Oh, the things you can eat!

A local food connoisseur revels in the plates, places and pepperoncinis of new Seattle's bountiful fare.
Grand Central Bakery and Cafe in Seattle

Grand Central Bakery and Cafe in Seattle Photo: Bruce Chapman

Raw, vegan, gluten-free, paleo. In Seattle, where elimination diets abound, I'm a convinced and happy omnivore. I gladly eat fresh melons from Mexico (it helps the Mexican economy and consoles me on a rainy day) and I also shop at the farmer's market for anything local they have on offer — maybe somebody's artisanal chèvre cheese or heritage tomatoes.

Our food supply is arguably the most complicated, wholesome and imaginative of any in history. Ancient Roman aristocrats dining on hummingbird wings did not have the choices we do, and eating hummingbirds sounds disgusting anyhow.

I begin most days reading the papers over a croissant and latte at the Grand Central Bakery and Cafe in Seattle's Eastlake neighborhood. I remember when the bakery was started in Pioneer Square's Grand Central Building by Gwen Bassetti in 1972 and how it helped both to sate a market for serious, European styles of bread — and expand it. Food followed. Grand Central is now a small chain, with three bakeries in Seattle and seven in Portland (where rents are lower). The menu is superb, but requires a 21st Century/international vocabulary to interpret.

Soups on a recent day, for example, were Pozole and Ribollita. I got a take-out order of the Pozole, a chicken and tangy vegetable concoction. It went well with some seeded flatbread and a Turkish simit roll. 'Til then I had never seen, let alone eaten, a simit, even in Istanbul. (Crunchy crust with sesame, chewy center.)

Until the 60s, when I spent some time in the Northeast, I also probably didn't know what a grinder was, let alone one with "spicy coppa and mortadella, provolone and pepperoncinis and arugula on a semi-baguette."

I would have grasped the idea of Oregon shrimp, of course, but on a brioche? Back in the day, what was a chop chop salad? What is that odd sign assuring the customer that the animals one is about to eat were dispatched in "an ethical manner"? And where are the Seattle peasants that make peasant bread?

bread

Grand Central Cafe and Bakery expanded the market for European styles of bread. Photo: Grand Central Bakery

Even in my middle years, coffee came black or with cream and sugar. That was before the espresso trend began in the late 70s — moving over the centuries from Turkey and Vienna and Italy to beatnik havens in New York and Cambridge, before making the leap to Seattle and mass cultural embrace.

Coffee beans (as opposed to ground Maxwell House coffee in vacuum cans) were finding outlets in other cities, but it was here that Starbucks, at their Pike Place Market storefront, starting offering customers tastes of the final product. The brew — in assorted forms — turned out to be more in demand than the beans. Seattle’s espresso cultural tide then washed back over the rest of the world.

Was it only in the 90s that chai was added to the already staggeringly-long drink list? Was there really a time before smoothies and questionable health drinks featuring coconut milk or greens?

A younger me set before such perplexing choices would have had to settle for the one item that was familiar — chocolate chip cookie.

I haven't even started on the variety of restaurants that now display our bounty. I grew up in downstate Monmouth, Illinois, in the 50s, when the advent of a pizza parlor meant the first "foreign" food. To eat Chinese you got in your parents' car and drove to Macomb.

Now I like learning what bok choy can do, or the novel possibilities of a familiar spice like cinnamon, or the curious ways regional Northwest chefs at Coastal Kitchen try a new turn on Croatian or Thai or Argentinian dishes. There are Vietnamese and Afghan restaurants — lose a war, win a new restaurant, it’s said. Near South Lake Union is Shanik, serving toasted crickets. David George Gordon of Seattle has written an Eat-a-Bug Cookbook, no less.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Jul 24, 10:39 a.m. Inappropriate

Bruce - thanks for the memories. Your recollection of the somewhat(?) limited culinary universe here is accurate; I remember seeing you at the Brasserie Pittsbourg in the early 70's...where I started as a dishwasher and ended as the day chef...and having to explain to a lot of Seattleites what an 'omelet' was. Our horizons, and our girth, have expanded significantly since then...

oscar

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