Tuesday, May 26, 2020
Mark Kurlansky Talks Basques, Salmon and Idaho Dairies
Mark Kurlansky’s recent books include “The Unreasonable Virtue of Fly Fishing” and “Salmon: A Fish, the Earth and the History of a Common Fate.” There was a time when salmon was the basic food of Idaho, he said.
Sunday, October 13, 2019


“People think of me as a food writer,” Mark Kurlansky told a full house at the Argyros Performing Arts Center Friday night. “But food for me is a way of getting to something else.”

Indeed, “Salt” took readers along trade routes and to the beginnings of revolutions. “Cod” took readers to the time of Vikings in icy Greenland and to the more contemporary story of depleted fishing stocks. And “Milk” took readers from the domestication of animals 10,000 years ago to the heart of today’s controversies over industrial farming and animal rights.

He even wrote a little book titled “The Core of the Onion,” which he says explores the defense mechanism onions use that brings tears to our eyes.

The Oinkari Basque dancers from Boise will be among those performing at the Jaialdi International Basque Festival in Boise July 28-Aug. 2, 2020.

“You can’t find any other plant that has that characteristic,” he said.

Kurlansky, a bestselling author from New York City, touched on some of the ways food has touched us during the Sheep Tales Gathering that serves as part of the 23rd annual Trailing of the Sheep Festival, which culminates today with the Big Sheep Parade at noon through Ketchum.

“I look at: Why do people eat things? Why, for instance, do the Basques eat cod when they can’t fish it in their own waters?”

Kurlansky, who has written 31 books, expects his newest “Salmon” to hit the bookstands on March 3, 2020.

He offered a sneak preview on Friday as he related how the salmon that Idaho’s Nez Perce tribe fed to  Meriwether Lewis and William Clark was a seminal moment in the explorers’ 1804 expedition across North America.

“They knew there was no salmon in the Missouri River that they had been traveling along. The salmon was from the Pacific Ocean—proof they’d crossed the Continental Divide,” he said.

As a native of Hartford, Conn., Kurlansky said it was a big shock to discover that the biggest milk producers are now California and Idaho.

“What happened to Vermont?” he said

I don’t know what’s going to happen to their culture as they lose their dairy farms, he added, noting that every Vermont town has its own local ice cream and cheeses.

Noting the many Basques in the audience, Kurlansky noted that the title of his book “The Basque History of the World” was a joke started by the Basques themselves.

“The Basques think they’re the world,” said Kurlansky, who was a playwright for off-off Broadway productions before becoming a correspondent for The International Herald Tribune, the Chicago Tribune, The Miami Herald and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

The Basque country and its people have been a never-ending source of fascination for the author, who first visited Boise because it boasts one of the largest populations of Basques in North America.

Basques consider themselves Europe’s oldest nation, even though their homeland, which straddles a the border of Spain and France, is marked on no maps except their own.

They have never determined how their country started. Nor has anyone determined the origins of the Basque language which is considered the most ancient in Europe and bears no resemblance to the Romantic languages of Europe or any other language in the world

But the Basques pride themselves on being the first Europeans to eat corn and chili peppers, as well as to use chocolates.

And, while their homeland is smaller than New Hampshire, they have made remarkable contributions to world history, Kurlansky said earlier in the day during a conversation with Festival Founders Diane and John Peavey and journalists.

The first man to circumnavigate the globe—Juan Sebastian de Elcano—was a Basque. Ignatius Loyola, founded the Jesuit religious order. And Basques were the second Europeans after the Vikings to set foot on North American soil.

While the Basques didn’t herd sheep in their homeland, they brought sheep to North America, Kurlansky said. And when America’s sheep ranchers went looking for people to herd sheep it was natural for Basques to answer the call, as it was a very normal thing for in Basque culture to go to America.

The first-born in the Basque land got the farm or bar to take care of, said John Peavey. The second and third generation went all over the world since the family farm or bar couldn’t provide them with a living.

Many came through Greenwich Village where Spanish restaurants plied them with grilled sardines, chorizos and poached octopus as they awaited assignments to report to sheep herders in Nevada or Idaho, Kurlansky said.

Many of the Basque rooming houses along the tracks where they would get out are still there today, he added.

The Basque herders couldn’t speak English—their dogs spoke Spanish, John Peavey quipped. In the beginning they had a donkey that knew the range better than they.

Basques—known for salt cod, tongue and other foods heavily flavored by peppers and paprika--are obsessed with food, as they define their culture by food, said Kurlansky, who has worked as a commercial fisherman, cook and pastry chef and other jobs to research his books.

“If you eavesdrop in Basque restaurants, you’ll find they talk endlessly about food. All of us do, of course, but it seems so much more apparent with the Basques,” he added.

The Basques replaced the Scottish herders in the Wood River Valley, Peavey said, and Basques were big eaters.

“When we changed form Basques to Peruvian herders, our grocery bill dropped dramatically because the Basques wanted a lot of meat!”

Kurlansky lamented that food has become less regional, thanks to the overnight shipping and the proliferation of fast food chains.

“When I was a kid, we would drive to the West Coast every summer. And everywhere we went the food was different. Now that’s not that case anymore,” he said. “I remember when I was a kid it was a huge thing if someone went to Florida and brought us back some ruby red grapefruits. Now, we can get those at the supermarket any time of year.”


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