Over the rivers and mountain passes, and through the woods to West Yellowstone to Mountain Mama’s Coffeehouse and Bakery Alpine Cuisine we go. The car almost seems to know the way through the drifted snow to the town at the west entrance of Yellowstone Park. Here, where subzero temperatures are commonplace, owner Kim Howell warms appetites and thirsts with baked goods, sandwiches, sweets and hot drinks.
West Yellowstone’s Rendezvous Trails system offers some of the nation’s best groomed cross-country skiing, and Mountain Mama’s supplies the needed fuel for my favorite activity. Located in a massive volcanic caldera, the area is a polar vortex for snow and has always been a popular destination for skiers and a staging area for snowmobilers. Heading into Yellowstone Park is a must since the plumes of steam from the geysers and geothermal pools amplify, showcasing Mother Nature’s works more spectacularly than at any other time of the year.
“This is mama’s kitchen,” Howell says with proud abandon. “I want to bring visitors local flavors.” Of the turnovers, pies, breads, pasties and lasagnas she creates she shares, “Honestly, I grew up on a farm in Minnesota. These are the things my mom cooked. We cooked a lot of venison, moose and bear. Here, I have incorporated local ingredients found in Montana.” Her farm offerings include pickles and sauces such as Granny’s Hot Sweet Pickles, Pickled Carrot Sticks and Barbecue sauce.
When Howell opened in 2017, “I originally wanted a place for people to hang out.” In the 600-square-foot space, she had tables and couches for comfortable gathering, but then the COVID pandemic hit.
Now bistro tables are appropriately socially distanced in the rustic wood wainscot room. A long live-edge wood bar with a few stools flanks the side wall where antique wooden skis and a moose placard hang.
A front counter table holds trays and pedestals arranged with baked goods such as blackberry rosemary turnovers, cinnamon rolls, bagels and banana muffins identified with handwritten labels. To accompany the sweets, there’s espressos, cappuccinos and lattes that can be adulterated with huckleberry, chocolate sauce, matcha green tea powder, caramel syrup and many more flavors.
Howell’s mother owned a small cafe in Middle River, Minnesota, named The Chuck Wagon Cafe. She shares, “It was a burgers and shrimp place. We made homemade pies and cookies. When she made homemade doughnuts on Sundays, people would drive from 100 miles away to buy them.” On Sunday evenings the cafe offered “full dinners with roast beef and potatoes.” Her mother made an obvious impression on the youngest of five children. At Mountain Mama’s, “I’m just trying to carry on her love of food, sharing my mother’s food and Montana on the plate.”
“I married a local boy who was very handsome,” Howell says of her husband Jason. Her cooking is influenced by the food he harvests for the family. Prepared pheasant, bison and trout pies can be taken home and baked. Howells uses “natural herbs and fruit. I use sprigs of rosemary and sage to pull out the gamey flavors in wild meat.” She also offers pasties, the staple food of miners, and says, “People who come to Yellowstone need to know what a Montana pasty is. It is an important part of the area’s heritage.” The handheld meat and vegetable pies provided high energy sustenance for mine workers, and now offer a convenient carryout item for skiers and snowmobilers.
General Manager Susan Strehle keeps all the balls in the air. “She’s my anchor!” Howell admits, “Once you find a person who can support you, everything opens up in life. When you have that person who gives you strength, you can do anything.”
Back at our rented condo, I cup the warmth of a huckleberry latte between my palms, sipping liquid candy. I bite into a crispy Mountain Man Breakfast Burrito, packed with flavorful elk, wild boar, antelope and bison breakfast sausage, along with potatoes, onion, multi-colored peppers and scrambled eggs. A lavender chocolate turnover finishes the feast. Fortunately, I am heading to the ski trails.
For now, in the snow and cold, Kim Howell and Susan Strehle will continue to warm our souls with mama’s home cooking.
Stella Fong, author of 'Historic Restaurants of Billings and Billings Food' hosts 'Flavors Under the Big Sky: Celebrating the Bounty of the Region' for Yellowstone Public Radio.
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