The Changing Taste of Basque-American Cuisine

When I first started this site, one of the first things I added was Charley Shaffer’s list of Basque restaurants in the US. Charley simply loved Basque-American food, particularly the family style dining that was typical of restaurants in the US west. As he describes in his introduction to his list:

Meals are typically served family style. Occasionally you may be seated at a long table with others; this is most likely to occur at the historic hotels. Dinner will be delivered in courses: soup and bread, salad, beans, french fries, and a meat entree. Lamb is popular, but so are beef, pork, and chicken, and occasionally seafood is available. Sometimes you will have a choice among two or three entrees, but everything else will just arrive at your table. A dessert of ice cream will probably be included.

There will be plenty of food; this is not a light meal. 

The family-style Basque restaurant was once a common feature of the American landscape. But, over the years since Charley first sent me his list, I’ve gotten a steady stream of emails notifying me that, one by one, these restaurants have closed. The latest note was about the historic Winnemucca Hotel, which, while having stopped being a Basque restaurant for a number of years, is slated to be torn down. While stalwarts such as Noriega’s and Epi’s are still thriving, as a whole, these restaurants are certainly in decline.

At the same time, my news feed brings a constant stream of reports about new Basque restaurants. These new restaurants, seemingly inspired by the new and internationally recognized cuisine and the pintxo culture in the Basque Country itself, are, in contrast to the family-style restaurants characteristic of the American west, more uniformly spread out across the country. Some recent examples include Anxo Cidery & Pintxos Bar in DC and La Cuchara in Baltimore. These newer restaurants seem to be targeting a different clientele, one the is maybe more metropolitan and less connected to Basque-American roots. 

It doesn’t seem to me that these two changes are necessarily related. The decline in the traditional Basque-American restaurants is, at least in part, due to the aging sheepherding generation. Many of these restaurants were connected to boarding houses and directly served the Basque sheepherding community and, by extension, their families. As those original immigrants have aged, with no one to continue the tradition, their restaurants have closed their doors. At the same time, the culinary reputation of the Basque Country has increased — San Sebastian has more Michelin stars per square meter than any other city in the world except Kyoto, Japan — and that has spurred a wider interest in Basque cuisine. These seem like parallel but independent developments.

I’d love to hear about people’s memories dining in some of these historic places. 

Chef John Maxwell Looking for Basque Recipes

I got this request and am sharing it in the hopes that people can help:

Please help. I am trying to assemble Basque recipes for a cookbook. All recipes submitted to me will be credited to the donor. Send any to bacalaoconspiracy@gmail.com and visit my websites at http://chefjohnmaxwell.com/ or http://bacalaoconspiracy.com/ When the cookbook is published every one who’s recipe is included will get a signed copy from me at no charge.

Chef John Maxwell

A Basque refugee

Eighty years ago, Spain was mired in a civil war that pitted the Republican government and its allies against the Nationalist forces of Franco. As Franco’s forces gained ground in the Basque Country, thousands of people, mostly children, fled to other lands, becoming refugees. Britain alone took nearly 4000 children. This is the story of one of them, Maria Patchett (nee Incera).

Some free online Basque resources

Those of us that are the sons and daughters of Basque immigrants that came in the early or middle 1900s often have a somewhat romantic and, maybe, antiquated view of the Basque Country. While traditional pursuits such as folk dance are still very prevalent in the Basque Country, they aren’t as pervasive as a typical Basque festival in the United States might imply. The Basque Country is a vibrant and modern locale, combining past traditions such as dance but also folk instruments and rural sports, with the most modern of social trends, including heavy metal music, state-of-the-art research and development, and avant-garde cuisine.

To provide some perspective on the Basque Country of today, here are some free online resources. These would be ideal for someone just discovering their Basque roots and wanting to learn more about the home of their ancestors or for a friend who wants to learn more about this Basque place you are always talking about. 

The first is The Basque Country: Insight into its culture, history, society and institutions. This PDF, produced by Eusko Jaurlaritza, or the Basque Government, provides a brief but sprawling and all-encompassing overview of not only Euskadi — the three provinces comprising the Basque Autonomous Community — but also Euskal Herria, the traditional Basque Country that includes Nafarroa and Iparralde. It touches on a wide range of topics, from the history and politics of the Basque Country to the current economic situation to cultural points, including gastronomy, music, art, and architecture. This would be an excellent place to start a journey into the modern Basque Country.

The second set of resources comes from the University of Nevada, Reno, home of The William A. Douglass Center for Basque Studies. Over the years, they have put together a number of textbooks and hosted a number of conferences that touch on a range of topics, including Basque cinema and cyberculture to the impact of the Guggenheim museum to Basque gender studies. Many of these are now offered as free PDFs, available for download and use under a creative commons license. The wealth of information is staggering and provides deep insight into various aspects of modern Basque life.

A traveling exhibit on Santiago Ramon y Cajal

I first learned about Santiago Ramón y Cajal from Vince Juaristi’s great book Basque Firsts: People Who Changed the World. Ramón y Cajal, a Spanish scientist born in Nafarroa, was the father of modern neuroscience, developing the neuron doctrine of the brain that said the brain was composed of neurons connected by synapses. In his work, he combined an artistic sensibility with deep scientific insight to produce wonderful drawings of the cellular structure of the brain.  For his work, he won the Nobel Prize in 1906, shared with Camillo Gogli, who originally developed the technique Ramón y Cajal used to visualize cells in the microscope.

During his career, Ramón y Cajal produced numerous pictures of the cellular structures he saw in his microscope. As highlighted in the New York Times, his work is now the subject of a traveling exhibit organized by the Weisman Art Institute and the Cajal Institute. 80 of his drawings will be part of an exhibit that will visit Minneapolis; Vancouver, British Columbia; New York City; Cambridge, Massachusetts; and Chapel Hill, North Carolina. 

On Basque Genetics

The Basque people have been studied by various branches of science because of the uniqueness of their language — Euskara, a language isolate, has no living relatives — and their genetic history. The latter, however, is often mired in controversy, as are all questions about genetic differences and uniqueness. Some of this is understandable, because such claims can be used to justify policies and attitudes that are less than egalitarian.
However, beyond any political implications, the genetic history of any population provides new insight into their cultural history and that of the neighboring peoples. Thus, in my view, studies of the genetics of the Basque offer a fascinating window into the prehistory, the history before the written word, of Europe.

That said, it is very difficult for a non expert to parse all of the reports written about the various scientific studies that are published. Some claim that the genetics of the Basques are no different than their neighbors while others find that there are unique differences that point to a different cultural history. As with all scientific reporting, it can be hard to parse the technical verbiage of a scientific paper into something that is easily digestible by the lay person. Compound that with the fact that everything Basque quickly becomes political, with the accompanying spin, and it becomes a significant challenge to know what, in reality, the scientific consensus, at least for now, is regarding the issue.

In an article on About Basque Country, John R. Bopp tries to at least put some of the headlines in perspective. While the article doesn’t reach any definitive conclusion, it highlights the challenge with some of these studies and puts various popular reports in context. While I would like to see an article that details the various pieces of evidence one way or another, Bopp’s article at least provides some needed context.

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