I have been eating locally for more than 50 years: fresh Dungeness crab and lutefisk, meat pies, cheap burgers, salal berries, salmon, and homemade Scottish shortbread that would make Proust forget his little tea cakes.
Growing up, I lived in south Seattle’s Rainier Valley, aka Garlic Gulch, where our Italian neighbors had truck gardens of tomatoes and greens, and Rainier Avenue sprouted Italian bakeries and produce stands. In addition to supermarkets, we had independent butchers and grocers that supplied fresh food within walking distance of the house. My mother, who disdained the 1950s miracle of Wonder Bread, brought home fresh-baked loaves from Brenner Brothers Bakery in the Central Area. We frequently ate cracked crab, with bowls set on the floor at each corner of the dining room table so we could discard the shells as Henry VIII might have tossed away a mutton joint.
During summer retreats in the San Juans, we were often fed by Mrs. Willis’ garden on Shaw Island: fresh corn and carrots, snap peas and beans, all protected by a tall fence to keep out the deer. We also picked berries for Mom’s jam and pie experiments, mostly from blackberry vines that grew tall enough to swallow an entire old barn in a basket of thorns. When we tired of blackberries, my mother shifted to plentiful salal berries, a staple of the local coast Salish tribes. It made an earthy, seedy spread that tasted of the forest.
We knew what the Indians ate because we dug into middens, ancient native trash heaps layered with centuries’ accumulations of shells and fish bones. We tried the beachcomber’s bounty, too: I still remember the time a family friend pried an oyster off a rock and slurped it down raw and whole. I gagged at the thought, but soon tried it myself, and survived. As the old Northwest saying goes, “When the tide is out, the table is set.”
Indoors, we ate with some ethnic flair. My grandmother kept a kitchen that reflected her Scottish ancestry and my grandfather’s Norwegian roots. Every Christmas Eve, we had fresh shortbread and lutefisk, one unmatched for buttery goodness and the other a lye-soaked fishy mass that stood between us and our Christmas gifts.
Not all our best food was homemade. I relished Tuesdays at grade school because I loved the lunchroom hamburgers served by two cooks named Edna. We also craved goodies from Frederick & Nelson’s department store, most notably the small chicken pot pies that came in their own green ceramic bowls. Dessert could be Frango mint chocolates, best when frozen and allowed to melt in your mouth.
When the Seattle World’s Fair came in 1962, our culinary horizons were broadened. Seattle had some ethnic eateries — certainly we all ate Chinese and Italian — but the fair featured foods from around the world. In the Food Circus (now Center House), we tried frog legs that were veiny and, yes, tasted like chicken. The most notable food innovation at the fair wasn’t something to eat, but the idea of a rotating dining room high atop a “space needle.” The ride was more memorable than the food.
As I entered adulthood, Seattle was becoming a real food city, an envy of the nation. The Pike Place Market was saved, ethnic restaurants of all varieties proliferated, others featuring nouvelle cuisine that turned thing like ferns (they’re edible?) and salmon eggs (isn’t that fish bait?) into high-class delicacies. By the 1970s and ’80s, Seattle wine aficionados no longer had to travel to San Francisco to fill their cellars, and beer buffs could finally get real Northwest ales at proliferating pubs. Even the variety of junk food improved, as the availability of Top Pot doughnuts and vegan muffins attests. Today, people are trying to eat more sustainably. As I chewed a delicious piece of fresh sturgeon at Serafina recently, I thought: Thank goodness I don’t have to go on the 100-mile diet in Phoenix or Vegas. In Seattle, I might just get by.
This article first appeared in the April issue of 'Seattle' magazine.
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