Eating at Home

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Social Soup with Blake Spalding and Jen Castle

by Annie Gilliland

On January 30, the Office of Sustainability and Utahns Against Hunger hosted another of their Social Soup Lecture Series events.  The guest speakers were Blake Spalding and Jen Castle, founders, chefs, and co-owners of Hell’s Backbone Grill in Boulder, Utah. Their restaurant has climbed high in Zagat ratings and was selected as a Fodor’s Choice restaurant in 2006. Salt Lake Magazine has repeatedly named it the “Best Restaurant in Southern Utah.” The list of accomplishments goes on.

Boulder, UT is not exactly a busy, bustling place. The population stays around 200 and it is in the heart of redrock country, very close to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. It sits up high at around 7000 feet of  elevation. It’s beautiful, extremely remote land. I’ve been there and I’ve been to the restaurant, though it took me a moment to remember.  So what brought me (unintentionally) and others (frequently intentionally) to Hell’s Backbone Grill?

Blake and Jen focus on place-based food. They do everything they can to serve local, sustainable food from the Boulder “foodshed.” They run a farm and grow as many locally-supported foods as they can at Boulder’s elevation. They buy grass-fed or grass-finished meat from regional ranchers. They have also helped to restore Boulder’s heirloom orchards. And they make sure that the food they serve is seasonally and regionally fitting, and everything is organic.

The concept of place-based food and being proud of your place and its heritage does not come obviously or easily for everyone. The women have faced some pushback and confusion from guests, with questions like, “Where’s the seafood?” “How come I can’t get ranch dressing with this?” and “What on Earth is an organic egg?”

These conversations are important to have. “Anyone can say something is sustainable,” said Blake. “What does it mean? We have to form relationships with people we never would have engaged with before…and talk about the hard stuff.” Sustainability is about forming new relationships with both the land and our neighbors. It is about being proud of your local community and its history, culture, and food. You can’t get seafood, but you can get sustainably- and locally-farmed trout that is native to Utah’s rivers.

Many people tend to assume fancy, gourmet food has to come from far away. It is always a treat to go to ethnic restaurants that seem exotic and different to us. We seek excitement in the new and strange, and this makes it all too easy to forget home. There are great possibilities and importance to be found in what we already have. “As a country, we need to be concentrating on eating closer to home,” Blake told us. “What you have has intrinsic worth. It’s delicious. Let’s have more of it.” It is often financially easier to obtain food from far away, but Blake and Jen care about their local economy, too. Growing and buying food from close to home helps multiple parts of the community.

Blake and Jen do what they can to be self-sustaining on their farm. They generate soil fertility through their dining room – plate scraps go to the chickens and goats. Their chickens produce abundant eggs, and all the animals help fertilize the soil. The farmers love getting other people involved and spreading education about organic farming techniques. They welcome WWOOFers and they are willing to let people work on the farm for a day in exchange for several meals from the restaurant.

Blake and Jen have not had an easy journey. They sometimes still struggle financially. They brought new ideas about food and dining to a community not necessarily used to such changes. And they are both women. At Social Soup, they spoke to the women of the audience and told us to be brave. Be brave and remember that home has a lot to offer.

I bought their beautiful cookbook, which is also a storybook about two women starting a six-acre farm and restaurant in the remote high desert of Utah. I plan on making some roasted poblano cream sauce and pasta later this week, with whatever Utah goods I can (though winter makes this a little harder). The term “foodshed” implies boundaries and flows within those invisible lines. I want to explore these constructs near my home – I think there are more possibilities than we often realize.

And if I get a chance to return to the redrock canyons of Boulder, I know a farm I’d like to visit and a dinner I’d like to enjoy.

Annie Gilliland is a graduate student in the Environmental Humanities program at the University of Utah. She works with the Office of Sustainability, and loves to eat.

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