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Idaho Cuisine

May 9, 2007

There is no Idaho cuisine. In fact, there’s no intermountain west cuisine. California, Pacific Northwest, Southwest, yes. Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, no. In North Carolina, where I lived for a while, there are lots of cuisines: Piedmont, Low Country, mountain, barbeque. Idaho hasn’t even got one.

The potato, I hear you say. But the frozen French fry is not the basis of a shared gastronomic vocabulary across the state, is it? Our wheat mostly makes ramen noodles, so forget that. Lentils? I defy anyone to create a cuisine (as opposed to a novelty act) out of lentils. There are no “holy trinities” of Idaho food to rival the squash, bean, and chile of the Southwest, the celery, onion, and pepper of Cajun food, even the cream of mushroom soup, French-fried onions, and macaroni of the Mid-West.

Food items, we have. Huckleberries. Elk steak. Salmon. Add camas and a few other things most of us will never eat, and we’ve got historic Nez Perce cuisine—but that’s one that most Idahoans will never have access to. In other places, indigenous food merges with waves of immigrant food to form something new and fabulous. Alas, not here. Or at least not yet.
We’re a young state. Maybe we just haven’t had time to develop regional specialties like barbeque, or chicken slick, or pimento cheese.

Yes, pimento cheese, the food of the gods to a Southerner (in an H.G. Wells way to the rest of us). The first time I saw it, I couldn’t believe it. To this day, I’ve never tasted it, and I won’t wash the bowl.

If you have to know: drain a small glass jar of pimentos and drop them in a cereal bowl. Grate up a chunk of plain mild cheddar cheese and throw it on top of the pimentos. Spoon up a dollop of Best Foods mayonnaise (it really should be Duke’s, but you can’t buy it here), and stir the resulting mess till it’s all mashed up. It’s a sunny pinkish-gold, with a crumby, sandy-looking texture. Eat it with saltines, or make a sandwich with squishy white bread. In our house, you have to buy that bread specially, and hide it, too. My parents like the kind of whole wheat bread that looks like you emptied the dustpan in it after sweeping the front porch, and everyone knows that giving children storebought bread is the first step on a road that ends in smoking, mixed drinks, and dancing in roadhouses with men in pencil mustaches.

I did learn to cook one thing in North Carolina that we should definitely appropriate for Idaho cuisine: Four Cup Salad. Everyone on earth loves Four Cup Salad—even people who hate the elements of it find themselves loitering in front of the refrigerator with a spoon, acting like they don’t know what they’re doing there. It’s dead easy to fix, and spectacularly, tastelessly, innocently lovely to look at, especially if you use colored mini-marshmallows. It’s welcome at every church supper and potluck—from the lesbian-environmentalist throwdown where everyone else brought Burdock-Kambocha-Jerusalem Artichoke Surprise in a hand-thrown pottery casserole dish, to the “gathering in the Fellowship Hall following the service” where the cream of mushroom ninjas eye each other narrowly over six versions of Waldorf Salad.

In a large bowl, combine one cup of sour cream, 1 cup of miniature marshmallows, 1 drained small can of mandarin orange sections, and 1 small can of crushed pineapple. Mix well, and chill for as long as you can stand it—about half an hour, maybe. Stir it up well again, and enjoy straight from the serving bowl. And while you’re eating it, let’s give some thought to getting ourselves a real cuisine. Idaho cooking, known across the nation for its extraordinary regional character. Any ideas?

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