This Immesurable Place cookbook cover
Backbone—Hell Yes!

It takes backbone to sue the Trump Administration.

Especially if you’re women.

And you own a restaurant in Boulder, Utah, one of the most remote areas of the US, elevation ~7,000 feet, population ~ 180 people. Where the geology’s so rugged that early explorers declared “no animal without wings could cross it.” When the Civilian Conservation Corps did build a way through, they named it Hell’s Backbone Road. Which led to the name of the restaurant Blake Spalding and Jennifer Castle own—Hell’s Backbone Grill. A name that suits their spunk in facing off the hell that’s been created by Donald Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

Hell’s Backbone Grill is in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, the largest tract of unspoiled land in the continental US, home to four billion years of geology stretching out as far as you can see in soothing striations of cream and rose and amber, wild, open beauty. Alain de Botton has suggested that someone write an atlas of the world, highlighting the psychological value of places like the Utah desert that he says can “shift us away from preoccupations with the petty and the small-minded towards a terrain of greater calm and resilience.” The monument is scientifically and culturally important, too. Although scientists have surveyed less than seven percent of the Grand Staircase-Escalante, six thousand archeological sites and forty-five new paleontological species have been discovered here. It’s one of our favourite places on Earth. We even wrote an ode to Grand Staircase-Escalante, thankful to have hiked and camped there and eaten at Hell’s Backbone Grill.

Let me tell you about the first dinner I ate there: Juniper Lamb Posole with Blue-Ribbon Black-Powder Buttermilk Biscuits. (I’ve subsequently bought the two Hell’s Backbone Grill cookbooks and made both.) Blake developed the posole recipe as a riff on the Hopi mutton-and-hominy stew called noquivi. You slow cook a chunk of lamb shoulder in a broth seasoned with juniper berries, chile flakes, rosemary, oregano, cumin, rosemary, thyme and star anise. Roasted green chiles fire it up. Along with the posole corn, potatoes, onions, roasted tomatoes, garlic and celery add heft. Cilantro, radishes and lime brighten the finish. Yum. Anyone can make biscuits, right? Not as flaky and layered as Jen’s, which won a blue ribbon at a county faIr. It’s her technique. You cut the dough in half and stack one-half on top of the other, repeating this flattening, cutting and stacking process three times. The light and delicate texture of the biscuits is juxtaposed with the barest crunch from a few tablespoons of cornmeal that you sprinkle on both bottom and top before baking.

Blake and Jen opened Hell’s Backbone Grill in 2000, four years after Grand Staircase-Escalante was declared a National Monument. They sensed that more and more travellers would be drawn to the area’s vast beauty and appreciate an all-organic, farm-to-table restaurant.

They were right. The New Yorker article “Food Fight” (which prompted this blog) says that since the monument was established in 1996, “per capita income in the region has grown by seventeen per cent, higher than the Utah average, and employment has grown by twenty-four per cent with Grand Staircase supporting some sixteen hundred new private-sector jobs.” Not just in tourism, but in finance, health care and construction. And not at the expense of local ranchers: “Throughout the monument’s existence, almost ninety-seven per cent of it was actively and legally grazed.” From the time they open in March until Blake and Jen shutter Hell’s Backbone Grill after Thanksgiving, their sixty-five-seat restaurant is almost always full. Jen and Blake are now the largest employers in the north end of the county with an annual payroll of nearly a million dollars.

In 2017, word got out that the Trump was planning to carve up Grand Staircase-Escalante and appropriate forty-six percent of it—an illegal action as the power to modify national monuments belongs solely to Congress. (You might remember two blogs we posted about this last year around this time House on Fire and A Lump of Coal for Christmas.

When you see a wrong, write it advises the writer Ali Smith.

Blake and Jen and all fifty-three members of the Escalante and boulder Chamber of Commerce wrote letters of protest to the Federal Government. But none were answered. They went on a “listening tour.” But Zinke met only with monument supporters. They went to Washington, D.C. But Zinke refused to meet with the delegation. Blake started calling Zinke’s office daily. But no one called her back. So last December when Trump arrogated (don’t you love that word?) power to himself and made his proclamations, Blake and Jen’s lawyers, Covington & Burling, filed a lawsuit on their behalf. Pro bono. Give thanks for lawyers like them.

Of course theirs wasn’t the only lawsuit—five others were filed that day, many more since. The lawsuits have been consolidated and are awaiting rulings. Which could take years.

Unlike industrial incursion, which happened quickly. This summer, Glacier Lake Resources, Inc., a Canadian company based in Vancouver, acquired property near Boulder on land that was originally part of the monument. The Company announced immediate plans for surface exploration to be followed shortly by drilling for cobalt, nickel and copper. Canadians?

Retaliation against Jen and Blake occurred quickly, too. Soon after a pro-monument rally this summer at which Blake criticized the Utah government for not defending its public lands, the state chose Hell’s Backbone Grill for a four-year tax audit. Coincidence?

On Friday Magellan and I hosted an American Thanksgiving dinner featuring a menu of recipes from Jen and Blake’s cookbooks: With a Measure of Grace: The Story and Recipes of a Small Town Restaurant, and This Immeasurable Place: Food and Farming from the Edge of Wilderness.

American Thanksgiving Menu
for Jennifer Castle and Blake Spalding
in Preserving Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument

*Zuni Sweet Potato Skillet Cakes with Sweet Roasted Pepper Dip
*Turkey Tamales Dolmades with Red Chile Sauce
*Warm Red Cabbage Salad with Goat Cheese
*Chocolate Chile Pecan Pie (From the cookbook: “And with a little bourbon tossed in? It’s a match made in hell.”)

“In an age of enormous inequality, these public lands are arguably our most democratic space….our shared wilderness, as long as we sustain it,” wrote Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times. Fortunate is the world to have women like Blake and Jen keeping the flame under the grill at Hell’s Backbone and under the hellish lawlessness of this foolish proclamation.

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Hell’s Backbone Grill is committed to “organic, locally produced, regionally and seasonally appropriate cuisine, growing much of our produce on our six-acre farm. Our fruit largely comes from Boulder’s heirloom orchards and our meat comes from local ranchers. It’s not easy, but it’s worth the effort.” The restaurant has been awarded “Best Restaurant in Southern Utah” by Salt Lake magazines many times,was a James Beard Award semi-finalist in 2017 and 2018 and voted “Best Restaurant of the Rockies” by Elevation Outdoor Magazine. It’s been featured in many publications including Travel and Leisure, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, National Geographic Traveler, O: the Oprah Magazine, Sunset Magazine, Bon Appétit, Gourmet, Organic Gardening and Outside Traveler.

NPT Staff. National Parks Traveler. “Canadian Mining Company Looks To Grand Staircase-Escalante For Copper, Cobalt.” June 21, 2018. ”Utah traded the land for thousands of acres of valuable mineral lands elsewhere in the state as well as a sum of $50 million. It’s pure industrial greed at the expense of our community’s economic and cultural heritage… the Department of Interior is focused on exploitation of national public lands without regard to the fundamental underlying and unresolved questions concerning the legality of the Trump proclamation, which is now before the court.” Huffington Post has a good article on this, too.

Schulz, Kathryn. The New Yorker. “Food Fight.” October 1, 2018. An excellent article on why “the owners of an improbably successful restaurant at the gate of a vast wilderness are fighting to keep it unspoiled.”

Spalding, Blake & Castle, Jennifer. This Immeasurable Place: Food and Farming from the Edge of Wilderness. Canada: Blake Spalding, Jennifer Castle, Lavinia Spalding, 2017. Here’s the quote in the section about Blake: “What I stand for is what I stand on.” (Wendell Berry) And the one in the section about Jen. “Every pilgrimage to the desert is a pilgrimage to the self. There is no place to hide, and so we are found.” (Terry Tempest Williams) Buy the book for its recipes, philosophy and grace.

Spalding, Blake & Castle, Jennifer. With a Measure of Grace: The Story and Recipes of a Small Town Restaurant. Santa Fe: Provecho Press, 2004. In their first cookbook you’ll also find seasonal recipes and the backstories of these two incredible women coupled with evidence of their sincere commitment to operating with grace and backbone.

A YouTube from Desertet News. August 25, 2017, in which Blake talks about their position.

7 replies
    • Spice
      Spice says:

      Yes, these two will be boundless in trying to preserve the boundaries of Grand Staircase-Escalante championed by Bruce Babbitt, former Arizona Governor and US Secretary of the Interior, and set into law in 1996 by President Clinton.

      Reply
    • Spice
      Spice says:

      Yes, hopefully their restaurant will continue to do well. But as Kathryn Schulz writes in The New Yorker, “democratic norms can erode faster than riverbanks…What took two entrepreneurs twenty years to build could be gone in a faction of that time, together with things that nature twenty thousand centuries.”

      Reply
  1. Avatar
    Veda Hotel says:

    Kudos to Blake and Jen and all the committed souls who love our planet. We have visited many of the US National Monuments and cannot believe that the interests of private companies will be allowed to destroy these precious sites.

    Reply
    • Spice
      Spice says:

      Indeed. It takes a higher, finer energy to do what they do. Here’s what Jen & Blake quoted in the intro to their second cookbook: “Hold back the edges of your gowns, Ladies,/We are going through hell.” (William Carlos Williams)

      Reply
  2. Avatar
    Veda Hotel says:

    Kudos to Blake and Jen and all the committed souls who love our planet. We have visited many of the US National Monuments and cannot believe that the interests of private companies will be allowed to destroy these precious sites.

    Reply

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