How Would You Like Your Potato?
A Return to My Roots
By Shantel Cronk
In my travels, I have noticed how food reflects the local culture, the flavors from a region, and unique dishes passed on from generation to generation. Not until I returned to my roots in rural Montana this past winter did I realize how evolved my tastes had become and how I had to embrace what was part of my past and likely a part of my future. Last December when I drove the 1,500 miles home, if I had known how life would unfold I would have packed my Vitamix.
Initially it was only to be a month-long trip to see my family for the holidays. Definitely not a one-way drive. Yet months later, here I am sitting in my parents living room. (I met a wonderful guy the day after coming home but that’s for another blog.) How could I take so much time off? See, I was living in Santa Barbara, CA and I had just been laid off about 6 weeks before the holidays. With a great severance package, I decided to pack up my belongings and put all of my household stuff in storage (where it still is today), and save some money, typically spent on expensive Santa Barbara rent, until I returned mid-January. The day I left and drove down highway 101 the wildfires were literally raging up the coast from Ventura to Santa Barbara which eventually turned out to be one of California’s largest wildfires on record followed by devastating mudslides. As I drove out of the smoke, my little SUV was packed with my dog, ski’s, Christmas presents, and a ton of clothes. I was looking forward to getting out of the ash to the fresh air of Montana.
Montana. I arrived on a sunny day in mid-December and the next day was the beginning of one of the most epic winters on record. Extreme cold (-40 at times) and record snowfall (some days 12+ inches) for months was tough, but because I grew up in this environment, the 4th generation on a cattle ranch, I knew how the weather could be. It was funny how I would get double takes when people would see my California plates navigating the icy conditions. While both the weather and staying with my parents were MAJOR adjustments, I also had to reacclimatize to food and the culture around food that I had forgotten. In my 20+ years since leaving for college, I had lived in Seattle, Portland, Minneapolis and of course Santa Barbara – all places with amazing food and a whole gamma of choices. In addition, I enjoyed a career that took me all around the world and changed my pallet to appreciate a wide array of tastes and cultures. The variety and having really fresh healthy options became more of the norm in my life. And coming back to a rural town of less than 1,500 people where the next big town over was a mere 10,000 people, I realized quickly there was a food culture that I had known growing up that hadn’t changed very much, but I had.
In the time I’ve been home, I’ve attended fundraisers, balls, banquets and even a pow wow. The meat & potato culture is alive and well here, as it should be, given that agriculture and livestock are the livelihoods for many families (if not the majority), including my parents. The dinner events I attended this winter often had 3 staples on the menu: meat, potatoes and bread. Most of the beef was provided by local ranchers with a sense of pride about the huge cuts served. I was amazed at how a slice of prime rib could take up half a plate. The iceberg lettuce salad at the beginning of the meal usually filled the “greens” quota.
One thing I love that isn’t as common in more urban environments is the frequency of hosting dinners at home with family or friends. To say I ate out at restaurants a lot in my most recent hometown of Santa Barbara is putting it mildly. I would venture to guess I had dinner out at least 3 nights a week. It was an urban lifestyle with plenty of places to choose from and my house was walking distance to many dining options. Maybe it’s just the culture or because of smaller dwellings but people in urban areas just don’t entertain at home for dinner as often. Entertaining at home is common in rural Montana as many towns have few or no restaurants (other than the local bar or bowling alley that may at most serve up a frozen pizza). Even growing up, I remember after high school games going to the homes of friends for food and drinks, which is still common. This winter the guy I’m dating cooked for me a number of times including grilling venison (from a deer he shot the year prior) and on St. Patty’s Day, he also made corned-beef and cabbage in his slow cooker. It was loaded with veggies and was perfect when the weather was still bitterly cold.
Even eating out at the local restaurants took some adjusting. While many areas of Montana do have very sophisticated dining options (Whitefish, Missoula, or Bozeman), where I am located the nearest airport (and Starbucks) is over 100 miles away. Some of the same bars and restaurants my parents went to when they dated (50+ years ago) are still here. How would you like your potato? Mashed? Hashed? Baked? Twice baked? French Fries? Tater Tots? Sweet Potato? This is a standard question when ordering most main dishes and I still longingly hope to see riced or mashed cauliflower as a side option, or maybe find avocado toast listed as an a starter option on the menu. Mmmm…
Say what you want about Amazon, but it was my saving grace. I was able to order maca powder, quinoa, chia and hemp seeds. There are no Whole Foods or Trader Joes in Montana but luckily I discovered in the nearby town there is a modest natural food store where I can find almond flour, Kombucha, and Ezekiel bread. The local meat store has salmon and sea bass and the main local grocery store had almond milk, coconut oil, and organic chicken. My dad would roll his eyes as I would unpack things and of course jokingly questioned me on how almonds actually make milk. At home one cold night I made my own baked crusted salmon and quinoa with spinach, feta cheese and olives. It was a nice reminder that I could, in fact, have some variety.
Now I know what you’re thinking. Am I too high maintenance with my food choices? No. I enjoy Doritos just as much as the next person. But in the past 5 years I have had a host of health issues and one key point I find is that paying attention to what you eat is important. Plus, over the years I just had the benefit of everything from vegan, gluten free, sushi, tapas, seafood, Indian and Mexican restaurants.
Yes, I miss things. I miss seeing more gluten free options or organic details called out on menus. I miss going weekly to the farmers markets and getting fresh fruits and veggies or living near neighbors who would share lemons and avocados picked from their own trees. Do I think it’s odd that a city of 130,000 in California allows people to have chickens in their backyard and a town of 10,000 in Montana doesn’t? Yes. I loved having fresh eggs brought into the office by my coworkers. I miss seeing the “catch of the day” listed and knowing it really was caught just that day. I miss great brunch places and organic coffee houses that slow pour their coffees.
But I love Montana. There are amazing things here. Besides local beef, lamb and pork, there is trout, bison and venison. Pitchfork fondue is something I still have only experienced in Montana. The different towns have summer farmers markets with fresh vegetables grown by the various Hutterite Colonies. Fresh picked Flathead cherries are seasonally available and you can find huckleberries infused in all sort of chocolates, coffees and deserts. The pies in the 4-H booth at the local county fair are my favorite with every kind from apple to blueberry to cherry. And I’ll be able to find fresh lefsa at some of the church bazaars and fresh bread, muffins, scones, cinnamon rolls and buns are already often found in bakeries and coffee shops in the area. Organic farming is more and more prevalent and I was recently introduced to some locally grown organic Kracklin Kamut made with sea salt (check out http://www.kracklinkamut.com) as a snack. Honey made in local hives (like I had on the ranch growing up) is always a sweet thing (pun intended) and of course great beer from Montana brewers who are popping up more and more these days in our rural area.
Don’t get me wrong, Montana has evolved a lot in culinary options and I’m not completely secluded from these, they are really just a drive away. While I may miss some things that used to be just down the street, I know I can still go to the bigger Montana cities or resort areas and find them. And it’s a great excuse to travel back to those other cities to enjoy their local flavors. Or I can just get creative and learn to cook some things I can’t find. But I enjoy this rural life, the people, the communities, and the food choices that span back generations with recipes passed down from family to family. I love that a friend had me over for a visit and chopped rhubarb for me out of her backyard so I could make a dessert.
And when I’m enjoying one of those local beers, eating s’mores by the campfire in Glacier Park under the “Big Sky” full of stars this summer, ask me again what I’m missing…. my answer will be nothing.