How the Basques Found a Home in Nevada

Elko, Nevada's culture and culinary scene bear the clear mark of the European ethnic group.

By Allison Williams February 26, 2020 Published in the March 2020 issue of Seattle Met

Image: Jordan Kay

Elko’s entertainments tend toward the flashy; “Loose Slots” read the casinos on one side of town, while “Inez’s Dancing and Diddling” anchors the legal brothels on the other. But don’t be surprised when locals casually recommend the town’s deep bench of international cuisine, specifically their Basque offerings.

The Basque came to Nevada as sheepherding experts in the nineteenth century, importing an ancient culture that straddles modern- day France and Spain but bafflingly has linguistic links to neither. The broad plains of the Great Basin were a perfect theater for their skills, and lonely herders would carve arborglyphs into the aspen trees of the Sierra Nevada: delicate patterns, figurines, and words in their Euskara language.

Back in Elko, they made their mark on the limited culinary scene, introducing an Americanized version of the traditional family style feast. The Star Hotel, owned by Basque families for more than a century, stacks battered cod, fried potatoes, and homemade cabbage soup into a single meal. The sweet Picon Punch, featuring a French aperitif, quickly intoxicates. The nearby Ogi Deli offers smaller pintxos, or tapas, served with Basque cider and a traditional card game called Mus every Friday.

Though Basque culture took root in Nevada because emigrants banded together in a rapidly evolving new country, today it remains well entrenched in mainstream Elko. Every summer a festival toasts their unique dance and sport (competitive wood chopping!); the Star fills almost every seat during the lunchtime rush. Like the arborglyphs that adorn an aspen’s bark without harming the tree, so did the Basque gently imprint themselves on Nevada.

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