Food & Drink » Food: Year of Idaho Food

Exploring the Evolution of Basque Cuisine

Going beyond pintxos and chorizos


As the class watched, one chef, dressed in his crisp chef's whites, broke open a lobster with his bare hands; another drizzled a long stream of grassy, high-end olive oil into a bright green parsley sauce; another sauteed mussels with string beans; and a fourth, speaking through an interpreter, explained the steps required to assemble a warm clam cocktail.

Gloria Totoricaguena stood to the side smiling. Through a week-long series of classes, wine tastings and dinners, she was trying to bust a few myths about the food of her ancestral home: the Basque Country of Spain.

"What the typical non-Basque person in the American West thinks of as Basque food--barbecued lamb, bean soup, chorizos in a hotdog bun--is not typical in the homeland," she said.

Totoricaguena is an Idaho scholar who has studied Basque cultures around the world. She helped organize the first Basque Culinary Arts Week in Boise in June, which was held at Boise State. She brought four accomplished chefs from the province of Bizkaia in the Basque Country and a wine expert to town hoping to give Idahoans--even Basque Idahoans--a taste of a cuisine very unlike the Basque food predominately found in America. Totoricaguena called it "bringing new Basque cuisine to the diaspora" and said it illustrates a fundamental dynamic she's found throughout her work: that any country's food culture evolves and inevitably diverges from the immigrant food from which it spawned.

"No culture is stagnant," she said. "If it is, it's in the museum. That new generation is always going to want to put their twist on things. They're always going to ask, 'Why do we have to make that that way?'"

Totoricaguena has learned from her research and field work that while a mother country's cuisine evolves over time, immigrants tend to cling to the cooking they left behind, essentially locking past memories into meals. And since immigrants often migrate from specific regions of a country during times of war or economic hardship, their diaspora cuisine, as Totoricaguena calls it, also locks in a specific region and era. What most of us think of as Italian-American food, for instance, is specifically the immigrant cuisine of southern Italians who arrived in the United States in the late 1800s. A wave of Basque immigrants came to the American West during that same time from their own specific regions. Basques migrating to Idaho, Totoricaguena said, came almost exclusively from the Bizkaia province.

Once here, those immigrants had to adapt their regional, era-specific cooking style to a very different climate and culture--and that's where immigrant cuisines first begin to diverge from the cuisines of their homelands.

"They have to make adaptations because the cuisine of the Basque Country is coastal and it's focused on seafood," Totoricaguena explained, "So if you migrate from the fishing towns of the Basque Country to the deserts of Southern Idaho, you cannot find the ingredients that you want."

Instead Basque immigrants, who often worked as sheepherders, found abundant lamb, dried beans and garlic, and those became new menu staples. And of course, immigrants also found ways to bring cherished, transportable foods from their homelands, like the Basque choricero peppers, whose seeds Basque immigrants planted in Southern Idaho more than 50 years ago and now flourish.

Immigrant foods diverged still further when those discovered ingredients were served in a new cultural context. Boarding houses that catered specifically to the Basque sheepherding community popped up all over the West, becoming de facto Basque cultural centers that served large quantities of simply prepared food in rustic, communal settings. That boarding house style of cooking was not typical of the homeland, Totoricaguena said, but over time, the resulting hybridized diaspora cuisine became what Western Americans recognize as Basque food.

"That doesn't mean that Basque boarding house cuisine is not authentic," Totoricaguena added. "It is very much authentic for that period of time, for that space, for that cultural experience." It just doesn't reflect the diversity of cooking styles in today's Basque Country.

No culture stands still, and modern Basque culinary culture is a stunning example of that inexorable evolution. Although the cuisine's forward motion stalled during the Spanish Civil War and Franco era when food of any kind was hard to find, Basque cuisine began to evolve again in the mid-1970s thanks, in large part, to an inventive Basque chef named Juan Mari Arzak. Considered the founder of what is called New Basque cuisine, Arzak introduced a style of cooking that paralleled the nouvelle cuisine movement flourishing in France. It's steeped in Basque tradition but takes dramatic creative liberties. In explanation, Arzak once said, "I was essentially deconstructing what my mother was doing."

New Basque food--with a lighter, looser take on tradition--became Spain's de facto haute cuisine and inspired famous, modern-day Spanish chefs like Ferran Adria and Jose Andres to delve even further into the avant garde, like molecular gastronomy, in turn spawning a new, 21st century Spanish food renaissance that chefs around the world are now eager to emulate. In the Basque Country today, towns like San Sebastian and Hondarribia are dotted with Michelin-starred restaurants serving ambitious, inventive Basque food.

"That is exactly what Basque Culinary Week is about," Totoricaguena said. "[It's] a presentation of things that people have not seen, both Basque Americans and non-Basque Americans.

At the cooking demonstration, the fourth Basque chef carefully floated a layer of parsley sauce and olive oil over the clam cocktail he'd just assembled. Then he offered a taste to Ryan Geraghty, one of the roughly 15 class participants.

"It's like the sea," Geraghty said as he slurped up clams and sauce. "It's delicious."

Eyes sparkled when the chefs passed around lobster and pasta paired with mussels and green beans.

Although there seemed to be starry-eyed surprise at a cooking demonstration peppered with Basque Idahoans, Totoricaguena said tensions over food crop up in every diaspora community that she's studied. As a mother country's cuisine and that of its expatriates diverge, questions of authenticity are increasingly debated, especially among those expats who find the need to defend tradition against what they see as a kind of cultural and culinary erosion.

"Diaspora Basques are more nationalist, more conservative and much more primordial in their categorization and acceptance of what is Basque," Totoricaguena said.

On the other hand, she said, Basque Country Basques don't worry as much about authenticity. Using the four Bizkaian chefs as an example, Totoricaguena explained.

"They don't need to prove to anyone that they're Basque," she said. "They live in the Basque Country, and they are Basque Country-born chefs."

That gives them the freedom to innovate without forgetting who they are. Or as Gorka Txapartegi, a modern Basque chef with a Michelin star, put it in a New York Times piece on new Basque cooking: "The cuisine will certainly evolve but without forgetting its roots."

Those words might have helped reassure Totoricaguena's mother, who came to America from Guernica 55 years ago and needed some coaxing before attending her daughter's Basque Country cooking classes.

Totoricaguena relayed their conversation.

"My mother says, 'Well, I'm 79 years old. I should know everything I need to know by now, shouldn't I?' I say, 'Well you know, Mama, maybe not, maybe not. We have something to learn until the day we die.'"