and developed recipes that relied instead on lamb and potatoes.
“Dutch-oven cooking was popular with the pioneers, so that is how the Basque herders learned to cook,” Ezkerra said. “They learned to modify the ingredients that were available, and a whole new technique of cooking was adapted from American traditions.”
As more young men settled the West, Basque-only boardinghouses sprung up to accommodate them during winter when sheepherding work was sparse. With cozy sleeping quarters and big dining tables, the boardinghouses were homes away from home for the men with common heritage. Their native language—dating to 7000 B.C. and one of the planet’s oldest documented languages—was spoken freely, and familiar fare was served.
Basque women cooked the boarding meals with as many traditional ingredients as they could gather. Lentils, garbanzo beans and pinto beans figured prominently. They often killed their pigs for chorizos and sheep for blood sausage—ram’s blood and a mixture of onions, leeks or grains boiled down and stuffed into casings—and dried their own peppers. “This cooking was closer to the Old Country,” Ezkerra said. “They tried to replicate the traditional Basque cooking from home.”
Because boardinghouse meals were prepared for large numbers, it was easier to serve them “family style” around large tables. “This group dining style came to be considered a Basque tradition,” Ezkerra said. “It really evolved in response to American conditions and is not customary in Europe.”