What is Montana’s Dish?

Turns out a simple question has a complicated answer

When I tell most people that I’m originally from Maine, they usually respond with something like, “Oh, Maine! You have lobster!”

I hear it so often that you would think the Pine Tree State was literally crawling with crustaceans; that we were boiling up lobster three times a day for breakfast, lunch and dinner; that I grew up opening a lunch pail at school to find a lobster roll — that incredible mix of mayonnaise and lobster meat stuffed in a hot dog roll (always a hot dog roll).

But the truth is, most Mainers don’t eat that much lobster. It’s more of a summertime treat than a regular staple. In fact, many Mainers are more likely to regularly indulge in a weekly bean supper (baked beans and hot dogs) or cretons (a French Canadian pork spread that my wife still refuses to try).

That said, most Mainers would still say that the lobster roll is their state’s official dish: the one food item that is forever tied to our home state in the mind of natives and visitors alike. I would argue that most states have those dishes, a meal that is linked to a specific place.

As the Beacon prepared for its annual food issue, I polled our geographically diverse newsroom to find out what my co-workers’ home state dishes were. Staff writer Andy Viano, a native of Chicago, voted for the Italian beef sandwich (apparently only tourists eat the hot dogs there). The Beacon’s newest member, staff writer Maggie Dresser, hails from New York and struggled to pick between that state’s two most iconic food staples, the bagel or pizza, so we split the difference and went with pizza bagels (when pizza’s on a bagel, you can eat pizza anytime!). Editor-in-chief Kellyn Brown, a proud son of Washington State said, “probably a scone or something from Starbucks” (thanks for putting a lot of thought into this assignment, boss). Photographer Hunter D’Antuono was raised in the Bitterroot, but his birth certificate was issued by the State of Maryland, home to crabs covered in Old Bay seasoning (if crabs were as good as lobster, they probably wouldn’t need the seasoning). Senior writer Tristan Scott was actually out reporting the news when this informal poll was taken, so the newsroom put our heads together and figured that if his home state of Minnesota was known for anything it was hot dish (at least that’s the impression we’ve gotten from Amy Klobuchar’s presidential campaign).

But when it came time to figure out Montana’s dish, we ran into a problem. Unfortunately, the newsroom’s only native Montanan, managing editor Myers Reece, wasn’t particularly helpful when asked for his opinion (“probably a cheeseburger”).

Unsatisfied with Myers’ answer, I went to the experts: social media and local chefs. In an effort to make people really think, I also added a caveat: you couldn’t just say huckleberries or a slab of meat because, while those are iconic foods, those aren’t dishes; they’re ingredients. That being said, if you wanted to combine the two, say, a nice piece of local pork with a huckleberry glaze, that would be considered a dish worthy of being Montana’s own.

A slice of huckleberry pie from the Huckleberry Patch in Hungry Horse. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Within minutes of proposing this question, my Twitter feed became an elaborate menu of Montana’s finest food offerings. Among the most popular suggestions were the previously mentioned pork and huckleberry glaze and, of course, huckleberry pie. Other people voted for beer (while filling, I don’t know if we can call that a dish), chicken fried steak (getting warmer) and Taco Treat combination No. 1 consisting of a corn taco, cheese fries and a drink (that person was from Great Falls, home to not one or two but three Taco Treats, if you count the Amigo Lounge, and trust me, I do).

One of my favorites came from a Twitter user on the other side of the mountains who said that everyone’s suggestions were too Western Montana centric and voted for cinnamon rolls and chili. I initially thought I was being trolled, but after some research I learned that it is indeed something people eat and, honestly, I want to try it.

Other suggestions included jojo potato wedges, prime rib, Lit’l Smokies in barbecue sauce, fry bread, ranch dressing (not a dish), French fries with ranch (almost a dish), and anything from a Town Pump hot case.

But the two dishes that reigned supreme in the online poll were pasties and the pork chop sandwich, two dishes with strong connections to Butte. The pasty, a seasoned meat pie that hails from the Europe, came to Butte in the 1800s and was popular with underground miners looking for a filling yet portable meal. Equally as portable is the pork chop sandwich, consisting of a lean piece of pork loin that is lightly breaded and battered before being fried and served on a bun much like you’d prepare a burger.

The local chefs the Beacon surveyed were just as diverse in their opinions, although they all initially struggled to come up with an answer.

Tim Good, the head chef at Last Chair Kitchen & Bar, said huckleberry pie was the most logical answer, especially in the Flathead Valley.

Melissa Mangold at Latitude 48 said it was hard to settle on just one dish because Montana is a big place with many different cultural influences. In the end, she settled on the pasty.

Tien Pham Windauer initially said sweet and sour chicken because he sells a lot of it at his restaurant in Columbia Falls, Tien’s Place, before admitting that probably wasn’t representative of the entire state. He settled on lamb with a huckleberry glaze. “When you think of Montana, you think meat and potatoes,” he said.

Andy Blanton, executive chef and owner of Café Kandahar, also took awhile before settling on the bison burger, noting that it’s particularly popular with visitors. “When you go to Louisiana, you expect gumbo, and I think when people come to Montana, they want to try something like a bison burger,” he said.

It turns out, figuring out Montana’s dish is harder than you’d expect, and while there are worthy candidates (particularly the pasty and the pork chop sandwich), there isn’t one dish that immediately dominates the conversation, not like Maine’s lobster roll at least.

But that isn’t a bad thing. There’s a saying that Montana is just one big small town with really long streets, but that analogy doesn’t work when it comes to the search for the state’s dish. In reality, it’s more like a small country or continent, full of foods and dishes from near and far that people have either created here or brought with them from somewhere else. In many ways, that’s better than just having a single dish. Why settle for one thing when you can try the whole menu?