When Pat Patterson was working as a brakeman on the railroads in Eastern Montana, he always had a goal: find the tastiest food in the 120 miles of Big Sky Country spanning his usual run from Glendive to Forsyth.
His daughter, Cathy Malarchick, remembers growing up in Eastern Montana with the railroad as a major part of family life, along with the idea that food anywhere can be good.
It was an interesting combination of ideas, stemming from Pat’s desire to have the best meal he could find.
“He was a real food lover,” Malarchick said in an interview last week. “He loved to eat. He was always coming up with his own special concoctions.”
When the food itself couldn’t be helped, Pat knew it was a mere opportunity for seasonings to do their trick, to turn a bland meal into something exciting. That’s when he started experimenting with a restored wooden coffee grinder to crush and test his own seasonings, but specifically pepper.
These are the Montana roots of the new Gandy Dancer Gourmet Pepper business, which Malarchick started about a year ago in Kalispell. The term “gandy dancer” is early 1900s slang for the hardworking men responsible for building and repairing railroad tracks around the country.
It’s a term of endearment, Malarchick said, paying homage to the tough railroaders who blazed the steel trails and brought more industry to the West.
Pat’s pepper was a family tradition that stayed largely on the backburner for decades, while Malarchick and her sisters and brother built their own adult lives.
“We gifted the pepper for a long time,” she said.
It was always Pat’s dream to see his savory mixtures transform into a family business, and about a year ago, after retiring from 32 years working for School District 5 and after managing a bookstore in Kalispell for a while, Malarchick decided to make Gandy Dancer pepper a reality.
She got to work hand-grinding what would become the staple flavor, Roundhouse Blend, and its much-fierier companion, HotShot Blend. A roundhouse is a generally circular building that railroads use to store and service locomotives, while the “hot shot” is named for non-stop train passenger service.
The Roundhouse Blend takes a colorful combination of whole peppercorns and grinds them coarsely with dried vegetables, making it a seasoning for everyday cooking as well as a garnish.
HotShot came from her brother’s recipe, Malarchick said, and it is “extremely hot.” Using the Roundhouse Blend as a base, she then grinds in a smattering of some of the world’s hottest peppers, including habanero, chipotle morita, chile de arbol, jalapeno, Thai, smoked serrano, Bhut jolokia (also known as the Ghost Pepper), and red chile.
It’s very hot, and Malarchick advised those trying HotShot to start small and work their way up.
Both peppers are free of salt, sugar, and GMOs, and though she can’t certify them organic because the peppercorns come from overseas, they’re close.
Once she developed the recipes, Malarchick found space at Miller’s Bakery in Evergreen, where she has access to larger grinders that allow her to whip up 150 bottles (2.5 ounces each) per batch.
And though Gandy Dancer is only about a year old, it’s caught speed like a runaway train, sitting on shelves in more than 40 retailers across Montana.
Locally, the peppers can be purchased in Kalispell at Brix Bottleshop, Glacier Park International Airport Gift Shop, Soucie Soucie Salon and Spa, and Whitefish Stage Organic Farm; in Whitefish at Genesis Kitchen, Alpine Market, and Whitefish Gift and Gear; in Columbia Falls at O’Brien’s Liquor and Wine; in Bigfork at Roma’s Gourmet Kitchen Store and Harvest Foods; in Somers at the Somers Bay Café; in Lakeside at Blacktail Grocery; and at the Huckleberry Patch in Hungry Horse.
Of course, the peppers are also available at the Izaak Walton Inn in Essex, which is already alive with railroad history.
All told, Malarchick estimates that she’s made about 1,800 bottles of pepper, and is still the only person working in the company. She doesn’t have immediate plans to hire help; her family has already come through, especially her husband, Ken Siderius.
Keeping up with making single batches has her busy for now, but Malarchick is thinking of adding a couple new seasonings to the mix, including a spice rub.
“I’ve also had several people suggest a Bloody Mary mix,” she said.
While she tinkers with new flavors, her father’s dream of turning the peppers into a business flourishes. Pat passed away about five years ago, but Malarchick said his passion to find the perfect meal lives on with every bottle.
“I think there’s a lot of possibilities,” Malarchick said.
For more information, visit www.gandydancerpepper.com.