We took a road trip to the canyon country of southeast Utah for several weeks in October, making our way from one park to the next, Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Grand Staircase/Escalante, Bryce and Zion, hiking up close to the hoodoos and fins, slot canyons and whimsical spires of this fascinating red rock country. Amid all the wonders of this dry high desert, yet another wonder emerged in a gentle valley next to walls of gray Navajo slick rock, a thriving kitchen garden producing vegetables enough to supply a restaurant, Hell’s Backbone Grill.
Since 2000 Blake Spaulding and Jennifer Castle, the owners and chefs of Hell’s Backbone Grill in Boulder, Utah have been creating breakfasts, lunches and dinners from this garden and from local beef, lamb and pork, eggs, cheeses and fruit, all with the help and support of the Boulder community. Several friends had praised the restaurant, one writing: “I think Debby would be interested in their menu and philosophy.” When we arrived for dinner mid-way through our travels, a sweet, handwritten “From our Farm” sign at the restaurant entrance listed vegetables that would be on the menu. In the dining room pumpkins, braids of garlic and all sizes, shapes and colors of winter squash decorated the ceiling beams and room divider, celebrations of the fall harvest. After a week and a half of desert camping meals that had nearly exhausted our supply of vegetables from home, we realized we’d reached an oasis.
My Dinner Jenchilada, an enchilada named for Jen Castle, was farm pumpkin “rolled in organic corn tortillas, baked in a spicy sweet corn habanero cream sauce” surrounded by roasted chunks of delicata squash and sweet red carrots, curls of zucchini & pueblo brown rice pilaf. Scott’s Spicy Green Chile Juniper Lamb Posole, “shredded Boulder-raised lamb shoulder” came with a brown sugar corn muffin to crumble into the flavorful broth. Revived by this wonderful food, we knew we needed to return the next morning for breakfast.
Scott ordered the Breakfast Jenchilada, a morning version of the amazing dinner entrée: “corn tortillas, torn and toasted, smothered in an authentic red chile sauce with jack cheese served with a sage potato pancake brown rice & beans, and a just-made flour tortilla.” Still craving vegetables, I ordered the Blaker Standard, “two poached farm eggs on brown rice with sautéed greens and our poblano crema” and thoroughly savored the sautéed chard that surrounded the eggs and rice.
By this point, the only thing that could increase my happiness would be seeing the garden that produced this food. “Of course,” our waiter said when we asked if it would be possible to visit the garden. “We love people to visit.” He gave us a map.
Framed by the gray Navajo slick rock formation known as the Sugar Loaf, rows of carrots, beets and lettuce stretched out lush and green. A farm intern watering fruit trees near an irrigation pond offered to show us around. The spicy fragrance of peppers filled the air and our guide pointed to another woman using a torch to burn back pepper plants, explaining that the charred leaves would enrich the sandy soil. Behind her, corn stalks stood dry and brown, setting off a row of blue/green kale.
In a hoop house, tiny sprouts of mustards and other hardy greens were just emerging against the sandy brown soil. Nearby, multicolored corncobs dried on a rack. Brown speckled white beans were also drying in the sun and our guide said that the plan was to grow even more beans for the restaurant in the year ahead.
Here was the farm half of the farm-to-table restaurant, but this farm was blooming in the desert, as odd and puzzling as the fantastic formations of rock and color that define this area and just as magical.
We left Boulder and Hell’s Backbone Grill with a copy of Spaulding and Castle’s With a Measure of Grace: The Story and Recipes of a Small Town Restaurant (2004). It’s a cookbook in the sense that it has recipes but even more it’s the story of the forces, natural and spiritual, that have shaped Hell’s Backbone Grill. We’d been relying on David B. Williams’ field guide A Naturalist’s Guide to Canyon Country (2013) to help us understand the geology and ecology of this region, reading a few pages each night to learn names to describe the formations we were seeing and to understand the natural forces that created them. With a Measure of Grace gave us the same understanding of place, showing through photos and words that the garden and gardeners are one part of a wide community of people all working together to make Hell’s Backbone Grill the magical place it is, every bit as magical as the landscape that surrounds it.