In Seattle, eating locally can be almost unnaturally convenient. I order online, and in the dead of night, a burly man (or maybe it’s a woman— I never see the delivery person, so I wouldn’t know) hoists reusable grocery bags from his truck in the rain, eases open my creaky screen door, and slides local kale and cheddar onto the porch, usually without even waking the dog. For breakfast, I sauté the greens and pile them over last night’s roasted potatoes, then top them with a blanket of cheese. It melts while I make more coffee.
It’s a locavore’s dream, living here. But a couple of years ago, I started to wonder: What does it mean for this food to be “local” if I made no part of the transaction with an actual human being? And what is “local,” anyway, besides the descriptor all foodwise upper middle classers are supposed to put in front of everything we eat?
In 2010 I began writing a cookbook, Pike Place Market Recipes. (The book will be released in May – Ed.) You’ve probably heard about the Market’s fishmongers, who throw fish at each other to the amazement of staring tourists.
In Seattle, eating locally can be almost unnaturally convenient.
Perhaps you know Rachel the Pig, the life-sized bronze piggy bank that stands sentry at the Market’s entrance. It was next to Rachel, in fact, that I found myself one day half a dozen years ago, hopping up and down, screaming loud enough to scare children. My husband had landed a job in Seattle, and I felt bathed in good luck. We were here to stay, and I vowed to comb every stall for the state’s best edible treasures.
And yet, I didn’t find exactly what I expected.
When the Market was founded, more than a century ago, cooks and housewives loved their newfound ability to deal directly with farmers; back then, the food was almost all grown close by.
But today’s Market isn’t a farmers’ market in the same way you probably think of a farmers’ market. At some point, I realized that while much of the Market is still made up of independent producers who make or grow what they sell, the other part is basically a charming outdoor grocery store. This is not all Washington food: Last January, you could buy watermelon. Still, I came, parked, shopped, traipsed, ate, each trip a private celebration.
Then a publisher called with an opportunity to work on the book.
I was excited, but also nervous. By then, I’d come to realize that the Pike Place Market had lost a bit of allure among food people because it’s not as “local” as other farmers’ markets. The guilty taste of buying meats and produce at the Market whose provenance was unclear had gotten a little hard to swallow. I hesitated to write a book that pimps a market whose heart doesn’t beat with the same unflagging devotion to local producers that the city’s “real” farmers’ markets do.
Today’s Market isn’t a farmers’ market in the same way you probably think of a farmers’ market.
I accepted the chance, of course, but as I dove into the book, topping salmon with fresh cherry relish and braising halibut with olives and orange, I shuddered to think how many of the Market’s 10 million annual visitors might believe all the fish sold there come from local waters.
But one day, I walked into Bavarian Meats, and the German Julia Child who works there started squeaking to me about her family’s recipe for split pea soup with cardamom and dill, like she always does. She helped me pick out the perfect smoked ham hock for my own soup, and sent me home with the spiciest landjaeger for my husband.
I have no clue where she gets her pork. But I know that the dollar or two she makes on my order goes into her pocket, and I like to think that one day her kid might teach my kid the same soup recipe. Isn’t that a kind of sustainability? She knows me by sight; I know her family’s soup. Aren’t we local to one another?
But what about that pork?
Our choices aren’t black and white; we can turn the contrast up or down, depending on what we value.
How do I justify violating all the rules of “sustainability” by buying Julia’s pork, instead of meat from a happy pig raised 40 miles away (by a farmer, incidentally, who’s never nice to me)? Uli has an answer, sort of.
Uli Lengenberg is the handsome master butcher behind Uli’s Famous Sausage, another purveyor in the Market. There’s a phrase he likes to refer to that doesn’t (to my knowledge) really have an English equivalent. Literally, in German, mit fleischeinlage translates as “with a meat ingredient,” but cooking something mit fleischeinlage really means that a little bit of meat can support whatever else you have, that you can cook wonderful food with just a little bit of meat.
If I cook and eat that way, with just a little bit of meat, it matters a little less to me if he gets his pork from a middleman, who imports it, vaguely, “from Canada.” What does matter to me, though, is that this butcher, who presumably wants to sell more meat, is honest and straightforward and knows the value and cost of his own work. It matters to me that if you ask him about his chorizo, he’ll bellow on about how to make a great stew, and then he’ll offer to come over and help you taste it.
And finally I realized that what keeps me coming back to the market isn’t just the food; it’s the people. Of course sustainability and environmental consciousness matter. But our choices aren’t black and white; we can turn the contrast up or down, depending on what we value. And for me, the ground that something grows in is important, but so are the people who sell it to us, and the social structures we support by buying it from them.
Six years in, I’m still new to Seattle in some ways, and there are experiences I cherish because of how much they give me of a sense of this place. So when I go to Pike Place Fish when it’s not too crowded, I talk with the guys, jovial and knowledgeable, and they make me smile. No, the fish isn’t all from Washington waters. But there, the firm shake of a burly man’s hand—one that leaves mine smelling like Hawaiian swordfish, and my shoe’s toe wet from touching his—is nothing, to me, if not local.