Utah was never on my list of must-visit places: I don’t ski, and Mormons make me a little nervous. But that was before I knew anything about the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, the town of Boulder, and Hell’s Backbone Grill.
A few years ago, my mother-in-law stayed at the Boulder Mountain Lodge for a creative writing workshop. The restaurant is connected to the lodge, and as is the case with everyone who has the good fortune to eat at Hell’s Backbone Grill, it made an impression on her. She returned to New Jersey full of energy for her writing projects and carrying an autographed copy of “With a Measure of Grace,” the cookbook by restaurant owners Blake Spaulding and Jennifer Castle, as a gift for me.
Blake and Jennifer were experienced back-country cooks before they took a true leap of faith, moved to tiny Boulder (pop. 180) and bought Hell’s Backbone Grill in 2000 — four years after President Clinton designated the dramatic redrock canyons the town sits in the center of a National Monument. Practicing Buddhists, they found acceptance in the community of Mormon ranchers through hard work and kindness, qualities that help them land the restaurant’s first-ever liquor license — they gradually convinced their neighbors it was vital to their long-term success.
Open from March to November, Hell’s Backbone Grill serves deeply personal food, all grown and sourced in or around Boulder (the closest supermarket is 45 minutes away). The book, which is as wonderful a read as it is a recipe collection, tells the stories of many of those sources, and the locals who through working for Blake and Jennifer, have become family.
I had flipped through the book, admiring the photos and the recipes, but it wasn’t until recently that I actually sat down and read it. Although Utah is nothing like Maine, the story of these two women making a place for themselves, and an positive impact on their surroundings, in a place where outsiders are often distrusted, is familiar. Here in southern coastal Maine, a great many of us are “from away;” but venture inland, or to small fishing communities on the end of peninsulas and islands, and the approach to newcomers is wary at best. I find myself thinking a lot about this fact as I search for a way to not just live in my adopted home, but make a difference here. Food and cooking will play a major role.
“I’ve learned to meditate while cooking to infuse the food with a quality of loving kindness and generosity,” writes Blake, who at her former catering business in Flagstaff, Arizona, often cooked for Tibetan lamas. In my mind, gingerbread, which my mother often made for dessert when I was growing up, is “love” food — sweet, spicy, and cozy — like a warm blanket on a late fall day. Blake and Jennifer’s recipe has the bonus of diced pears and candied ginger, and this recipe makes a generous amount, so share the love.
Confession: I adapted this recipe from the one in "With a Measure of Grace" because I didn't have enough molasses. The result was still absolutely delicious, but If you want to make the original: eliminate the brown sugar and honey; use 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar and 1 1/2 cups molasses.
- 3 cups flour
- 2 teaspoons baking soda
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 3 teaspoons ground ginger
- 1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1/2 teaspoon ground chile (I used dried guajillo chile ground in a coffee grinder)
- 1 1/2 sticks butter
- 2 eggs
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 1/2 cup light or dark brown sugar (packed)
- 1 cup dark molasses
- 1/2 cup good quality honey
- 1 1/4 cups boiling water
- 1 medium pear, diced
- 1 tablespoons finely chopped crystallized ginger