The Sheepherder's Ball: Hidden Basque Kitchens In the last century, Basque people fleeing Francisco Franco's dictatorship flocked to America. "Hidden Kitchens" explores their world of outdoor, below-the-ground, Dutch oven cooking traditions.
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The Sheepherder's Ball: Hidden Basque Kitchens

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The Sheepherder's Ball: Hidden Basque Kitchens

The Sheepherder's Ball: Hidden Basque Kitchens

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Today, our Hidden Kitchen series takes us to the remote and rugged world of Basque Sheepherders in the American West. They cook outdoors in Dutch ovens buried below the ground. The Kitchen Sisters, producers Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva, call their story The Sheepherder's Ball.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JOHN ASCUAGA (Owner, Nugget Casino): I'm John Ascuaga, John Ascuaga's Nugget Casino in Sparks, Nevada. We've been there 48 years. I'm a Basque, if you know what the Basque people are, from the Pyrenees. My dad was a sheepherder when he first came over, about 1900. There was a great number of Basque sheepherders in Idaho, in Nevada, California, Montana, New Mexico. In fact, on the ranch where I live, I still have 75 sheep. I just want to keep my heritage going. We have a Basque restaurant in the Nugget: Orozco. That's my dad's hometown in the Basque country.

Unidentified Woman: What about baking, that great Basque bread?

Mr. ASCUAGA: Sure, Dutch oven.

Unidentified Woman: Dutch oven.

Mr. ASCUAGA: Dutch oven. If you didn't know how to make bread being a sheepherder, I don't think you'd survive. Our government had a program to bring a lot of the sheepherders over from the Basque country. They were in dire need of sheepherders because nobody wanted to herd sheep in America. That's a lonely job.

Mr. FRANCISCO LASARTE (Basque Immigrant): My name is Francisco Lasarte.

Mr. JOAQUIN LASARTE (Basque Immigrant): My name is Joaquin Lasarte. Basque sheepherders.

(Soundbite of dog barking)

Mr. FRANCISCO LASARTE: You're lonely. You're by yourself, 2,000 sheep and two dogs. Three years you stay there, no vacation, no day off, no holidays. You stay 24 hours, close to the sheep.

We make $7 a day. They pay you only once a year. You cook outside, mostly, under the ground. You make fire. You have a Dutch oven. You can cook bread. Ninety-percent time, it's lamb.

Unidentified Man: (Singing in foreign language)

Mr. MARK KURLANSKY (Author, "The Basque History of the World"): You say Basque to a Westerner, and they think shepherd. But in Basque country, very few people were shepherds. I'm Mark Kurlansky. I wrote a book called "The Basque History of the World." Basques would go out in Western America and, for the first time in their life, have this huge flock of sheep over a huge expanse of land. Nobody has huge expanses of land in European Basque country.

Mr. FRANCISCO LASARTE: In 1964, came to United States. I had a horrible life in Spain at that time because Franco. You cannot go anywhere. You cannot say anything. The only way you can come to United States, working sheepherders. Hundreds of people like that in that time in the Franco power.

Ms. LINDA ELIZALDE McCOY: They had to have a sponsor that would get them over here. They were told: Go to Noriega Hotel in Bakersfield. My name is Linda Elizalde McCoy. The guys would come in off the train from Ellis Island, make their way to the West Coast, and my grandmother would see to it that they were fed, and then their boss would pick them up.

Ms. BERNADETTE HIRIGOYEN (Former Cook, Noriega Hotel): I'm Bernadette Hirigoyen, Noriega Hotel. I've been working here for 42 years. I have three brothers. They were sheepherders. And then I came to cook. Just guys, not women. I make stew and flan, blood sausage, paella, family style. A lot of Bascos.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WILLIAM DOUGLASS (Center for Basque Studies, University of Nevada, Reno): Basque sheepherders, who were seasonally laid off, would spend months in a Basque hotel. The hotels took the overall Basque cuisine, things that were festive food in the Basque country, and they made it standard fare: beef, chicken dishes, coffee. By the time the herders got down to town, he'd had all the lamb he wanted to eat for a while. William Douglass, the Center for Basque Studies, University of Nevada, Reno.

Unidentified Woman #2: You (unintelligible) your sheep, and you (unintelligible). The (unintelligible), I think it's in the alfalfa, because if you no take care of the alfalfa, a lot of sheep blow.

Unidentified Woman #1: What do you mean they blow?

Unidentified Woman #2: They blow. They eat and they eat, and they never stop, and the gas, they bloat up. You can do huge damages.

(Singing in foreign language)

Mr. DOUGLASS: It was very hard. Eighteen-year-old kid who's been ripped up out of his community in Europe, and all of a sudden, he's in a foreign land with a foreign language, and he's up on top of a mountain with a bunch of sheep. Amongst Basque, there's a whole vocabulary of madness, the sheepherder who goes over the edge, who becomes sagebrushed or sheeped.

(Soundbite of war cry)

Unidentified Woman #1: It's called the irinsi(ph). It's kind of a war whoop. You know, these people didn't have cell phones, and they would call from one area to another to get someone's attention.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. ESPE ALEGRIA: You are listening to "The Basque Hour," KBOI in Boise, Idaho, every Sunday at this hour.

Ms. ROSITA ARTIS: My name is Rosita Alegria Artis. My mother was Espe Alegria. She had a Basque radio program that went out to the sheepherders, the voice of the Basque. They listened in their sheep camps. They had little transistors.

She wished them happy birthday and gave them the soccer scores in Basque. During the Franco years, he did suppress the language. The only place you could use it was at home, in secret. She'd translate for them. If they had a problem with immigration, she did for them.

They never paid her, but occasionally they would give her a lamb. We would throw it on the kitchen table and cut it up and freeze it.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: The sheepherders, they organized barbecue and dance and everything. Big day for us.

Ms. ARTIS: I have a lot of pictures of mom dancing at the Basque Sheepherder's Ball. The men wore Levis, and the women wore house dresses. An accordion, a tambourine, and somebody would play the spoons, and they auctioned off a lamb. They had chorizos, Basque sausage. They had a sandwich, pork tenderloin and pimentos, hard-crust bread.

Unidentified Man: I still have some memories, some good ones and some bad ones. Maybe I can sing with those two guys, a sheepherder's song.

Unidentified Group: (Singing in foreign language)

SMITH: Hidden Kitchens is produced by The Kitchen Sisters and mixed by Jim McKee. You can find photographs of The Sheepherder's Ball, recipes for Basque bread and lamb and Hidden Kitchens podcasts at

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