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.