Montana Table: Butte's Culinary History

In “Remembrance of Things Past” author Marcel Proust famously wrote of one extraordinary madeleine cookie that, when dipped in tea, was capable of transporting the author to memories of his youth.

Neuroscientists have long contended that our sense of smell and taste are closely tied to emotion and memory. So perhaps there’s no better place to explore the connection between memory and food than in a place like Butte, where nostalgia seems to be part of the DNA.


Butte’s copper mines once drew immigrants from all over the world, creating a multicultural metropolis that at its height boasted a population of 100,000. Many of Butte’s immigrants brought their culinary traditions with them, and they would later transform their food into something new, resulting in the chop suey and pork chop sandwiches that can still be enjoyed in Butte today.


Butte’s food traditions are expansive, and to cover all of its eateries and delicacies would require the pages of an entire book. Nonetheless, what’s certain is that Butte’s food offers visitors a glimpse into the cultural backdrop that made Butte the so-called “Richest Hill on Earth.”

A Cookbook for the Ages

A conversation about Butte’s culinary traditions wouldn’t be complete without a discussion of the “Butte Heritage Cookbook.”


Originally published in 1967 and conceived by the Silver Bow Bicentennial Commission to benefit the Butte Silver Bow Arts Foundation, the book contains around 290 pages of stories, drawings, photographs, cultural descriptions, and recipes, which range from baklava to sweet and sour chicken, all in honor of Butte’s many ethnic food traditions.


For the volunteers who collected the recipes, the cookbook was a labor of love, including for its editor Jean McGrath.


McGrath passed away in 2019 at age 98.


According to her children Mike McGrath and Kathleen Vasquez, their mother loved Butte for its rich history. That’s why she and other volunteers didn’t just want to make a community cookbook – they wanted to make something that would endure, something that was part-recipe book, part-ethnography.


“I think she loved meeting all those people and getting to know their history, their families, and the richness of their culture,” said Vasquez.


As for Mike McGrath, who’s also the chief justice of the Montana Supreme Court, he says the idea to make the Butte Heritage Cookbook more than just a collection of community recipes partly arose from the home kitchens of Butte. There, Mining City residents demonstrated their recipes for the cookbook’s volunteers, often telling family stories as they chopped, stirred, kneaded and rolled.


“(My mother) ended up spending long afternoons, whole days with people making povitica,” McGrath said.



A sweet bread of Eastern European origins, povitica is a thinly layered nut roll filled with chopped walnuts, honey, spices and other ingredients. Recipes for it in the Butte Heritage Cookbook call for around 10 cups of flour, which are used to create a yeasted dough that’s stretched out to about the size of a dinner table before being rolled into a coil.


Another favorite recipe in the McGrath family is the cookbook’s recipe for spaghetti gravy, a meaty tomato-based sauce that features traditional savory spices alongside nutmeg, allspice, cloves and cinnamon. The ingredients simmer uncovered for three hours to produce a reduced, flavorful sauce—hence, “gravy.”

The cookbook’s recipe for sweet potato salad, which calls for mashed sweet potatoes, celery, hardboiled eggs, green onions, Durkee’s, and mayonnaise, is another traditional Butte dish made in home kitchen and cafes alike.


Featured in the book’s “Eating Out in Butte” chapter, the sweet potato salad recipe hails from Sylvain’s Casino, a popular supper club that once operated on the south end of Harrison Avenue. Lydia Micheletti of Lydia’s Supper Club fame purchased the property in the 1940s, opening her own restaurant in its place. The restaurant eventually moved to its current location at 4915 Harrison Ave., where visitors can still dine on traditional Butte super-club fare, including the traditional sweet potato salad.


McGrath and Vasquez say their mother loved Butte for its rich history. That’s why she and other volunteers didn’t just want to make a community cookbook – they wanted to make something that would endure, something that was part-recipe book, part-ethnography.


“I think she loved meeting all those people and getting to know their history, their families, and the richness of their culture,” said Vasquez.


Many of the book’s recipes are vague, and some ingredients are either no longer available or have fallen out of favor. But Vasquez says that her mother resisted updating the cookbook. To her it was a historical document, and its vaguely written recipes represented how people cooked in their homes: by memory, intuition, experience and touch, all topped off with a dash and a pinch.


—Annie Pentilla


Sales of the Butte Heritage Cookbook have supported the Butte Silver Bow Arts Foundation since 1976. To obtain a copy, visit BSBArts.org or email butte.mt.arts@gmail.com.