Basque Gastronomy and History

I seem to have stored up a backlog of book reviews that I’ve been meaning to post, so I’ll start trying to clear them out of my head and onto the internet now. This first one is somewhat unusual, in that it’s actually non-fiction, which I haven’t been reading much of lately.

This book actually has to be paired with a radio story. Back in May, before I had to leave for my 3-week business trip to Asia (I’m chronicling that over on my personal blog), I heard this piece from the Kitchen Sisters on NPR, from their Hidden Kitchens series: The Sheepherder’s Ball: Hidden Basque Kitchens. While my own cooking skills are notably underdeveloped, I find this series fascinating for the way it explores history and culture through the initial touchstone of recipes and food. In this case, they revealed the existence of a sizable Basque community in the US that I had never heard about before.

Francisco and Joaquin Lasarte came to America in 1964 from Basque country in northern Spain. Francisco Franco, the Spanish dictator who repressively ruled the country for nearly 40 years, made life miserable for the Basque people, suppressing their language, culture and possibilities.

The result was a massive exodus, and the only way to come to the United States for many Basque was to contract as sheepherders. There was a shortage of shepherds in the American West, and Sen. Patrick McCarren of Nevada helped craft legislation in 1950 that allowed Basque men to take up this lonely and difficult job.

Neither Lasarte brother had any sheepherding experience when they arrived in America.

The rest of the story goes on to tell about the traditions that grew up around this sheepherding community, including their annual ball and a Basque-language radio show that was on the air for 25 years. During part of the story, though, they interviewed Mark Kurlansky, “author of The Basque History of the World.” This was enough to send me venturing out of my normal library routing of prowling the fiction area exclusively, into the unfamiliar upstairs world of non-fiction. I had seen the book before in bookstores and so on, and now I had the final push to actually read it.

As it turns out, this was a fairly good book to pair with the Kitchen Sisters’ show, because Kurlansky also loves food. The book is studded with traditional Basque recipes that have a connection to the history he was addressing in the corresponding chapter. The Basque themselves seem to place a large emphasis on food, forming many gastronomic societies in their towns and cities, and producing many famous chefs in Europe and beyond.

The non-food history is interesting, too. Kurlansky really does try to provide a history of the Basque people from conjectures about their earliest origins, which are still unknown, to the beginning of the 21st century. Most people know the Basque today as a violent separatist group in Spain, and possibly also as a linguistic curiosity, since their language is unrelated to any of those surrounding it (and possibly any other language in use today.) But Kurlansky’s overall history makes them a real and distinct people, showing the process that led the people who lived in semi-autonomous peace with the Roman conquerers and several later monarchies to become viewed as rebels.

In addition to their unique language, which the Basque themselves view as a defining feature of what makes a Basque a Basque, they are also unusual in that they are a people and a land that straddles a border. Though many of us identify them with Spain, of the 7 regions of the Basque Country, 4 are in Spain and 3 are in France, all in the mountains on the border. This has put them in a strange position in history a number of times, and during WWII, they were able to smuggle Allied pilots out of France and into Spain through their specialized knowledge of the land. It was quite interesting for me to read modern Spanish history from the Basque side, having been a Spanish major in college with a class specifically on the Franco era. (However, the book never does mention the exodus of Basque to the US as sheepherders during that time.)

Despite their long history of peaceful cooperation when allowed to rule themselves, the modern era has seen the governments that claim their territory consistently eroding Basque autonomy. The Basque have always been viewed as a strange minority, not to be entirely trusted. Kurlansky makes it clear both how the ETA came to be a separatist organization, and how ETA is separate from the actual Basque government. Some of their goals are the same, but many of their methods diverge. The end of the book shows Basque culture on the rise on both sides of the border, including a renewal of the language after years of repression.

Even though the book never does mention the exodus of Basque to the US as sheepherders that originally inspired me to try to learn more, I’m certainly glad to have read it. I will admit that the writing in some places isn’t as tight as I thought it could have been, with Kurlansky unexpectedly jumping to a the modern world from what had previously been much older history without a particularly clear link, but it’s still a fast and interesting read, and it’s certainly written for a general audience.

-posted by Dana

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8 Responses to Basque Gastronomy and History

  1. Mary says:

    One of the women who works with us in the ELCC has a Basque background. (I think she joined us after you left). She grew up in Arizona, and her family were indeed sheepherders. She seems to have had a wonderful childhood and her family is very close. When we go out and have a few drinks she tells us lots of wonderful stories about having grown up in what for us, seems to have been an unusual manner.

    She has been having a hard time lately, so I will pick up this book for her, and if she already has it, I will keep it for myself. Thanks for the review.

  2. Dana says:

    Hey Mary! That’s really neat. I hope you (both) enjoy the book. I’d be interested to hear what she thinks, as a Basque in diaspora.

  3. E. Twieg says:

    I think you’ll also find Mark Kurlansky’s other book, “Salt”, an interesting read. He mentions the Basques briefly in a couple of sections, mostly in reference to whaling, which they were noted for in the 17th-19th Centuries. I also think you’ll find the section dealing with salt mining in ancient China of interest. That goes for Jennie too.

  4. linguist in hiding says:

    I would not trust the book that much (or any of his books, for that matter). My method of choosing what to read is, among other things, to go to Amazon and read the one-star-reviews. If those are trustworthy (not written by obvious loonies) I won’t read the book. There are these “They are all terrorists!” “reviews” without a shred of credibility but read the one ” Basques leap tall buildings with a single bound, September 27, 2001″.

  5. rivertowninn says:

    Thank you for this very interesting post! I had never heard of the Basque Region until the chef at the Inn where I work recently created a Basque Country Cooking themed Wine Dinner. I think I will study more on the region now! If anyone is interested in attending the dinner, you can find more information on our website.

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