culinaria eugenius in montana: ride ’em, cowgirl!

When last we heard from Culinaria Eugenius, she was in Spokane, missing one husband and headed off to the Big Sky Food and Agriculture conference in Missoula, MT.

The husband, Retrogrouch, showed up a day early after biking from just outside of Walla Walla, WA to Missoula…just in time for a rather glorious cajun dinner at the Dinosaur Café.

If you find yourself in Missoula, be sure to check this place out.  It’s in the back of a dive bar called Charlie B’s on the main drag.  You order everything from gumbolaya (gumbo on top of jambalaya, pictured here behind a boneless rib special plate) to crawfish etouffée to alligator-pork sausage po’ boys to red beans and rice.

A reader suggested the excellent and more genteel Caffé Dolce, and we were very happy to partake in a smoked salmon omelet and (pictured) crab and spinach eggs benedict just before we left town.

The waters were high in Missoula.  The Clark Fork river was lapping the outside deck of the restaurant at my hotel, and like Eugene, the rains just kept comin’.  I was really impressed by the still-spring flowers, especially the lilac trees everywhere in bloom.  I shouldn’t have been surprised, given Montana has a 45-day growing season, with frost danger even during the season.

The conference itself was quite good, with interdisciplinary panels and workshops on all aspects of food production and consumption. Some of the highlights for me: a panel featuring some of the great work OSU Extension does in their Small Farm program, a talk on foodways on the Oregon Trail, a panel on Japanese instant ramen and Singaporean cookbook rhetoric, and a workshop on food pedagogy for undergraduates.

Above is some of the group off on a tour — talking about ranching at Rolling Stone Ranch in Ovando.  We were hosted by the owner of the ranch, and he discussed his work with the Blackfeet Challenge group that brings together environmentalists and ranchers to mediate solutions that would work for the majority of the constituents in the community.

We also had a roundtable (tour was sadly canceled due to flooding and rain) at a ranch that had sustainable aspects to it, including the discovery of a new market for Montana beef: relatively wealthy, food-conscious liberals (like me!) who want their cow fed on grass and far removed from Big Ag systems of finishing and slaughter.  The Mannix Bros., who have been ranching for well over a century in conventional methods, have the property pictured above.

The Mannixes are taking the lead in providing what they call “grass-finished” (versus “grain-finished”) beef to local markets.  To a Eugenius, this may not seem very innovative, given our meat CSAs and demand for more sustainable everything, but it’s big news among Montana ranchers, who see almost all their beef go off to the Midwest at the end of the season for grain finishing and slaughter.  The Mannix family is keeping it small but the percentage of their herd and labor devoted to completely grass-fed beef: they started with about a dozen cows several years ago and are up to over a hundred this year.

Rather grim to see that only one market and one restaurant feature local Mannix beef in Missoula.  There’s real resistance to perceived lack of flavor in grass-finished beef.  I had some at Scotty’s Table, a local/sustainable joint in Missoula, in a “beef duo” of hangar steak with a carrot-caper sauce and short ribs on a carrot purée.  It was very good, and knowing the cow hadn’t been shipped back from Nebraska was even better.

It was a real pleasure to talk with the ranchers.  I asked one of the Mannixes about Extension, and how UM was involved with educating the community about food preservation and the like, and I may have inadvertently set myself up to come back to Missoula and teach pressure canning meats!  (It would be a pleasure.)  They said that they’d love to teach the skills, but no one was able to give canning classes.  I find this very hard to believe, given that it’s been a farming community since Lewis and Clark, but who knows. After all, this was our lunch on the tour (not provided by the ranch):

Ruffles, ham sandwich, cookie, and candy.  Mountain Dew or Pepsi to drink.  I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but it really signals a tragedy in the local infrastructure if this is what the community relies on for sustenance when there’s so many natural resources, from grain to greens to fish to cattle.  Where, for example, is a cottage dairy industry?  Pulses?

It’s difficult not to be outraged by the resistance to change in Montana foodways, but progress is being made.  We learned, for example, that the Blackfeet community ranchers had successfully negotiated a purchase of developer-owned land in their valley, preventing more McMansion development, as we saw rife in Helena (above) after the conference.  There seems to be a deep, deep federal pocket for conservation efforts in Montana, and I’d love to see more.

I understand, however, that Montana has its hands full with tea party nonsense.  I quite enjoyed this veto branding billboard in the Governor’s office in the State Capitol building in Helena (which heads up this post).  My sister and I wandered in as tourists, and saw all kinds of fascinating things, from working legislative offices to an old Supreme Court chamber.

But back to Missoula.

The food at the conference was excellent, and attended to with much devotion by the UM catering staff.  Providing local vegetables in Montana in June is not easy, but the rolling hills grow all manner of grains, so we ate all  kinds of grainy things.  Every meal had bread, and lunches featured things like wheatberry salad with winter squash, forbidden rice salad, and quiche.

The conference banquet was a “Montana Feast,” featuring elaborate sets and actors dressed up in regulation gear, like this fly fisherman below, who parked his canoe under the table to fry up some rainbow trout for conference attendees.  Behind him, a river made of blue cellophane paper with duck decoys and paper fish ran through it.

Another station (manned by ranchers, I guess), featured smoked flank steak, cowboy beans, and a delicious leek “fondue.”

An imported herb garden by the banks of the river was actually more impressive than some of the other stuff to me.  How did they get that box of dirt and plants into the student union ballroom?

Once the conference was finished, we took off to see my sister and her family for a couple of days.  Next up: a recipe for stuffed elk tenderloin!

4 thoughts on “culinaria eugenius in montana: ride ’em, cowgirl!

  1. Kate 16 June 2011 / 2:17 pm

    Leek fondue. I want leek fondue.


  2. Lexa 16 June 2011 / 7:49 pm

    The conference sounds great. It is always encouraging to hear about “good” things going on, when it seems our world is filled with bad news so much of the time. My grandfather was born in a farmhouse along the sheilds river, north of Yellowstone in 1912. My great-grandparents had a ranch and grew and raised everything the family ate. It can be done again Montana!


  3. Nicki 20 June 2011 / 4:15 pm

    The gumbolaya was delish! Thanks for sharing a great meal with me.


  4. Eugenia 24 June 2011 / 10:00 am

    It was my pleasure, Nicki! And I can’t agree more with Kate and Lexa.


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