Jon Rowley is Seattle's seafood guru, the man who brought us Copper River salmon and Puget Sound oysters. He may not be a household name, but he's known to fishermen, farmers, chefs, and food writers across the country. Without Rowley, a Reed College dropout who spent decades fishing in Alaska, Seattle wouldn't know what a fresh oyster even tastes like.
So when Georgia Pellegrini first arrived in Seattle from New York to interview Rowley for her book about food artisans around the world, she'd already been seduced (figuratively), by a gift-box of Totten Inlet Virginicas that Rowley had sent her. At his home in Magnolia, he fed her scrambled eggs with deeply flavored Swiss chard and a salad of purslane and heirloom tomatoes; at the Ballard Farmers Market, they bought the makings for ratatouille; at Fisherman's Terminal, Yukon King salmon. He taught her about umami. "They were the best eating days of my life," she writes, "where I first encountered the beautiful taste."
There are 16 chapters in Pellegrini's new book, Food Heroes: 16 Culinary Artisans Preserving Tradition (Stewart Tabori & Chang, 240 pages, $24.95). The Seattle chapter centers on Rowley and his quest for beautiful tastes, and takes on added layers of complexity with the smells (and sounds) of Kate McDermott's pies. In a post on Cornichon a couple of years ago, I called them "Local Treasures."
Saveur had just named Rowley to its list of "Top 100" tastes/tastemakers, and — separately, on its own merits — printed a picture of Kate's blackberry pie on the cover. The story of Jon and Kate's courtship (he brings her flowers: 10,000 roses) is poignant, as they have since separated. (She teaches pie-making classes and writes a blog for bakers, theartofthepie.)
In addition to Rowley, Pellegrini's book profiles a potato-breeder in Sligo, Ireland, an olive farmer in Provence, a butter maker in England, a beekeeper in Norway, all lovingly showcased in glowing, late-afternoon light. Heroes from rural Kentucky, coastal California, and remote corners of Tennessee and Colorado make appearances as well.
Pellegrini is a bit of a media hound, a former chef who now has a hot blog and a TV show in the works. For the moment, she travels the world meeting the artisans who have made a lifetime commitment to good food. Yes, they begin to blur together after a while, all these uncompromising individualists, so the profiles are best taken in small doses. The overall effect, however, is one of optimism, of hope for humankind and the planet we inhabit.
Then again, you don't have to travel the world to come up with culinary artisans. Braiden Rex-Johnson's Pacific Northwest Wining & Dining (John Wiley & Sons, 2007) profiled a lineup of wine makers and chefs as part of a cookbook. So did Kurt Beecher Dammeier's Pure Flavor (Clarkson Potter, 2007). You could probably burrow down into a city, or even a neighborhood (fractal-like) and find a dozen stubborn "originals" preserving their traditional foods and culture.
One word of clarification: Rowley was the first winner of the Seattle Weekly's annual Pellegrini award, which honors the memory of Angelo Pellegrini (1904-1991), a professor of English literature at the University of Washington and passionate writer about food. Author Georgia Pellegrini is no relation, but for those who remember Angelo, you know if he were still alive he'd not only love this book, he'd be in it.
If you go: Georgia Pellegrini reads from Food Heroes , 7 p.m. Thursday (Aug. 26), Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle.