A couple of weeks ago I gave a talk at the University of Washington as part of the Pacific Chef Net Conference, which convened college and university chefs based at schools from Vancouver, British Columbia to San Diego. My subject was Distinctive Food Traditions of the Northwest, an hour and a half that gave me a chance to add layers of context and history to some of the most iconic foods of the region. I’m happy to say that I don’t seem to have put anyone to sleep, the most rewarding part came with many of the chefs telling me how much they’d learned about already-familiar products.
For instance, did you have any idea that Kent, Washington was named after Kent, England? In the latter part of the 1800s, the Kent valley (along with the Puyallup and Snoqualmie valleys) was a major hop growing region, spurred, at least in part, by a European native tired of paying exorbitant prices for hops imported from England so he could make beer.
Or had you heard that the Cougar Gold cheese we relish still today was the product of experimental efforts back in the 1930s? Wax-coating cheeses was the norm at the time, easily susceptible to punctures and blemishes that allowed spoilage. As canning technology developed, they tried canning pretty much all food products. Washington State University food scientist Dr. Golding (thus Cougar “Gold”) helped develop this flavorful, Cheddar-like cheese that took well to the can.
I never tire of sharing these and dozens of other Northwest food stories with people, whether in print or in person. Being something of an ambassador of Northwest food traditions is one of the most rewarding parts of the work that I do. It blends my passion for the region that’s been my home since the age of three with a fascination I have for learning the story behind foods, recipes, and the people that contribute to our uniquely Northwest culinary experiences.
I’ve had some great platforms to share those stories over the years. When the Culinaria series publisher began work on their United States volume, I was asked to write the Northwest chapter for that book, 36 pages covering subjects from microbrewing to Asian influences. When the Williams-Sonoma team added Savoring America to that regional series of books, I once again was called up to contribute essays and recipes reflecting the Northwest. And a couple of years ago I was part of the speaker series of People for Puget Sound, talking about the foundations of Northwest cuisine, with extra emphasis on restaurant history.
It was, in fact, that Culinaria project that spawned the Northwest Homegrown Cookbook Series that I launched in 2002. For Culinaria, I had definite page-count parameters, 2 pages each for apples, berries, shellfish, wild mushrooms–which required some hard editing to encapsulate such rich food stories! Even the generous 4 pages I had for salmon was a challenge. I had file folders bulging with research I hadn’t had a chance to tap into. I longed to shine the spotlight on iconic Northwest foods in a format that allowed me to delve deeper into the distinctive history and character of our region’s foods. The 96-page books that focused on Dungeness crab, wild mushrooms, salmon and stone fruits (those pitted fruits that include peaches, plums and cherries) were wonderful fun to write, with 40 recipes I developed to showcase each subject.
But it hasn’t quieted my interest in still getting on my Northwest Foods soapbox now and then to continue telling these stories. I plan to pepper my blog posts with occasional “Northwest Treasures” to continue the conversation and help you learn not just what foods have distinct Northwest roots, but why. As well as stories about the people and events that have shapes our culinary lives over the years.