When the Hellions Showed Up to Save Hells Backbone Grill & Farm
How love, community, and grace showed up to save "a sacred abundance in the middle of nowhere."
“For Sue - Please come visit us in Boulder,” reads the inscription inside my dogeared copy of With a Measure of Grace: The Story and Recipes of a Small Town Restaurant.
The invitation was signed by Blake Spalding, one of the founders of Hells Backbone Grill (in red pen with a giant heart around the B in Blake). Published in 2004, the book was a gift from my climbing-guide husband as atonement for spending the month of March exploring the canyons of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument while I was home shoveling snow in the Tetons with a toddler.
The only cookbook I’ve ever read cover-to-cover, With a Measure of Grace tells the improbable story of how a woman-owned Buddhist-based farm-to-table restaurant became what’s now a James Beard-nominated community-building public-land-saving gathering place in one of the most remote Mormon towns in Utah.
Blake and her business partner Jen Castle have always believed that “cooking is a moral and political act, capable of either contributing to or ameliorating environmental and health issues.” With audacity and grit, they have overcome endless existential threats, including hostile conservative neighbors, nutrient-deprived soil, and the equal chance of 105-degree temperatures and a snowstorm during their busiest days in June.
Looking back, I recognize that before I ever ate my first Flourless Chocolate-Chile Torte with Blake stopping by our table to hold my hand and chat, the cookbook was a catalyst for me to believe that food and pleasure and the family table could be a fierce force for change. Eight months after reading it, I started the non-profit Slow Food in the Tetons in Jackson Hole to grow our local and regional sustainable food economy by supporting producers, educating consumers, and connecting them together in the spirit of good, clean, and fair food.
The gravest threat to the Hells Backbone Grill came in 2017 when Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was reduced by executive order to half its size by the Trump administration. Committed to doing everything in their power to save the monument, Hells Backbone Grill became the place where allies gathered to strategize. Eventually, Garett Rose, an attorney with the international law firm Covington & Burling, was lured to Boulder through a deep network of Blake and Jen’s hell-raising friends.
The New Yorker feature story, Why Two Chefs in Small-Town Utah Are Battling President Trump outlines how, after a few days inspired by Blake and Jen and some delicious meals, Rose devised a brilliant plan to challenge (pro-bono) the legality of Trump's abuse of authority. Eventually joining a coalition of conservation and tribal groups, a suit was filed against Ryan Zinke and President Trump for violating the U.S. Constitution and the 1906 Antiquities Act. In 2021, President Biden restored environmental protections to Grand-Staircase-Escalante, Bears Ears, and their vast expanse of vital ecosystems and sacred Indigenous spaces.
In addition to working to protect the surrounding public lands, Jen and Blake are lifelong feminists and environmental activists. This past July 4th, they hosted a protest rally with employees and locals for reproductive rights and, through their consistent advocacy, call attention to food justice issues and the climate crisis.
In a heart-wrenching newsletter this past fall, the duo broke the news that the challenges they faced, like many other post-pandemic restaurants, were simply insurmountable. “We are exploring options,” they wrote. In response, a network of supporters reached out with the message: “Please don’t make this decision without us. Give us a chance to help.”
So on November 29, the Save Hells Backbone Grill and Farm GoFund Me campaign was launched. On Dec. 29, a Literary Fundraiser organized by Torrey House Press was held over zoom. At one point, over 600 fans tuned in to listen to a handful of the Utah desert’s most prolific storytellers who considered themselves fellow “hellions” share stories inspired by people and place.
Craig Childs set the stage by recounting how easy it was to drift apart during and after the pandemic and how thankful he was to have a gathering place. He recounted the joys of his family’s tradition of gathering every holiday season for a night of cooking recipes out of the Hells Backbone Cookbooks. Looking outside his window in rural Colorado, he compared the restaurant to the single shining light he could see in the distance in the dark landscape.
Pam Houston recounted the sadness that consumed her after suffering from long covid and her desperation to escape the isolation of her rural Colorado ranch surrounded by neighbors shooting guns to pass the time. She and her husband rented a house in Escalante for her first outing. When she called Blake from Hanksville to tell her she was coming, Houston said her heart finally began to warm as Blake promised she’d be waiting for her with “lemony chicken pasta.”
Amy Irvine, shared stories about herself, Blake, and Jen learning for the first time as young women to recognize the land as naive and of her coming of age through environmental advocacy under Blake and Jen’s example of appreciating people who thought differently. She described Hells Backbone Grill as a “sacred abundance in the middle of nowhere” that “made the desert blossom like a rose.”
Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, a member of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe of Towaoc who connected with Blake and Jen through her advocacy for Bears Ears, sang a wistful song in her native tongue, then spoke to the importance of the female voice and the power of stories to connect us with love and Mother Earth. To her, the restaurant represented the potential for change when gathering with women at the center.
Finally, Terry Tempest Williams and Brook Williams, who were instrumental in opening the restaurant (Brook bragged he even held up some beams during construction), spoke to the importance of proving that economic development through ecotourism is compatible with these wild lands that were once only valued for extraction. In pointing out their gracious imagination, creative livelihood, and save-the-world attitude, Williams said, “Blake and Jen are the people I want to become.”
The zoom screen focused on Blake for her final words.
“I’m undone,” Blake said, choking up. But she held it together to thank her friends for their tenderness and speak to her awe of the support from so many far away.
“I’d be bawling right now,” I said to my girlfriend, who was watching next to me.
“It’s been seven years since the monument was under attack,” Blake sighed.
Staring into her sparkling 58-year-old eyes, I thought, “Oh my, she must be tired.”
Managing her supporter’s expectations beyond short-term survival, Blake closed the event by saying: “Thanks to you, we will open our doors on March 17; after that, who knows ...”
I would expect nothing less from such a devout Buddhist than to embrace impermanence with open arms.
The ripple effect of the light these hellions have shone on so many in these dark times full of anger, hate, and division, cannot be underestimated. Please join in the effort.
You can help by donating and sharing the GoFundMe campaign or purchasing a cookbook or other unique gift from their store. If you are an experienced restaurant worker, applying for a job is the greatest gift!
The fundraiser will be open until February 21st, which is Losar, the Tibetan New Year.
The Literary Fundraiser is now available on YouTube
Really great, Sue. Thanks for sharing that. I didn't know they were in trouble. We need them.