Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A Taste of Place

A place is revealed by its food. One thinks of the great continental culinary revelations of Waverly Root in The Food of Italy and The Food of France, books that introduced many a reader to those cornerstones of Western cuisine and culture. Or the luscious double-shot of photography and ethnography that fuels the modern tour through Southeast Asia that is Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid's Hot Sour Salty Sweet.

There is so much good food writing with a geographic bent these days, whether straight up cookbook, memoir, or travelogue, that—for those of us with neither the time nor funds to amass the whole library—it's necessary to narrow the field. No surprise, then, that my shelf is weighted down by books with a wild edge. A little cottage industry of titles about foraging and wild foods seems to be emerging at the moment (or reemerging), and even titles with a more catholic sensibility see the sense of giving a nod toward nature's garden, especially if that nod conveys a sense of place.

Two books that I'm reading and cooking from right now come to mind: Jess Thomson's Pike Place Market Recipes, which examines a culture close to home, Seattle's iconic marketplace known for its brass pig and flying fish, and a locale less familiar to me, the upper Midwest of Brett Laidlaw's Trout Caviar: Recipes from a Northern Forager. (Full disclosure: Thomson recruited me as her mushroom sidekick for a walk through the market in her chapter "From the Slopes.")

Pike Place Market abounds with wild foods, from the salmon and shellfish that a tourist expects to find, to the less expected black truffles and stinging nettles harvested from woods just beyond the urban clamor (and sometimes within the city limits itself). Thomson understandably devotes an entire chapter to seafood—the first chapter, in fact—with notable dishes from nearby eateries such as Etta's famed Crab Cakes as well as a Cornmeal-crusted Pan-Fried Razor Clam dish gussied up by another local food company with a growing reputation, Mama Lil's pickled peppers.

How is it that this admittedly touristy marketplace with its many vendors became a synecdoche for Seattle? It's all about the local delicacies. Thomson explains how the theatrics of throwing fish, a Pike Place specialty, evolved into a more serious customer-seller interaction that culminated in 2011 with the market's decision to only sell sustainably caught fish, a move that both necessitates a greater reliance on what's available in the Pacific Northwest and consolidates the city's forward reputation on issues of sustainability.

Thomson's "From the Slopes" chapter begins with a section titled "I'd Tell You, But I'd Have To Kill You." This is where I show up, to take a fall stroll with Thomson through the market, admiring the bounty of Northwest fungi. We find black trumpets, hedgehogs, chanterelles, truffles, and a host of other gourmet edibles from the forests of Washington. Afterward we savor a meal at one of my favorite lunch spots, Lecosho, which Thomson highlights for their Wild Mushroom Tagliatelle, a recipe any home cook worth their Kosher salt can replicate with ease thanks to the author's user-friendly approach.

Thomson includes other categories such as "From the Butcher" and "From the Garden" as well as a chapter that namechecks local microbrews and wines, "From the Cellar." The introduction paints a history of the market—how it was originally built "in response to a rapid rise in produce prices in the early 1900s" and quickly became central to Seattle's sense of itself, how it was nearly lost in the years following Japanese internment during World War Two, and how it rebounded after a citywide vote that saved the market from redevelopment. Throughout is a reverence for ingredients identified with the Pacific Northwest and mouth-watering recipes to match.


In his introduction to Trout Caviar, Brett Laidlaw remembers entering local Minnesota woods "through a gap in the barbed-wire fence" of a neighbor to pick wild sumac, cattails, and gingerroot. As he got older and traveled farther afoot, Laidlaw picked blueberries and fished for walleye and northern pike. The titular trout would come later, when he picked up a flyrod. He learned new skills: smoking meat, fermenting vegetables, tapping trees for birch and maple syrup. Some might consider these old-school skills; to me, I'm reminded of the adage about the old becoming new again.

I'm not sure if I've ever been to Minnesota. Maybe once, in my younger years during a spate of cross-country drives, I might have passed through quickly. But no matter. I have a feeling for the place thanks to Laidlaw's evocative portrait and the foods he incorporates into his life, foods that speak to the mixed forests and turtle ponds and lush meadows of the upper Midwest.

Trout Caviar is divided into several sections based on the components of a feast: Starters, Salads, Soups, a variety of Main Courses (meat, fish, poultry), Desserts, and even Condiments. What binds these groupings is a sense of place and an emphasis on the wild, whether that be Lake Trout Chowder, a Ramps and Fiddleheads Tart, or a comfort bonanza such as Chanterelle and Steak Stroganoff. Foraged foods that I can only dream about, such as hen-of-the-woods mushrooms (Grifola frondosa) and wild rice, make well-deserved appearances.

Of course there's a recipe for Trout Caviar, too. Laidlaw does a lot of fishing in the Northern Woods. In his "Trout Caviar Manifesto" he boils down his thinking about local food this way: Our stuff is as good as anyone's stuff, and part of the reason that it's good is that it's ours. Such thinking might strike some readers as provincial and under-doggish, but to me Laidlaw has grabbed hold of one of the tenets of the emerging wild food movement: there are weird and wonderful foods all over America—indeed, all over the world—that are tied inextricably to a specific region, large or small, and entire foodways and cultures have grown up around these ingredients, including indelible variations on language and custom—the things that make us all different and interesting. Think of crawfish on the bayou or ramps in Appalachia or huckleberry camps in Oregon.

"We serve our trout caviar with dark bread or blini, good butter, sour cream or creme fraiche, and all due ceremony," Laidlaw writes. "Maybe some September I'll have such success on the trout stream that this little miracle will become old hat. It hasn't happened yet." And here's to hoping that old hat is never an ingredient in future meals. With a devotion to what's available for the table right out the back door, Laidlaw and Thomson's books give proof that a taste of place is a fulfilling way to live.

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