Bite at the Museum

Bite at the Museum

Meet Seattle's new culinary curator.

The Canoe and The Saddle, the 1862 recounting of a scrawny Yankee patrician’s adventures in the Pacific Northwest, is typically cited as a classic of nature writing and scripture for the Manifest Destiny crowd. But there’s a fair bit of food history in Theodore Winthrop’s memoir, especially considering how mightily the smallpox survivor struggled to quell his perpetually upset stomach while traveling through the newly minted Washington Territory.

Winthrop coped with indigestion so fierce that he ranked buying baking soda among his most significant activities along the Oregon Trail. Still, he managed to develop a fondness for salt pork and salmon, a fish he decided was wasted on indigenous people. “[I] would treat his proportions with respect, feel the exquisiteness of his coloring, grill him delicately and eat him daintily!”, he insisted.

Atypically for Winthrop, the explorer was agnostic on Duwamish dried-cricket pies and suppers of camas-lily bulbs, but tribal members’ drinking habits sent him careening into a paternalistic rage. The crew hired to row Winthrop’s boat apparently found the monotony of paddling more tolerable after a few swigs of liquor. So they shared a bottle, and their clean strokes became erratic. Winthrop pretended not to notice until he heard another damning “pop” followed by a giveaway gurgle. “This must stop,” Winthrop wrote. “Into an arm of the Pacific in the far Northwest I poured that gill of firewater.”

Winthrop’s chronicle—which I read while crossing the Rockies (by car, not covered wagon)—resonated with me, because I’m a stranger to Seattle too. But I’m not here to dump out your firewater. Rather, I look forward to learning about Seattle’s culinary heritage, experiencing its contemporary food scene’s unique vitality and verve, and helping to make sense of its edible future.

As readers in other places where I’ve worked can attest, I don’t shirk from calling out food purveyors who don’t deliver on their implicit promises to consumers. If I encounter bland goat cheese, frozen broccoli, or a server who inexplicably vanishes for 20 minutes, I’ll tell you all about it. I firmly believe those industry workers who operate with integrity deserve to have the eating public know about their competitors who don’t.

But I hope criticizing isn’t my primary activity here. I’m far more interested in championing the skilled and talented farmers, foragers, fishermen, bakers, chefs, and home cooks who contribute to Seattle’s lively food community. I’m sure some readers will find saltier ways to describe me, but I like to think of myself as a kind of culinary curator, seeking and showcasing the region’s most fascinating food.

I come by this curating racket honestly, having earned my graduate degree in museum studies, a field that thrust me into food history back when the two words were rarely seen together. I enrolled in museum school after spending a few years as a daily-newspaper reporter in Mississippi and Arizona, jobs which gave me the chance to witness executions, share a jar of moonshine with Howlin’ Wolf’s widow, walk the rails with the nation’s oldest hobo, befriend a hog farmer who doubled as a teen-beauty-pageant coach, and cover a school board so cash-strapped that the chair called meetings to order with a potato. But seduced by the thought of my work spending a year on a wall instead of a day on a newsstand, I went east to study exhibit design.

Turns out staffing a museum is nowhere near as fun as visiting a museum. I had no interest in donning dainty white-linen gloves and writing teeny-tiny accession numbers on silver tankards, an apathy immediately apparent to a museum director I tried to cajole into hiring me. What really excited me was the culinary-history topic I’d chosen for my thesis: the relationship between Jews and Chinese food, a subject I’d long pondered over weekly family dinners at Sze-Chuan West. My non-employer, struck by my enthusiasm, asked “Why don’t you just write about food?”

So I did. While I didn’t have a professional cooking background (and wondered from the start whether a critic needed one, as I’m quite sure nobody asks Tony Kornheiser about his jump shot), I had spent a decade waitressing, so I could ably size up food presentation and parse a wine list. My serving resume included a brewpub, a vegetarian restaurant, a Chinese restaurant, a white-tablecloth dining room, and a Coney Island (Michigan’s version of a greasy spoon, where the menu is dominated by hot dogs and gyro meat). So I knew about pale ales and tempeh and foie gras and chili, and figured the more I ate, the more I’d learn.

My experience helped land me a job as the food editor for the alt-weekly in Asheville, N.C., where I’d gone after grad school to lead mountain-bike trips. I spent five years scouring the mountains for food stories, chronicling faltering livermush festivals, community sorghum squeezes, and buried cabbage farms. I ate ramps (the stinky wild leek that’s since become trendy), drank homemade brandy, and judged a national country-ham contest. I learned plenty. And then I moved to Texas.

I joined Village Voice Media, Seattle Weekly‘s parent company, last year as the Dallas Observer‘s food critic. As of this writing, I’ve lived in Seattle for five days, so I’m in no position to make grand pronouncements about its food scene. But I feel safe in saying Seattle is a very different city than Dallas, where what matters most is outsiders’ approval. Even the city’s visionary chefs who created Southwestern cuisine didn’t feel their cooking style was legitimate until New York restaurants started stocking cilantro. When one of the city’s most gifted bartenders put drinks from the nation’s leading cocktail lounges on his list—with attribution—a gin-based Juliet & Romeo from Chicago’s The Violet Hour instantly outsold his homegrown concoctions. Dallas eaters are desperate for acceptance, a quirk I was repeatedly told resulted from unresolved guilt over JFK’s assassination.

Beyond Dallas, though, is a state brimming with magnificent culinary traditions. My proudest accomplishment in Texas—other than having a burger named for me, an achievement I expect never to top—was joining 49 other eaters who care deeply about food’s meaning to found Foodways Texas, a group devoted to celebrating the state’s diverse food cultures.

But I’m a person, not an organization, so I don’t have an official mission statement. If I were forced to draft one, however, I imagine it would read something like what Foodways Texas came up with. My goal here is to celebrate, scrutinize, and support Seattle’s food communities. And I hope I won’t be working alone: I’m counting on you to let me know how I’m doing and point out what I’ve missed.

I’m thrilled to have a seat at Seattle’s collective table. Indeed, I’m so eager to finish talking about myself, and to begin exploring, eating, and reporting, that my legs have been jiggling since I wrote the second paragraph.

I believe it’s time for lunch.

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