In the beginning of the film Napoleon Dynamite, the credits come up as a collage of weird culinary Americana – ketchup and tater tots, mustard and corn dogs, peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches, cheeseburgers and mayonnaise, nachos studded with black olives. Plate after plate appears on a background of maroon shag rug, then baby-blue carpeting, then avocado green linoleum, and so forth. Blast from the past, bomb shelter fare, served in rooms decorated in a similar idiom.
Set in Preston, Idaho, where writer-director Jared Hess grew up, Napoleon Dynamite comes right out of the Mormon Corridor, the so-called “Jell-O Belt,” that spans a certain area of America’s Intermountain West. It sort of radiates outward from Salt Lake City, Utah, reaching deep into Idaho and into Wyoming, very slightly into Colorado, trickling a little ways down through Arizona and then hopping by patches all the way down to certain parts of Southern California. This exceedingly beautiful part of America includes the surreal red rock deserts of Moab and Monument Valley, the sublime limestone cliffs of Zion and St. George, the lava-rich soils and aspen forests of the Grand Escalante, the eerie stillness of the Great Salt Lake, the rangey splendor of the Wasatch and Uintas, the windy high plains and ranchlands around Rock Springs and Laramie, the stubborn fields and pastures of Idaho all the way up through the formidable Grand Tetons. It’s dominated by some of the most beautiful and various and mysterious country in the world. The poet James Galvin, who has a ranch in Wyoming, has at times written about this land, the people who live there, its weather and its other weathering forces – a different portrait, perhaps, than Napoleon Dynamite. He writes in “Ponderosa,”
came down like knowledge, but the tree did not explode or burn.
Caught the jolt and trapped it like a mythic girl.
Its trunk was three
lightning couldn’t blow the ponderosa into splinters,
And couldn’t burn inside without some air.
A week went by and we
Forgot about it. But lightning is a very hot and radiant girl.
Heat bled out to bark, the tree burst into flame that reared into
Silence under a cloudless sky.
There does seem to be something about the land in this part of the world that inspires mythic thinking, or at least otherworldly thinking. The enigmatic rock formation from the 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind is the bundle of hexagonal basaltic columns known as Devil’s Tower, an ancient volcanic plug (the volcano around it long since worn away) rising out of the flatlands of eastern Wyoming.
Devil’s Tower, Wyoming
Much of this land was hard to settle, and harder still to scrabble a living out of. So much so that a lot of it remains very sparsely inhabited. Indeed, southern Utah was considered so barren and unnecessary (and its mostly-Mormon and otherwise Native American population so “Other”) that the U.S. government wasn’t too bothered about the fact that radiation and radioactive debris from nuclear testing in Nevada was blowing all over it – something Rachel Marston has been researching and writing about for some years. By some accounts, Uncle Sam even encouraged the smallish population living around St. George at the time to go out of doors and watch the sky change from the nuclear tests, as the sometimes snowflake-sized ashes drifted into their towns, clinging to their clothes and curtains and porch furniture. (Did the government know what the effects would be?) Being, as a culture, generally trusting of authority, they did. And a whole generation of “downwinders” suffered quietly together with the massive, unusual tumors and other forms of cancer that ravaged their communities.
Southern Utah, an arroyo near Monument Valley
Sometimes, people settled this land because it was so barren, so desolate, so ignored and so ignorable. In this same area of southern Utah, for instance, you’re more likely to run into individuals who belong to an FLDS (Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints) polygamist community. Some friends and I have rented a house near Zion in the past couple of summers, where you might just run into a group at the local Walmart or Costco, dressed in Laura Ingalls Wilder prairie garb, buying slats of boxed macaroni and cheese. Much is being said about polygamy in the media these days, thanks in part to HBO’s Big Love and well-curated “reality” spin-offs like Sister Wives. Most of what I know about polygamy comes from people who self-identify as victims of it, and I cannot do their stories justice here, so I will not elaborate except to say that, like anything, it’s not like they show it on TV. For some information about an aspect of polygamist culture and practice that few people, even in Utah, have considered, watch Jennilyn Merten’s amazing documentary, Sons of Perdition.
Rumor has it that polygamist culture games the government’s entitlement programs, since second and third (and subsequent) wives are, according to the relevant tax documents and applications forms, single mothers with a pack of kids and no job or income whatsoever. Except that, if the polygamist lifestyle is anything like it appears to an outsider such as myself, they do in fact need those food stamps, and it’s not a scam. I honestly just don’t know.
But when we were at a grocery store outside of Washington, Utah, near the Nevada/Arizona/Utah border, and these women in long, high-necked and high-waisted gingham dresses were buying up the milk and the powdered soup and popsicles, we were standing in line behind them with tilapia and garlic and all of the mixings for strong margaritas. And before I turned my attention to the prairie garb or the fact that one of them with three small children could not possibly have been eighteen, or whether they all might be married to the same patriarchal oddball, I thought: “I’m kind of glad I’m not eating dinner at their house.”
Zion, Utah’s first National Park (1919) in southern Utah (in August)
For awhile, I rode a Greyhound Bus every-other weekend from Salt Lake City to Laramie, Wyoming, through some of the most stridently tough and unpleasant territory in the Jell-O Belt. Interstate 80 roughly traces other historically significant travel routes in the Western United States: the Oregon Trail across Wyoming and Nebraska, the California Trail across most of Nevada and California, and except in the Great Salt Lake area, the entire route of the First Transcontinental Railroad. You meet a lot of interesting characters on the bus, before you learn to board with your headphones already in your ear-holes and pretend not to be able to speak English. Or Spanish. Or at all. Of the various people who might sit next to you, the most desirable seat companions are a toss-up between college kids (also be-headphoned) and truckers deadheading back to Indianapolis or wherever they’re based. In the latter case, they will cheerfully pronounce that the stretch of I-80 from SLC to Denver is the absolute stupidest leg of highway ever laid down – subject to constant closures, and as often as it’s for snowstorms, it’s for unbelievably high-speed winds. Trying to drive a little Honda along that road is one thing – the wind blows so hard it seems to get under the wheels, so you’re almost aeroplaning from the lift and drag. But the same wind fills up its cheeks and blows over tall semis, passenger busses, and as I once saw (blood and feathers all over the road), a long trailer full of chickens.
And truckers who’ve been on the road for days at a time seem to want to talk about food. Sometimes they’ll talk about what they’ve been eating on this most recent haul (apparently there’s a Flying-J somewhere along I-80 where a cute Hawaiian waitress serves up the best meatloaf in America, baked with pineapple rounds on top). But more often they’ll tell you what they miss. For obvious reasons, this frequently includes fresh fruit and vegetables – apples from the tree in their Mom’s backyard, or corn on the cob dressed with nothing but salt. Sometimes it’s a dish the wife or girlfriend makes – a really slow-cooked red chili with massive hunks of steak bobbing in it, poured over macaroni noodles and baked with cheddar cheese. If you like to talk about food – and I like to talk about food – you can kill six hours pretty quick. On one trip, the whole bus got into it, and a jovial but genuinely contentious conversation about how to make a “real” queso (known to those outside of these parts as “chili con queso” or possibly something like “hot cheese dip”) elicited even the surly bus-driver’s hide-bound opinions.
Amid this landscape of wind-leveled fields and wind-winnowed buttes, the winding road through wooded Medicine Bow and Vedauwoo, there’s some uncanny little culinary treasures. One of the best Thai restaurants I’ve ever visited is Anong’s Thai in pokey old Rawlins, Wyoming. They now have an outpost in Laramie, too. (The eggplant and pork is to die for.) And one day, when I was trying to make a banquet dinner for the Chinese Moon Festival and I was kind of hard-up for a duck, I just walked down to one of Laramie’s local butchers and asked for one. The man behind the counter got on his cell phone. “Hey, Ben, let me talk to your Dad.” A pause. “Jake, yeah, say, listen. You think you could bag me a duck or two by this evening at say…” He looked at me. I mouthed: Five? “Five o’clock?” A pause. “Six?” I nodded vigorously. “Okie-dokie, see you then,” he said, and hung up the phone. “See you at six,” he said to me, turning away. “You can pay me then, just in case.” At six-ten I was sitting in the kitchen, pulling birdshot with a tweezer from a freshly-plucked bird.
There are farms, and farmer’s markets, local butchers and bakers and cheese-makers, all throughout the Jell-O Belt. Apart from Idaho’s famous potatoes, Wyoming is a rich hunting ground for elk, deer, and the antelope who eat so much of the West’s characteristic sagebrush that their meat is pre-herbed for the cook – sometimes so much so, as my boyfriend’s sister (an avid hunter) once observed, you can’t really eat it. You have to give it to the dogs. Much of these high plains are also ranch and pasture land. In addition to its cattle ranches, the plentiful northern plains attracted a huge population of sheepherders from the Basque region of Spain.
There are several good Basque restaurants and markets in and around Boise, including The Basque Market, where you can “drop in” for tapas at lunch or, some days, happy hour (a more elaborate spread), and for seven dollars you can watch them cook a bonified paella from start to finish, and get yourself a heaping plate of it for a finale. There’s also Bar Gernika, some of the best tapas I’ve had in the US. Certainly it’s in the top five, in the formidable company of Café Iberico in Chicago (in the same neighborhood as the Poetry Foundation, incidentally). I always get the same thing (I’m not there very often, after all) – croquetas, tortilla de patatas, sherried mushrooms, and the Basque cheese plate, along wth a bottle of okay red wine. My late partner Craig often got a lamb dip or a solomo sandwich (a traditional Basque pork loin specialty). If you get there between, say, 11:30am and 1pm on a Saturday during the right time of year, you might just make it for a famous Beef Tongue Saturday extravaganza.
As the example of Boise would suggest, despite its reputation as religiously and culturally homogenous, the Jell-O Belt (even Utah, ground zero for Jell-O-ism) has more than just bomb shelter cuisine on offer. And often, this is thanks to immigration – whether newly-arrived converts to Mormonism and their families from nations as far afield as Brazil and Fiji, Taiwan and Eritrea, Serbia and Peru, or whether it’s the growing Latino and Chinese and Japanese communities that have existed in the American West for at least as long as its white settlers, if not often longer. And there are other forms of immigration to the region, too – snowboarders from Vermont, mountain bikers from New Jersey, medical experts from all over the world coming to work at the University of Utah’s hospitalopolis, home to Nobel prize-winner Mario Capecchi. There’s also, oddly enough, a vibrant and contentious program in “heterodox” economics housed at the University of Utah – during the 1950’s, at the hey-day of the bomb shelter and the family pantry, when Communists and their sympathizers were being rounded-up or black-listed all across the country, guys like E.K. Hunt let everybody know, if you’re working on Marxist economic theories, come to Utah – it’s the very last place anybody will look for you. And he was right, so the program thrived and continues to draw unorthodox thinkers from around the world. And this is just for starters.
This influx of traditions and appetites, cravings and culinary craftsmanship has changed a great deal about Utah culture, as evidenced by the loosening of the reins on establishments that serve adult beverages, and by the continued growth and proliferation of restaurants and markets, and the population of palates keeping them in business. So, while there’s still plenty of fry sauce (a combination of ketchup, mayonnaise, and sweet pickle relish) to be found around town, and while it remains the case that a “scone” in the Cache Valley is really deep-fried pizza dough with a side of honey-butter, there is a growing appetite for more.
a “scone” in Utah’s Cache Valley
You can get sablefish just lightly seared with a crème brulee torch, or monkliver pate, or a delicately crunchy soft-shell crab roll at Takashi. If you order the tasting menu with wine pairing at the locally- and seasonally-sourced Forage, you might be served a chestnut croquette with a very green Spanish white, and fennel be-foamed braised pork belly with a chipper pinot noir.
lightly-torched sablefish nigiri at Takashi in Salt Lake City
You can get toasted pine nuts and shaved pancetta on your Vera Pizza Napoletana at Settebello, and you can get dim sum treats like shrimp and lotus root cake, sautéed snow pea shoots, and little lion’s head meatballs with black vinegar sauce at the Hong Kong Tea House. And the “lomo de puerco con mole de almendras” (a stuffed, slow-roasted pork tenderloin smothered in soft almond-and-chili mole) or the “sopa de queso” (a savory broth soup with onions and potatoes, mounded with a generous handful of bright white fresh ranch-style cheese) are probably my two favorite things at the Red Iguana. And if you just want a cheeseburger with a half-pound of pastrami on top, well, some days (but never Sundays) are Crown Burger days.
Red Iguana’s “lomo de puerco con mole de almendras”
As I sit here writing this, the three inches on snow that fell last night are melting off my window sill and off the banks of the slow little river that winds past it, and off the black branches of the still-bare trees and I can see the mountains that encircle this town. And in my fridge, for dinner, is the lardo of a local salumieri which I will toast, sprinkled with fresh rosemary (which grows like gangbusters around here), on crusty bread studded with roasted garlic cloves, which the local Crumb Brothers artisan bakery makes daily, just down the road here in Logan, Utah. (And, among other local producers, the Cache Valley's Rockhill Creamery makes some of America's very finest cheese.) Oh, there’s gelatin in my pantry, alright, and many cans of fire-roasted green chilis and tomatoes and beans. But it’s wedged in behind the fish sauce, rice vinegar, and squid-ink pasta, next to the box of house red wine.
Tomorrow: the grave importance of Funeral Potatoes and other (shorter) meditations on community-mindedness
 Incidentally, a whole conversation might be exchanged about the fact that this place and its culture seem to inspire, in almost equal parts, magical, mythic, visionary responses and also pure, unadulterated kitsch. And somehow, though I understand it is supposed to be impossible, these can be found coexisting in the same place – as a tour of Salt Lake City’s Temple Square or a stroll through the weird, hidden little Gilgal Sculpture Garden (also in Salt Lake City) will prove.
 Here’s my recipe for the best queso, in my opinion, you can make at home – and since I don’t make it from a recipe, feel free to improvise. First, mince up about half a sweet onion, 2 or 3 jalapeno peppers, 5 or 6 cloves of garlic, and at least a half a cup of roasted Anaheim (or better yet Hatch) green chilis. Then grate around 2 cups of really sharp white (white!) cheddar cheese. Melt about 2 tablespoons of butter in a saucepan, and when a piece of onion sizzles going in, throw in all the veggies and stir them around until the onion is clear. While the veggies are cooking, thoroughly mix about 3 tablespoons of fine white flour with your spices – I use plenty of cumin, smoked sea salt, a pinch of sugar, a pinch of smoked paprika, some chili con limon (or chili powder, if you can’t find the stuff with the citric acid in it), some coriander seed, and depending on your taste, maybe a pinch of white pepper. Dump the dry ingredients over the butter-sautee-ing veggies, and mix to actually begin to cook the flour – really give it a few minutes, even let the flour begin to darken a little. Then start adding milk, slowly, until you get a thick, rich, even, creamy sauce. Add the cheese. Stir and stir while it melts – if you need more liquid, you can add cream, or more milk, or even some kind of broth – but I add beer. Negra Modelo, if I can. Serve hot in a bowl with tortilla chips. I always serve it with homemade salsa in a separate cup. Garnish with fresh cilantro or scallions and (if you like) half of a thin-sliced or chopped avocado.