Backbone—Hell Yes!

Hell's Backbone Grill

It takes backbone to sue the Trump Administration.

Especially if you’re women.

And you own a restaurant in Boulder, Utah, one of the most remote areas of the US, elevation ~7,000 feet, population ~ 180 people. Where the geology’s so rugged that early explorers declared “no animal without wings could cross it.” When the Civilian Conservation Corps did build a way through, they named it Hell’s Backbone Road. Which led to the name of the restaurant Blake Spalding and Jennifer Castle own—Hell’s Backbone Grill. A name that suits their spunk in facing off the hell that’s been created by Donald Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

Hell’s Backbone Grill is in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, the largest tract of unspoiled land in the continental US, home to four billion years of geology stretching out as far as you can see in soothing striations of cream and rose and amber, wild, open beauty. Alain de Botton has suggested that someone write an atlas of the world, highlighting the psychological value of places like the Utah desert that he says can “shift us away from preoccupations with the petty and the small-minded towards a terrain of greater calm and resilience.” The monument is scientifically and culturally important, too. Although scientists have surveyed less than seven percent of the Grand Staircase-Escalante, six thousand archeological sites and forty-five new paleontological species have been discovered here. It’s one of our favourite places on Earth. We even wrote an ode to Grand Staircase-Escalante, thankful to have hiked and camped there and eaten at Hell’s Backbone Grill.

Let me tell you about the first dinner I ate there: Juniper Lamb Posole with Blue-Ribbon Black-Powder Buttermilk Biscuits. (I’ve subsequently bought the two Hell’s Backbone Grill cookbooks and made both.) Blake developed the posole recipe as a riff on the Hopi mutton-and-hominy stew called noquivi. You slow cook a chunk of lamb shoulder in a broth seasoned with juniper berries, chile flakes, rosemary, oregano, cumin, rosemary, thyme and star anise. Roasted green chiles fire it up. Along with the posole corn, potatoes, onions, roasted tomatoes, garlic and celery add heft. Cilantro, radishes and lime brighten the finish. Yum. Anyone can make biscuits, right? Not as flaky and layered as Jen’s, which won a blue ribbon at a county faIr. It’s her technique. You cut the dough in half and stack one-half on top of the other, repeating this flattening, cutting and stacking process three times. The light and delicate texture of the biscuits is juxtaposed with the barest crunch from a few tablespoons of cornmeal that you sprinkle on both bottom and top before baking.

Blake and Jen opened Hell’s Backbone Grill in 2000, four years after Grand Staircase-Escalante was declared a National Monument. They sensed that more and more travellers would be drawn to the area’s vast beauty and appreciate an all-organic, farm-to-table restaurant.

They were right. The New Yorker article “Food Fight” (which prompted this blog) says that since the monument was established in 1996, “per capita income in the region has grown by seventeen per cent, higher than the Utah average, and employment has grown by twenty-four per cent with Grand Staircase supporting some sixteen hundred new private-sector jobs.” Not just in tourism, but in finance, health care and construction. And not at the expense of local ranchers: “Throughout the monument’s existence, almost ninety-seven per cent of it was actively and legally grazed.” From the time they open in March until Blake and Jen shutter Hell’s Backbone Grill after Thanksgiving, their sixty-five-seat restaurant is almost always full. Jen and Blake are now the largest employers in the north end of the county with an annual payroll of nearly a million dollars.

In 2017, word got out that the Trump was planning to carve up Grand Staircase-Escalante and appropriate forty-six percent of it—an illegal action as the power to modify national monuments belongs solely to Congress. (You might remember two blogs we posted about this last year around this time House on Fire and A Lump of Coal for Christmas.

When you see a wrong, write it advises the writer Ali Smith.

Blake and Jen and all fifty-three members of the Escalante and boulder Chamber of Commerce wrote letters of protest to the Federal Government. But none were answered. They went on a “listening tour.” But Zinke met only with monument supporters. They went to Washington, D.C. But Zinke refused to meet with the delegation. Blake started calling Zinke’s office daily. But no one called her back. So last December when Trump arrogated (don’t you love that word?) power to himself and made his proclamations, Blake and Jen’s lawyers, Covington & Burling, filed a lawsuit on their behalf. Pro bono. Give thanks for lawyers like them.

Of course theirs wasn’t the only lawsuit—five others were filed that day, many more since. The lawsuits have been consolidated and are awaiting rulings. Which could take years.

Unlike industrial incursion, which happened quickly. This summer, Glacier Lake Resources, Inc., a Canadian company based in Vancouver, acquired property near Boulder on land that was originally part of the monument. The Company announced immediate plans for surface exploration to be followed shortly by drilling for cobalt, nickel and copper. Canadians?

Retaliation against Jen and Blake occurred quickly, too. Soon after a pro-monument rally this summer at which Blake criticized the Utah government for not defending its public lands, the state chose Hell’s Backbone Grill for a four-year tax audit. Coincidence?

On Friday Magellan and I hosted an American Thanksgiving dinner featuring a menu of recipes from Jen and Blake’s cookbooks: With a Measure of Grace: The Story and Recipes of a Small Town Restaurant, and This Immeasurable Place: Food and Farming from the Edge of Wilderness.

American Thanksgiving Menu
for Jennifer Castle and Blake Spalding
in Preserving Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument

*Zuni Sweet Potato Skillet Cakes with Sweet Roasted Pepper Dip
*Turkey Tamales Dolmades with Red Chile Sauce
*Warm Red Cabbage Salad with Goat Cheese
*Chocolate Chile Pecan Pie (From the cookbook: “And with a little bourbon tossed in? It’s a match made in hell.”)

“In an age of enormous inequality, these public lands are arguably our most democratic space….our shared wilderness, as long as we sustain it,” wrote Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times. Fortunate is the world to have women like Blake and Jen keeping the flame under the grill at Hell’s Backbone and under the hellish lawlessness of this foolish proclamation.


Update: February 19, 2023.
Late Winter 2023
A Love Letter from Helles
Photo by Jen Castle
Dearest friends & beloved HBG community,
We hope the winter of 2023 is treating you well. Here in Boulder, it’s the snowiest one we’ve had in years. This bodes well for the spring bloom in the desert, the trees, small farms, and all the wild creatures and places. It’s also been the right conditions for us to focus on the deep work we’ve needed to apply ourselves to.  The past few months have been remarkable—intense and fruitful—and we’ve been powerfully engaged in a winnowing process, assessing what has worked, and what has not, in all the ways. Meanwhile, we have been giving ourselves ample space to make necessary changes that we trust (and hope) will support the restaurant’s long-term survival. We’re trying some extraordinary measures this year, and we‘re optimistic that collectively, the result will be a stabilization and even a thriving of this passion project we call HBG.So, with that said: We have a lot of news since we last wrote… Immeasurable GratitudeWe remain absolutely staggered and weepy over the generosity, love, and major financial support we received through our “Hail Mary” fundraiser. It was the replenishment and renewal we desperately needed. We’re now able to give our all to figuring out how to adapt and thrive in these difficult times of spiraling operating, food, and labor costs; supply chain and staffing shortages; and everything else plaguing (no pun intended) the restaurant industry. But thanks to your extraordinary outpouring of help, we are charging ahead with this season, and we’re hopeful that with the many changes we’re implementing (read on to hear about those), we’ll be able to keep going well into the future. We’re also truly grateful that donations are still coming in, because every little bit is so very helpful. As planned, we will take down the GoFundMe before midnight on Tibetan New Year, which is February 21st.
A snowy entrance to our farm. Photo by Jen Castle
Baby we’re back!
We plan to reopen for our 24th season on Friday, March 31st. We’ll be offering dinner in the dining room and (weather permitting) on the patio from 4pm to 9pm, five nights a week, closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. With the staff and resources that we have, this is the schedule we can reasonably manage this season; a five-day workweek means we’ll need only one full-time crew instead of two. So please plan your travels accordingly, and reserve a table to come see us for dinner Thursday through Monday.
Butter dipped radishes.Photo by Morgan Reedy
We’ve got you covered
If you’ve spent much time in Boulder, you likely know how fickle our weather is—and it’s growing less predictable each year. To account for this and to better prepare, we’ve budgeted to install ceiling-mounted electric heaters and vinyl roll-down walls on the patio so that even during inclement weather, outdoor diners and workers will be cozy and comfortable. It’s a big expenditure, and we feel it’s a worthwhile investment for our guests and our Hellions.
Last summer on the patio.Photo by Morgan Reedy
Tock to me
One of the changes we’ll be introducing very soon, in an effort to save on labor and the hidden costs of “no shows” and last-minute cancellations, is shifting to an online reservation system. Using an online reservation system is a giant step into current restaurant practices, and in our case, it’s essential, because we simply don’t have enough staff to handle the reservations ourselves anymore. So we’ll be taking reservations exclusively through Tock, a system we like that was designed by a restaurant group in Chicago and is used and loved by many of our restaurant peers. We’re always happy to talk to you about your table if you have special questions, but we’ll route all reservations through the Tock site. There will still be a small percentage of tables available for walk-ins for those who stumble upon us or are unsure of their plans.As part of this new system, we’ll also be joining many restaurants in charging a per-person deposit to reserve a seat. We came to this decision because (like many restaurants), we really do get a lot of no-shows, and we just can’t afford them. Many people aren’t aware that no-shows, last-minute cancelations, and reduced party sizes are extremely costly to restaurants. When we have a reservation on the books, we hold that table and have to turn away other potential guests during that time. And since we don’t exactly get the foot traffic of city establishments, losing the business is especially hard on us.The new deposit system is very simple: when you reserve your table, you’ll be asked to pre-pay $25 per diner (so a table of four would put down a $100 deposit.) After dining, the deposit you paid is deducted from your final bill. Keep an eye on your email inbox for a follow-up blast announcing the opening of reservations.
Lemony Cluck in the works.Photo by Morgan Reedy
Hello, Dream Team!
One of our biggest announcements (drum roll, please) is that we are thrilled to have hired an executive chef who will be collaborating in the kitchen with us and helping to lead and mentor our team! She’s a James-Beard recognized talent whose work we’ve followed and respected for some years, and whose food style and principles align perfectly with ours. And she’s bringing along her wonderful sous chef, too! We (Blake and Jen) will remain chefs de cuisine, and we are incredibly excited (and relieved) to share the kitchen with these two extraordinary women and continue our pursuit of excellence. Stay tuned—we’ll announce their names very soon!Calling all AngelsWe’re definitely still looking to hire a handful of highly skilled, caring servers. If you have (or know someone who has) experience in fine dining as well as passion for and dedication to the art and craft of service—and interest in moving to a spectacularly beautiful, tiny, remote town in Utah, please click here! We have housing, too!
Our farm manager Kate! Photo by Morgan Reedy
For She’s a Jolly Good Fallow
Based on best farming practices, we’ve determined that it’s time to give our annual crop fields some love, so this year we will be planting them in cover crop and doing a lot of mulching, soil building, weed mitigation, beautification, and important building projects, as well as tending to long-deferred maintenance of our aging irrigation system. We’re excited to have contracted with some of our favorite local farmers here in Boulder to grow produce for the restaurant for the upcoming season, while our farm takes a well-deserved rest. And, of course, we will still be harvesting and serving you all our own perennial delights, such as asparagus, rhubarb, strawberries, elderberries, fresh herbs (like sage, thyme, rosemary, marjoram, and lavender), blackberries, edible flowers, garlic, parsnips, fresh eggs, currants, table flowers, and whatever abundance our approximately 100 heirloom fruit trees bear this year.
Asparagus! One of the first perennials from our farm. Photo by Morgan Reedy
Outstanding News
We’re ecstatic to share that we’ve been named Semi-Finalists in the “Outstanding Restaurant” in the USA category of the James Beard Awards, for the second year in a row! It was an incredible honor last year to be one of twenty restaurants recognized in such a significant way. And to be included on the list for two consecutive years is jaw-dropping. We’re also delighted to see many of our peers, acquaintances, friends, and people we admire on various James Beard semi-finalists lists this year. The truth is, it’s probably never been harder than now to operate a restaurant, so we bow deeply to the indomitable spirit of the industry people who are still showing up, committed to excellence. And when we consider that a few months ago, we were fairly sure we wouldn’t be able to reopen in 2023, we feel even more grateful to all of you who lifted us up and gave us the chance to receive and really celebrate this honor. The Foundation will announce who advances to the next level of “nominee” on March 29th.
Chive blossoms in spring. Photo by Morgan Reedy
We made you a mix tape!
Come dance with us! As a special thanks to everyone who enjoys our restaurant music, we’re sharing with all of you newsletter subscribers a special gratitude- and-love-saturated playlist Blake has put together for the new season. We’ll make it public on the 21st on Spotify, and you’ll be able to find it by searching Spotify for “Blake Spalding.” Called “Hang on Sloopy, Hang on Helles,” it’s dedicated to everyone who has supported us over the years, and especially in these last few critical months. It was inspired by the outpouring of love from all of you. You saved us! You can listen and turn it up loud and dance and celebrate with us that we get to have another year of doing what we love with all of you!  We really can’t say it enough: thank you again for your love and encouragement. We’re happy to report that we have renewed confidence and restored faith in the worthiness of our project, and we hope to see you this Season 24, in our magical little high-desert town. 
Blake and Jen and the Hellions

ps. A special thanks to Torrey House Press, Kirsten Johanna Allen, and our beautiful author friends who put together a literary fundraiser for us. If you weren’t able to attend but want to watch, you can click hereto see Terry Tempest Williams, Brooke Williams, Pam Houston, Amy Irvine, Craig Childs, and Regina Lopez Whiteskunk share stories about Hell’s Backbone Grill. 

I would like
By Jane Hirshfield

I would like my living to inhabit me
the way
rain, sun, and their wanting
inhabit a fig or apple.

I would like to meet it
also in pieces,
a conversation set down
on a long hallway table;
a disappointment
pocketed inside a jacket;
some long-ago longing glimpsed,
in the corner of a thrift store painting.

To discover my happiness,
walking first
then away from me
down a stairwell,
on two strong legs all its own.

the uncountable
wheat stalks,
how many times broken,
beaten, sent
between grindstones,
before entering
the marriage
of oven and bread—
Let me find my life in that, too.

In my moments
of clumsiness, solitude;
in days of vertigo and hesitation;
in the many year-ends
that found me
standing on top of a stovetop
to take down a track light.

In my nights’ asked,
sometimes answered, questions.

I would like
to add to my life,
while we are still living,
a little salt and butter,
one more slice of the edible apple,
a teaspoon of jam
from the long-simmered fig.

To taste
as if something tasted for the first time
what we will have become then.
A frozen waterfall from a winter walk on our glorious monument. Photo by Morgan Reedy
Hell’s Backbone Grill & Farm, No, 20 North Hwy 12, Boulder, United States

Hell’s Backbone Grill is committed to “organic, locally produced, regionally and seasonally appropriate cuisine, growing much of our produce on our six-acre farm. Our fruit largely comes from Boulder’s heirloom orchards and our meat comes from local ranchers. It’s not easy, but it’s worth the effort.” The restaurant has been awarded “Best Restaurant in Southern Utah” by Salt Lake magazines many times,was a James Beard Award semi-finalist in 2017 and 2018 and voted “Best Restaurant of the Rockies” by Elevation Outdoor Magazine. It’s been featured in many publications including Travel and Leisure, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, National Geographic Traveler, O: the Oprah Magazine, Sunset Magazine, Bon Appétit, Gourmet, Organic Gardening and Outside Traveler.

NPT Staff. National Parks Traveler. “Canadian Mining Company Looks To Grand Staircase-Escalante For Copper, Cobalt.” June 21, 2018. ”Utah traded the land for thousands of acres of valuable mineral lands elsewhere in the state as well as a sum of $50 million. It’s pure industrial greed at the expense of our community’s economic and cultural heritage… the Department of Interior is focused on exploitation of national public lands without regard to the fundamental underlying and unresolved questions concerning the legality of the Trump proclamation, which is now before the court.” Huffington Post has a good article on this, too.

Schulz, Kathryn. The New Yorker. “Food Fight.” October 1, 2018. An excellent article on why “the owners of an improbably successful restaurant at the gate of a vast wilderness are fighting to keep it unspoiled.”

Spalding, Blake & Castle, Jennifer. This Immeasurable Place: Food and Farming from the Edge of Wilderness. Canada: Blake Spalding, Jennifer Castle, Lavinia Spalding, 2017. Here’s the quote in the section about Blake: “What I stand for is what I stand on.” (Wendell Berry) And the one in the section about Jen. “Every pilgrimage to the desert is a pilgrimage to the self. There is no place to hide, and so we are found.” (Terry Tempest Williams) Buy the book for its recipes, philosophy and grace.

Spalding, Blake & Castle, Jennifer. With a Measure of Grace: The Story and Recipes of a Small Town Restaurant. Santa Fe: Provecho Press, 2004. In their first cookbook you’ll also find seasonal recipes and the backstories of these two incredible women coupled with evidence of their sincere commitment to operating with grace and backbone.

A YouTube from Desertet News. August 25, 2017, in which Blake talks about their position.

7 Responses

    1. Yes, these two will be boundless in trying to preserve the boundaries of Grand Staircase-Escalante championed by Bruce Babbitt, former Arizona Governor and US Secretary of the Interior, and set into law in 1996 by President Clinton.

    1. Yes, hopefully their restaurant will continue to do well. But as Kathryn Schulz writes in The New Yorker, “democratic norms can erode faster than riverbanks…What took two entrepreneurs twenty years to build could be gone in a faction of that time, together with things that nature twenty thousand centuries.”

  1. Kudos to Blake and Jen and all the committed souls who love our planet. We have visited many of the US National Monuments and cannot believe that the interests of private companies will be allowed to destroy these precious sites.

    1. Indeed. It takes a higher, finer energy to do what they do. Here’s what Jen & Blake quoted in the intro to their second cookbook: “Hold back the edges of your gowns, Ladies,/We are going through hell.” (William Carlos Williams)

  2. Kudos to Blake and Jen and all the committed souls who love our planet. We have visited many of the US National Monuments and cannot believe that the interests of private companies will be allowed to destroy these precious sites.

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