Edible Seattleites: New locavore cookbooks highlight NW artisans

From heirloom bean farmers to Vashon Island cheese makers, the Northwest food scene is as much about the foodies as it is about the food.
Crosscut archive image.

Leora Bloom, author of Washington Food Artisans: Farm Stories and Chef Recipes

From heirloom bean farmers to Vashon Island cheese makers, the Northwest food scene is as much about the foodies as it is about the food.

The watchword in the food biz these days is "local." Locally grown, locally sourced, locally produced, locally prepared, and, of course, locally eaten. The glossy local monthlies rarely celebrate remote or exotic ingredients. In fact, the pitch to advertisers is that the magazine's editorial content won't stray far beyond the readers' zip codes. Another reason is the proliferation of self-absorbed, hyper-local foodie blogs. Be that as it may, two recent cookbooks are worth a look and based on the premise that Eden can be found in our very own backyard.

Let's begin with a national network of 70 local food magazines called Edible Communities, founded in 2004 by Tracey Ryder and Carole Topalian in Ojai, Calif., and quickly expanded nationwide. The James Beard Foundation gave the company its "Publication of the Year" award in 2011. With its magazines, websites, books and events, Edible Communities weaves connections between farmers, growers chefs, food artisans, and consumers. Edible Seattle, the local bi-monthly franchise, was launched in 2008 under publisher Alex Corcoran, an East Coast transplant who had owned Rhode Island-based local food magazine Edible Rhody, with veteran Seattle food writer Jill Lightner providing editorial direction. (Note: I contribute a wine column to the magazine.) 

Now comes Edible Seattle: the Cookbook, edited by Lightner. The folks at Sterling Epicure, its New York publisher, describe this city as "an adventurous, ingredient-driven destination for gastronomes," but they're just writing ad copy. Lightner sets the tone from the first sentence of her introduction: "Seattle is the biggest small town in the country," where it sometimes seems that everybody knows everybody, especially in the food community. We're also a city of nerds, she points out. Farmers and food artisans are retired scientists, software geeks, medics. Chemical engineers make cider, nurses make cheese. 

The book is filled with mouthwatering recipes (Kate McDermott's Omigod Peach Pie) and tips from high-profile chefs like Jerry Traunfeld (Poppy), Brian Gojdics (Tutta Bella), Mark Bodinet (Copperleaf), Holly Smith (Cafe Juanita), and Lisa Dupar (Pomegranate). Among the book's most important contributors is Edible co-founder Topalian herself, a photograper equally at home in the studio and the pasture.

This brings us to the fascinating profiles of local food artisans, many of whom fly below the celebrity radar: Amy Grondin of FV Duna; Wade Bennett of Rockridge Orchards; cheesemaker Rhonda Gothberg; the Vojkovich family at Skagit River Ranch. James Hall, who runs the shigoku oyster beds for Taylor Shellfish gets a profile, as do René Featherstone and Lena Lentz Hardt, who grow whole grains in Marlin, a hamlet in Central Washington, and Georgie Smith of Willowood Farms, who grows heirloom beans on Whidbey Island. 

That Seattle's "food scene" would be much poorer without these farm families, fishing boats, and chefs commited to using local ingredients was also the impetus for Leora Bloom's book, Washington Food Artisans: Farm Stories and Chef Recipes. Published by Sasquatch Books in Seattle, it contains some 50 recipes (many from the same chefs) and profiles of 17 "local food heroes," making it a bit like the Washington State version of Georgia Pellegrino's book, Food Heroes, which featured Seattle's peach-and-oyster epicure Jon Rowley.

Bloom, a baker who trained in Paris and is a contributing writer for the Seattle Times, had never written a book, but told me, "I could have written a whole book about any one of the 17." Her validation, if not her inspiration, was The Herbfarm's now-famous "100-Mile Dinner".

There's great pleasure in meeting Bloom's subjects. One fascinating profile is about Mary and Duncan MacDonald of Turnbow Flat Farm in Palouse. Duncan was a free spirit, a Doctor of Jurisprudence, a ski bum, a Microsoftie. Then he tasted Mary's farm-fresh eggs. "This is real food," he realized, and turned himself into a pig farmer virtually overnight. The transition was more gradual for Kurt Timmermeister. It took him years to go from chef to restaurant owner to farmer to cheese maker, but he eventually found his calling (and published an autobiography).

Taylor Shellfish once again finds itself profiled, only this time it's the ruddy, bearded countenance of Oyster Bill Whitbeck (a fixture at Seattle farmers markets). In the only overlap between the two books, Taylor's James Hall also puts in a cameo. Chefs Traunfeld, Maria Hines and Ethan Stowell also make appearances, as well as produce from Alvarez Farms, goat cheese from Port Madison, organic heirloom grain from Bluebird, and lavender from Pelindaba. It's a solid list. And, once again, the copy is enhanced by exquisite photographs, this time by the talented Claire Barboza. 

Both of these local books belong on international shelves. They deserve to be sent forth into the world as ambassadors, to explain to distant friends and relatives why our land, this inlet on the western coast of the North American continent, is such a fortunate one, endowed with natural riches and populated by folks who don't confuse abundance with moral superiority.

Edible Seattle: The Cookbook, Sterling Epicure, 184 pages, $19.95
Washington Food Artisans: Farm Stories and Chef Recipes, Sasquatch Books, 224 pages, $35


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Ronald Holden

Ronald Holden

Ronald Holden is a regular Crosscut contributor. His new book, published this month, is titled “HOME GROWN Seattle: 101 True Tales of Local Food & Drink." (Belltown Media. $17.95).