Family Style | Frank Bergon

from Gastronomica 1:4

Eating family style in California’s San Joaquin Valley when I was growing up meant sitting at a long, noisy table with people you might not know and eating food you hadn’t ordered.

Family style! Or, in the style of the family. What families best define this way of eating? In the San Joaquin Valley, the answer would come quick: “Why, that’s Basque family style.” With those three Delphic words, apparently understandable to everyone in central California, a former Italian restaurant in Madera currently proclaims its metamorphosis on an outside wall banner: BASQUE FAMILY STYLE. The irony of this term is that the long communal tables at Basque hotels began as a rooming-house custom for boarders. In other words, family style was invented for men without families, mostly unmarried Basque sheepherders.

Like Greek coffeehouses in Utah, Basque hotels were both cultural havens and transitional zones of assimilation for immigrants. Usually located along the railroad tracks of a Western town within sight of the depot, the Basque hotel served as a rooming house, post office, card room, dance hall, convalescent ward, unemployment hospice, and retirement community for these ersatz families in the agricultural West. They also became business centers and hiring halls for traveling Basque sheep owners. The concept of “family” expanded as Basques began to invite friends for dinner, such as Béarnais sheepmen, whose homeland adjoined the Basque Country, and other immigrant agricultural workers in the ethnically rich San Joaquin Valley. Eventually the hotels opened up their boarders’ tables to the public.

Basque Hotel, Fresno, California. Photograph by Tina Unti.

The first Basque hotel in the West was built in California during the Gold Rush in the 1850s. Others popped up in Nevada, Idaho, Oregon, then the rest of the intermountain West. At one time there were eight in Stockton. As late as the 1970s, there were six in a three-block area of San Francisco’s North Beach. Typically two stories, a Basque hotel has lodgings upstairs and a barroom and a dining room downstairs. Today’s more common family-style Basque restaurants seat parties at individual tables. Many hotel-restaurants are in transition. At the boarders’ table, people often have a choice of entrées. To a purist, once choice and a menu come to hand, the eating is no longer family style. Sunday afternoons in the 1950s for me often meant going to the Basque Hotel or the Santa Fe Hotel in Fresno. My family lived on a ranch twenty-five miles away. In those days, such a drive was a trek. The Santa Fe Hotel was across from the Santa Fe Railroad Depot, the Basque Hotel along the Southern Pacific tracks. Both hotels offered a child visions of spectacular bars in darkened rooms where families hooked up with relatives and friends for pre-dinner drinks. The wall behind the bar of the Basque Hotel held multicolored liquor bottles and two large recessed panels with illuminated blown-up photos of sheep bands. I remember one ghostly black-and-white photo of a huge flock drinking from a mountain stream.

My grandfather, mother, father, and aunt drank picons. The bartender’s quick hands packed ice into glasses, poured liquid from three different bottles—brandy, grenadine, and Amer Picon, an aperitif laced with orange, gentian, and quinine. The concoction was topped with club soda sprayed from a bar hose, then stirred with a long spoon. The rims of the glasses were rubbed with twists of lemon peel. I was always offered a sip. First came the heady fumes, then the fruity, bittersweet taste. Now correctly called “picon punch,” a term I never heard as a child, these drinks to me remain simply picons. Hence the roots of snobbism: it’s not necessarily the right way, but it’s our way. Popular in the Basque Country at the turn of the century but now virtually unavailable there, picons evolved into the Basque ethnic drink of the American West.

While the adults hobnobbed, I sneaked around the bar, down a dark hall past the toilets, through a door, a meat-cutting room—I could already hear shouts and the slaps of the handball—another door, and into the huge concrete court—a fronton or kantxa—roofed with wire grating, where men with bare palms whacked a handball against the walls in a vicious game of pelota. Or at least it seemed vicious to me as the hard rubber ball violently caromed around the court. I was somehow connected to these strange men. My mother was Basque. Her parents had been born in the Basque Country. I scarcely knew what a Basque was. Neither did these men, at least in terms of a common ethnic history. The Romans had called their ancestors Vascones, hence Vasco in Spanish and Basque in French. They called themselves Euskaldunak, those who speak Euskera, a strange guttural language to my young ear, dotted with tx and k and z in words such as artzainak (sheepherders) and txakurrak (sheepdogs). Only later would I learn that Euskera shares no identifiable roots with any other language. They called their European home Euskal Herria—the land of Euskera speakers—a region that straddles the spine of the western Pyrenees between France and Spain down to the Bay of Biscay. The Basque hotels of the West became educational centers where these Euskaldunak from Spain and France often learned about each other in ways they wouldn’t have in Europe. They had become Amerikanuak—Basques in America.

At the Basque Hotel, when the dinner bell rang, we streamed into the dining room. Latecomers were out of luck. Down the long table, stacked with open bottles of red wine, came steaming bowls and platters in four or five courses, soup first. I loved to slather a crusty hunk of sourdough bread with butter and soak it in the vegetable soup. My other favorite was the shrimp potato salad. When years later I ate a Sunday afternoon meal at a long table with my relatives at the Hotel Vega in the Basque Country of Spain, there was no shrimp potato salad—my relatives hadn’t heard of such a thing—but there were plenty of other fish dishes, such as merluza cheeks, from the Bay of Biscay, where, as I was told, the seafood is tastier and fresher because, of course, the water is neither too cold nor too hot. I don’t remember fish at the Basque Hotel, except bacalao, the slabs of dry, salted cod, stiff as boards, that Basques claim after soaking is tastier than the bland fresh fish. The food in hotels was touched in style by what was cooked in the sheepcamps of the West—things from the pot—beans, such as garbanzos and favas, and stews without separately created complementary sauces. Sheepcamp cooks allowed ingredients in cast-iron pots and skillets to condense into natural, full-bodied sauces. Such food came to be identified as American Basque, characterized in the hotels as hearty and cheap.

On the wall of the Basque Hotel hung an enlarged photograph of men eating at the hotel during a meeting of the California Woolgrowers Association. My grandfather was in the photo, not my Basque grandfather, but my father’s father, born in California, who then sat at the table with me. When I looked into William Douglass and Jon Bilbao’s splendid historical study, Amerikanuak: Basques in the New World (1975), I discovered that my grandparents, born in the Basque Country, who owned a hotel and store in Battle Mountain, Nevada, fit the book’s description of hotel proprietors who went directly from the sheep business (and, in my grandfather’s case, also mining) into ownership of a commercial hotel without passing through the boarding-house phase. But my Basque grandparents are not mentioned in the book. Ironically, this book about American Basques mentions my Béarnais-American grandfather, Prosper Bergon, as someone whose biography underscores the similarity in the life experiences of Basque and Béarnais-French sheepmen. Where one encounters Basques in the West, the book says, one is likely to encounter Béarnais. I might have also been sitting near my Béarnais great-grandmother’s brother and his wife, born in France, then ranchers south of Fresno, whose son, though ten years younger than my father, was actually my grandfather’s uncle, which was all very confusing to me. Next to them might have sat two old people I called Mom and Pop Lee, actually no relation at all—typical mysteries of this thing called family style.

Banner on Lauck’s Inn, Madera, California. Photograph by Tina Unti.

“Save room for the chicken,” someone always said as we chowed down on the other dishes. According to Amerikanuak, in rural Basque society, banquets on special occasions would most certainly include garbanzos, a stew dish, and chicken. American Basque hotels came to serve Old World Basque festive cuisine as ordinary fare, with an additional meat dish as an everyday staple of these multicourse meals. By the time platters of fried chicken made their way down the table, it was hard to eat more than three or four pieces. The chicken was delicious, but the prior meat dishes, usually more than one, rich in sauce, were better—lamb stew or sweetbreads or sliced tongue or pigs’ knuckles or beef brains or lambs’ feet or tripe in tomato and garlic sauce.

What families really eat this way? When I lived in a ranch house with my mother, father, aunt, grandfather, and sister, we sometimes ate a platter of plump chickens’ feet or beef stew with a lot of round bones from which my grandfather taught me to dig out the sweet marrow. But these were main courses. As in Basque hotels, we weren’t big on desserts, except ice cream and custards. Usually I would imitate my grandfather who made his own dessert with the tines of a fork by mashing blue cheese and butter into a paste spread on sourdough bread, a habit he continued until his heart gave out when he was seventy-three.

On special occasions, the dinner had two meat courses. When we joined up with a neighboring Italian family, the first course might be braised doves, dozens of them, shot during the fall season. At their house, pasta came next, then maybe a roast. Quail season followed dove season, then came pheasants and ducks. The shotgun pellets that had killed the birds clattered onto people’s plates as they ate. During deer season, my grandfather hung the carcass from a sycamore to skin it. In summer, when no game was in season, a first course might be sautéed frog’s legs, gathered from ranch ditches and canals into burlap sacks at night with flashlights and gigs.

I have a photo of myself as a boy turning a pig on a wooden spit over a hole in the ground, my face grimacing from the heat of the coals. The occasion was the visit of Croatian friends from Nevada, where the man had worked in the mines. He and his wife—like family, as the saying goes—were my sister’s godparents. I have other photos, much later ones, when I was in college, of friends and relatives at long tables under eucalyptus trees, eating a whole lamb cooked in the same way. The tables look similar to the ones my grandfather had finished building the morning of my parents’ wedding, when guests returned to the ranch for an outdoor meal. I don’t know what they ate, but it was probably barbecued over grape stumps, which make perfect coals. Another outdoor meal at long tables occurred when I was about to depart for graduate school. A rancher, again like family, shot a steer for the barbecue. We sawed open the skull for the brains, served as an appetizer, along with some fresh-cut mountain oysters, cooked in two styles. The mountain oysters came from young rams, to be distinguished from orchids, cut from young bulls to transform them into edible steers.

Given our eating habits, it may be a little hard to understand my grandfather’s response when I once served him on crackers some canned meat I’d discovered while I was still in grammar school.

“What is it?” he asked.

“Try it,” I said.

He took a bite. I told him what it was. He put the cracker back on the plate, and said, “Of all the goddamn meats in the world, you have to serve me rattlesnake.” Of course, it tasted like chicken. Yet this lifelong rancher and hunter couldn’t tolerate what he perceived as the enemy of stock and game. Animals we kill and eat require some affection.

Last March, I returned with my wife, Holly, to visit the Fresno hotels. Fourteen years had passed since I was in the valley for my aunt’s and father’s funerals, three months apart. Earlier, my Béarnais grandfather’s uncle—the one younger than my father—had hosted a meal for us at the Santa Fe Hotel on the day of his mother’s burial. The Santa Fe Hotel, I discovered, still has boarders, about a dozen or so, mostly old men in berets, retired Basque herders. They eat by themselves during the week at the boarders’ table in the evening, but anyone can join them for lunch or on weekends.

At the Basque Hotel, there are no boarders, though visitors from the Basque Country sometimes stay in the upstairs rooms. Basques now come as tourists, not herders. No one plays pelota anymore. Weeds grow through cracks in the concrete court. The dark barroom remains the same, still lit by those ghostly illuminated panels of sheep. The owner and cook, Fermín Urroz, born in Pamplona, mixes picons. At 6:30 in the evening, his Portuguese-American wife, Margaret, steps into the bar and clangs the dinner bell. We take our places at the long table, sitting in the order we enter. When I try to leave a space for someone else, Margaret tells me to move down, close up the gap. No skipping of chairs is allowed. Whoever said family style is a matter of choice? I sit next to a woman, born in Mexico, who spoons hot jalapeño salsa into her bowl of soup. I ask if the salsa is a recent innovation. I don’t remember it. Oh no, she says, it was here when her parents brought her to the hotel as a child. I’m skeptical, but it makes sense, since Basques, unlike other Europeans, developed a taste for the hot peppers from the Americas. Green salad, a bowl of white beans, a platter of mushrooms and peppers, and three meat dishes appear—lamb stew, pig’s feet, and tripe—then the final dish of salty roasted beef ribs.

I see people at individual tables eating shrimp potato salad. I ask Margaret about the salad, telling her how much I loved it as a kid, hoping to wheedle a sample from the kitchen, but am told it’s served regularly only at the individual tables where people are also permitted to order entrées, although if I really want it, I can come back on Wednesday when it’s served family style at the boarders’ table. I ask why it isn’t more often served at the boarders’ table. “That’s the way it is,” she says. I return on Wednesday. The shrimp potato salad is as good as ever. So is the beef tongue and fried chicken served with it, family style. Each meal costs nine dollars.

I search the room for the photo of my grandfather with the group of woolgrowers. It’s gone, replaced by a large color photograph of the owners with ten men who are regulars at the hotel. I ask Fermín how many Basques are in the photo. He hesitates for a moment and gives me a quizzical smile. He looks amazed as he scratches his head. “Only me,” he says. Four men are Japanese, others are Mexican, and, as I’m told, Okie. “They’re like family here,” someone says. I’m sitting beside a Greek American. I learn that his family’s vineyard is not far from our old home ranch. Across from me, a man says his family is Basque—French Basque—who, it turns out, owned a cattle ranch near the house where my father was born when my grandfather was still a tenant farmer. Their family name, the man says, means “the keeper of cattle.” As we eat, he mentions in passing that his father, a former regular at the hotel, just a few years ago had been moving five hundred head of cattle when his horse lay back on him and the pommel crushed his chest.

Sherbet ends the meal, but no coffee—that’s a bar drink. At the bar I’m surprised to see two couples from my childhood who have stopped in for after-dinner drinks. I haven’t seen them for years. One owns a vineyard adjoining our old home ranch. The other man is a Basque-American sheepman and rancher. He begins to talk about my grandfather, my father, my mother, her brother who played basketball for the University of Nevada, her sisters. We order more drinks.

The next day I’m invited to a noon barbecue in honor of an eighty-eight-year-old Béarnais-American farmer, hosted at his home ranch by his son and grandson, who have invited friends from each of the three generations, about forty men in all. I know the ranch well. As a kid, I played there often with the man’s children. A table holds appetizers of guacamole, smoked salmon, and bowls of San Joaquin Valley almonds. Green salad, beans and garlic, various barbecued sausages, and marinated tri-tip beef roasts are served family style, with lots of wine. The farmer’s grandson directs the barbecuing. We eat in the barn, and one man at each table is assigned to introduce the others seated with him. A man stands up to begin the introductions and says, “There’s a lot of history at this table—”

“No history!” the host shouts from another table. “Just the names. March has only thirty-one days.”

I sit next to the farmer’s ninety-three-year-old brother who has driven down by himself from Oakland. He says that during the first year of the Depression he herded sheep for my grandfather. “No one had any cash,” he says. “Your grandfather couldn’t pay me until later, but he kept me alive. Then he paid my tuition to barber and beautician school.” I ask how he lived. “Your grandfather brought me flour, beans, lamb. I dug a hole and baked bread in a Dutch oven.”

We get up to look at a large piece of plywood propped up in the barn. It’s covered with family photos. In the center is an old black-and-white photo of my grandfather, Prosper, and the honored farmer’s father, Pierre, holding shotguns. Strings of ducks hang between them. The limit then was twenty-five a day.

At the tables, the men talk about what farmers and ranchers always talk about, crops, weather, bad prices. Now and then the past comes up, briefly, skirting nostalgia. One man has an old photograph of pupils at the Ripperdan country school in 1926. The farmer being feted today is in it—so is my aunt—children standing in front of the schoolhouse. Men point and mention names: Yamaguchi, Logoluso, Chun, Biscay, Sagouspe, Chávez…

Nothing is said about the internment camps the Yamaguchis later went to. Nothing about the history of loss, broken faith, betrayal, drunkenness, madness, suicide, and other suffering marking so many later lives of these children. We all know the stories. Today fellowship is the occasion. In certain villages of Ghana, at festive gatherings such as this one, libations are poured for those absent, the family dead. We do nothing so formal. We haven’t such rituals and ceremonies. We just eat on, for the living and for the dead, silently aware of bonds stronger than those of ethnicity and geography. So we eat on, family style.