The culinary styles of Montana is a reflection of the state's copious history, people, geography, and climate. Over time, the food commonly produced in Montana has evolved from the traditional meals of Native Americans to a more varied table of dishes of the immigrants and pioneers who brought their own cooking styles to the state. Some recipes withstood the travel to a new region, while others incorporated local game and produce, creating variations of dishes popular elsewhere – sometimes resulting in completely original treats. Today, travelers will find more current and international cuisine alongside traditional offerings.
Montana was generally inhabited by the Assiniboine, Blackfeet, Crow, Gros Ventre, Kootenai, Salish, Sioux, and Shoshoni Indians until the 19th century. All of Montana's tribes, regardless of whether they were nomadic or stationary, mountain dwellers or plains Indians, subsisted on a diet that consisted mainly of protein. Hunted game (always by the men, and often in groups or hunting parties) primarily consisted of buffalo, elk, and deer. Native Americans cooked these meats in pits for immediate use, or dried, salted, and pounded them into pemmican to eat later. Pemmican is a combination of meat, dried berries, and rendered fats, pounded together and concentrated. Freshwater fish was fire grilled by tribes situated close to Montana's rivers – primarily the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers - but never as a main source of meat.
While each tribe gathered berries, nuts, and herbs, few cultivated the lands for food. Tribes like the Gros Ventre and the Sioux Indians raised corn, squash, beans and potatoes and traded these goods with the other tribes in the area. When horses were introduced to Montana in the late 17th century, tribes that were once completely habitual became at least partially nomadic, seasonally following and hunting the buffalo as their main source of food. This became a problem later with the depletion of the buffalo and the containing of Native Americans on reservations by the United States government.
Between 1805 and 1806, Lewis and Clarke's government-sponsored westward expedition made its way through Montana. Upon their return east, they reported their findings, which included maps and agricultural findings. After the news spread that there was inhabitable land to be seized and money to be made in the west, pioneers headed out. Some of the first non-native people to live and work in Montana were fur trappers. A few daring souls even entered the area before Lewis and Clarke's trip. These mountain men lived thousands of miles from civilization, existing entirely off of the land and what they could carry on their horses. Fur traders and trappers lived mostly on fresh meat and water, in vast amounts. Typically, the men hunted only large game such as deer, bison, and elk. Smaller game was much less efficient to go after because it didn't fulfill the amount of meat necessary to fill the men up. If there was no live game to available, these frontiersmen could subsist on a diet of root vegetables, though the strenuous nature of their jobs really required that they get as much meat as possible to maintain the necessary energy levels. To ensure that meat was available at every meal, the men preserved leftovers by salting, smoking, or drying.
It was the Russian, Scandinavian, Scottish, and Irish settlers who impacted the culinary scene the most. Russian pioneers came into Montana with the intent of farming wheat, and brought with them Vatrushki (a cheese tart), Smetanick (pie filled with cherry jam, almonds, and sour cream), and beet soup. Scandinavians brought along porridge made with heavy cream, the Scots brought scones, and the Irish, Golden Bread (slices of white bread dipped in eggs and fried). Settlers incorporated local treasures such as white honey into their cooking. And even with new items brought to the table, during hunting season, all meals revolved around the freshly killed meat. The mixing of these traditional dishes, and tweaking to incorporate locally found products, created the Montana cuisine that's most familiar today.
In Montana, livestock outnumbers people, so travelers will not have any trouble finding various kinds of meat products. Beef, lamb, hogs, and chicken are the most common offerings, but deer, moose, and buffalo are also great sources of protein. Commonly found on restaurant menus are buffalo burgers, which are not unlike regular beef patties in taste. Another common treat in Montana are Rocky Mountain Oysters, also known as Mountain Oysters. Do not be fooled, these are not the type of oyster one finds in the ocean. Rocky Mountain Oysters are actually the testicles of prairie dogs, boars, bulls, and sheep deep-fried, braised, poached, or sautéed. This dish is so beloved in Montana that an annual Testicle Festival (more commonly known as the "Testy Fest") is held in Clinton.
Aside from the numerous and interesting meat products available for sampling in Montana, there are a number of specialty crops. Montana ranks second in the nation for its production of flaxseed, third for garbanzo beans, and fourth for dry edible peas and lentils. Flaxseed in particular is an important crop because it is high in fiber and omega-three fatty acids. Most commonly found in linseed or flaxseed oil, many dietitians recommend flax seed to clients to help increase their daily fiber intake. Add to these crops wheat, barely, and sugar beets, and you will see that Montana has a booming agricultural industry.
Along with local fare, Montana offers a wealth of other varieties. Restaurants range from pricey and elegant to low-cost buffets. Food choices include international cuisine, American fare, and of course, every fast food restaurant one could imagine.
Montana's culinary treats offer visitors the opportunity to experience local culture in a way that everyone can appreciate. From hearty livestock to healthy grains, and whether you're a meticulous or adventurous grazer, you are sure to enjoy eating your way through the great state of Montana.