Our Amazing Array of Food

A local food connoisseur revels in the plates, places and pepperoncinis of new Seattle's bountiful fare.
Bruce Chapman
Crosscut
July 22, 2014
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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?

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.

On the other hand, I still like the reactionary reality that I can still go to some places and eat a Wedge lettuce salad, a la 1955, Chicken a la King or Steak Diane, and at Aqua (I have just found) Baked Alaska.

Epicurean progress in Seattle perhaps can be traced to David Brewster's pioneering restaurant review newsletter, A Gourmet's Notebook, first published in 1972. One thing led to another and soon a whole brand of reviews — restaurants to hotels to sights — spurred Brewster to publish Best Places and start Sasquatch Books, a publishing house to promote Northwest writers and subjects. (He founded The Seattle Weekly along the way.)

Whole new shelves full of Northwest books were added to the thin ranks from earlier years. Among them were volumes that examined regional Northwest cooking and helped inspire new ideas.

About the same time, Hyde Tennis, wife of (then) Dean Cabell Tennis at St. Mark's Cathedral, and a set of their church friends inveigled the no-pretense chef Julia Child to visit Seattle. Gustatory spirits were raised in a revival atmosphere. Converts surged to the groaning boards.

With improved regional cooking came award winning regional wines. Some University of Washington professors and amateur oenologists found you could grow excellent wine in Central Washington — whites only at first, Riesling and Guwurtztraminer. In the early 70s, a bottle from Associated Vintners was a prestigious dinner gift. Associated Vintners begat Columbia Winery and then came the population explosion, dropping wineries from Vashon Island to Walla Walla.

Pike and Western wine merchants, still in the Pike Place Market, were able to find customers good wines from almost anywhere and negotiate their way past the old blue law bureaucrats at the State Liquor Control Board. Again, new tastes led to better taste.

Production of Rainier brand beer moved to California, but the discriminating trendsetters in Seattle already had founded the new Redhook Ale in Ballard in 1982, first wave of a craft beer flood. Oh, tattooed youth of the Twenty Teens, do know whereof you imbibe?

Or maybe I am being too sophisticated here. Are the trends I cite too elitist and upscale? Then consider the humble, low cost food truck a few blocks from my office (and probably yours). There have been food trucks around Seattle for years, but they were what my colleague Eric Garcia calls "roach coaches". The new ones are cleaner, more creative, ethnic — and popular.

You can seek out Snout and Co. on Queen Anne for authentic Cuban fare, and there are Japanese hot dogs at Second and Pike. But food truck fare in Seattle more typically runs to Mexican: quesadillas for one that will feed two, tortas (sandwiches), fish tacos and real tamales — accompanied perhaps by a Tamarind or Mango version of Jaritos' Mexican sodas.

As for prices, they are low, the atmosphere casual and young. At El Camion today in the Stadium area of SODO, I was the only one wearing a tie in a line a half-block long.

There are so many post-modern puritans telling us to cut back this and conserve that. Give them their due. There are all kinds of causes to get excited about in the politics of food. But it might be pleasant to step back sometimes and just savor the lucullan abundance of our contemporary cornucopia.