by Hannelore Sudermann | © Washington State University
Fall was a fortunate season at the Tonnemaker farm in Royal City, Washington. A warm October provided brothers Kurt ’84 and Kole a few extra weeks of squash, tomatoes, and peppers to load into their trucks and deliver to farmers markets and restaurants around the state.
This family farm has changed since the current generation took charge of it. It was established by WSU extension agent Orland Tonnemaker ’22 and his wife Pearl. In 1962 they planted orchards of cherries, pears, and apples. Like many of the farms around them, they sold their fruit to area warehouses.
During cherry harvest in 1981, Orland died, and his grandson Kole Tonnemaker, a University of Idaho graduate, stepped in to help. After a few years, Kole decided to diversify so the farm wouldn’t be solely dependent on the fluctuating commodity fruit market. By the late ’80s, he was planting produce for retail sale, and the Tonnemakers started trucking their produce to farmers markets around Washington. In 1992, Kurt Tonnemaker, who studied business at WSU, took on the marketing and distribution, while Kole focused on the orchards and fields.
Their timing was just right. “Then there was a lot of demand, a real upsurge of people wanting to connect with their food,” says Kurt. They started with two farmers markets. Today in the high season, they deliver to 18 a week. While Kole stays on the farm, Kurt is based out of Bellevue where he is closer to the majority of the retail customers.
A few years ago, the brothers noticed chefs wandering into their market stalls looking for fresh and interesting produce to incorporate into their menus. They realized they could be much more efficient delivering directly to these Puget Sound-area restaurants. Today their customer list reads like a best restaurants article: among them Poppy, Emmer and Rye, the Dahlia Lounge, and Spring Hill (now Ma’ono), which is co-owned by WSU alumna Marjorie Chang Fuller.
“Restaurant people are really concerned about where our food is coming from,” says Kurt. The chefs eagerly read the Tonnemakers’ fresh sheets to see which of the more than 400 varieties of apples, peaches, pears, and other fruits and vegetables, including melons, eggplant, heirloom tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, and dozens and dozens of pepper varieties, are coming in that week. It seems that there’s more demand for this type of produce than local farms to meet it, says Kurt. “Restaurants I’ve never even heard of are asking for our stuff.”
The Tonnemakers’ farm adaptation of direct selling, experimenting with new varieties and new crops, and transitioning to organic has helped the bottom line. “Our farm has survived while many around us have closed,” says Kurt.
The Discovery of Abundance
In 1906, Seattle had a vegetarian café. Food historian Jacqueline Williams found this tasty detail in an advertisement in a small, blue-covered cookbook published that year. She shows me as we sit in her living room in one of the city’s older hillside neighborhoods.
In the 1990s, Williams wrote The Way We Ate, a history of the Northwest pioneers told through their food. If anyone has some perspective on early Washington cuisine, it would be this author and vintage cookbook collector.
From the time her book was published, Williams has continued to add cookbooks to her collection, most of which were published before 1940. Beyond the recipes, they’re pretty useful, she says, as she pulls out others. She shows me they are laced with advertisements—diaper services, restaurant fliers, advice for new brides. “You can learn a lot about what’s going on in the Northwest by them.”
Until last year, the oldest Washington cookbook she had ever seen was A Feast of Good Things, the title of many a church-published cookbook around the country. This one was published in 1895 in Spokane by the Ladies of the First Presbyterian Church and for decades was thought to have the distinction of being the oldest cookbook in the state. But one day recently, while Williams was looking through the collection at the Museum of History and Industry, she found a small collection of pages that she determined was the earliest cookbook in Washington, What the Plymouth Brethren Eat and How the Sisters Serve It. It is dated 1889 and from the Plymouth Congregational Church in Seattle. “I was so excited,” says Williams, who brought it to the archivist’s attention. “They didn’t even know they had it.”
Frankly, much of that cookbook and the others that followed featured traditional cooking that Washington’s early settlers brought with them from the East Coast and Europe. These settlers were not at all bedazzled by delicate chanterelle mushrooms, charmed by briney clams, or particularly fond of fiddlehead ferns. “There was really no Northwest cuisine like we see today,” says Williams. According to the early cookbooks, as well as the letters, newspapers, and diaries that Williams studied, the settlers liked the wild game, the shellfish (particularly oysters until local stocks were nearly wiped out), and the abundant berries.
For years the food selection was meager. Williams found recipes for cakes made without eggs and coffee from bran and molasses. But as settlements developed all across the state, wheat, potatoes, and apples quickly factored into the early diets. Most of the time, though, the settlers bemoaned the lack of good staples. What you ate very much depended on where you lived, says Williams. Those in larger cities had readier access to basics like salt, flour, and sugar. Even those a few miles out along the Puget Sound relied on ships to bring in goods and had to be inventive with what was available.
The first wave of settlers were white, middle-class, and mostly Protestant. The later waves brought new ethnic groups and new cuisines. Chinese workers arriving in the 1850s brought not only their style of cooking, but also many of their vegetable crops. Settlers from rural Japanese communities came in the 1890s. Italians and Jews traveled from the East Coast. While they brought new cuisines, Williams says there wasn’t much sharing across cultures early on. There was adaptation, though. Gefilte fish, for example, a Jewish fish ball traditionally made with pike or other whitefish, was given a Northwest spin. “Out here it was made with salmon,” says Williams.
As each new wave of immigrants turned to farming, their crops found a way into the cities through the groceries and markets. It’s at places like Pike Place Market and the Olympia Farmers Market that a real Northwest approach was formed, says Mark Musick, a farmer and social activist who co-founded Washington Tilth in the 1970s. The nonprofit agriculture alliance helped put in place organic farming standards for the state. Musick recently donated Tilth’s first 22 years of documents and photographs to WSU’s archives.
Our food may not be as easily defined as the deep-fried South or the corn-fed Midwest. But it is a food legacy rich with cultures and characters, says Musick, who today works as a food policy consultant.
Musick’s first exposure to agriculture was harvesting strawberries alongside migrant workers near Puyallup. He started college at WSU in 1965 intent on studying communication, but by 1967 knew he wasn’t ready to complete his degree. So he dropped out. Ultimately, he finished his degree at another school, worked as a community organizer, and joined Pragtree Farm, an organic collective near Arlington, Washington. He later worked for Larry’s Markets, one of the first Washington groceries to seek out and feature local produce, and was for a time farmer liaison for Pike Place Market.
Historian Jeffrey Sanders, an assistant professor at WSU, writes about Tilth, Musick, and the Pike Place Market in his book Seattle and the Roots of Urban Sustainability. He starts the market section with artist Mark Tobey and his sketches depicting the market “as a fecund blend of nature, commerce, and urban democracy.”
His canvases captured a built environment teeming with organic energy. In a 1942 painting titled E Pluribus Unum, the frame is packed with a sea of human faces, signs, and piles of fruits and vegetables—all the weltering diversity he saw at the market in the early 1940s.
The market was at the heart of our state’s food culture, says Musick. It has been an entry point for each new generation of immigrants to bring their cuisine into Washington. Vendors like Pasqualina Verdi, an Italian woman who moved to Washington after World War II and who farmed near the Duwamish River in South Seattle, have pushed us in new culinary directions.
“She was the empress of the Pike Place Market in the 1950s,” says Musick. “And there was a real cultural churning there.” From her stall at the market, Verdi introduced fresh basil to the Northwest palate. Thirty years later, she pushed us into arugula. It’s likely that another Italian immigrant, Seattleite Angelo Pellegrini, was the first in the country to publish a pesto recipe—in a 1946 issue of Sunset magazine. In his 1948 book The Unprejudiced Palate, Pellegrini wrote about a simple life of eating straight from the garden and with care for the ingredients. His approach is classically Northwest, says Musick.
Pellegrini wrote: The hearty discriminating eater “... knows, too, that simplicity and variety, both in ingredients and in their preparation, are the abiding principles ...”
Following and alongside the Italians at the market were the Japanese farmers, the Filipinos, the Hmong, and the Mexicans, says Musick. Each group delivered new food and new approaches. The Hmong, for example, got us eating pea vines. Now, thanks to Central and South American influence, peppers and peanuts are claiming their places at the markets.
In the 1970s, chefs and restaurants, particularly Bruce Naftaly of Rosellini’s Other Place, made a point of visiting the market to incorporate local seafood and produce into the menu. He traveled out to Pragtree Farm to collaborate on developing seasonal salads for the restaurant. They used not one lettuce, or one salad, but dozens of different greens, herbs, even native plants.
Naftaly (now owner and chef at Le Gourmand) was the first in the city to produce farm-to-table cuisine, says Musick. The restaurants were the vanguard. And then business leaders like Larry McKinney of Larry’s Markets moved this food into the grocery stores. “This was before Whole Foods,” Musick notes.
From the markets to the restaurants to the grocery stores, now to an explosion of farmers markets around the state, farm subscriptions, and food cooperatives, it all flows into our culinary scene.
So is there a Washington cuisine? It’s more that there are Northwest ingredients and a really eclectic range of cultural influences and multitude of styles, says Musick. “This is not San Francisco. This is not New York.” We have a whole different culture and economy. But our one constant theme is that we like to venture into new territory and embrace variety. When you think of the many fruits and vegetables, the cheeses, the seafood, the grains, mushrooms, the meats, and thousands of fresh and delicious things available to us, the mind boggles. And we haven’t even yet mentioned the wine!
“We don’t know how lucky we are,” says Musick.
Well, maybe Jamie Callison does. As executive chef for the WSU School of Hospitality Business Management, he eagerly scours our campus and the surrounding farmlands for ingredients—which he uses to teach his students the techniques of cooking. One morning this fall, Callison’s gang is preparing for the Feast of the Arts dinner. A few are setting up tables in the Todd Hall dining room, while Callison stashes apples he had just collected from the Tukey Orchard into the cooler. He is waiting for the next night’s line-caught salmon to arrive from the airport. Produce, apples, beef, art—all components of the event, all from around the Pullman campus—were on his mind. “We’re showcasing the whole university on one table,” he says. “We use whatever we possibly can from what the students are involved in on campus.”
“My philosophy is to keep it simple,” says Callison. “We’re really about showcasing good food and to show its connection with wine.” The pairing provides a valuable tool for Callison: using bridge ingredients to link a featured food with a wine. The first course, a wild Alaska king salmon will be dressed with a beurre blanc to cut the acid in the featured wine, a Barnard Griffin Viognier.
His goal is to have that bite of food finished with a sip of the wine. It rounds out the taste experience, completing the sauce, he says. “If you hit that perfect pairing once in a five-course dinner, then you have success.”
Callison works with 27 student employees for these fall season meals. Of them, maybe four or five are thinking of going into the culinary field. But all of them will benefit from taking part. Whether they go into hotel or restaurant management, or some other part of the hospitality industry, “an understanding of food and wine in this day and age is becoming essential,” says Callison.
In Callison’s view, the Washington style is really good local, simple products, he says. That’s the advice he gives his students: “Make sure you buy high-quality product, and try to source locally.”
From Farm to Table
We’re having dinner in a sleek blond wood booth in West Seattle’s Spring Hill restaurant. It’s a Tuesday night, but the place has quickly filled up. Servers are carrying peculiarly-shaped plates across the concrete floor from the open kitchen to the tables around us.
Co-owner Marjorie Chang Fuller ’89, ’90 slips in across from me. By day she’s an architect who works for a construction company, but at night and most of the rest of the time, she’s a restaurateur.
She’s had a hand in the space’s hip, contemporary feel. And while her husband, chef Mark Fuller, runs the kitchen, she works with the front of the house.
Both grew up in Washington, he in Seattle, and she out on the coast in Montesano, she explains. They met in Portland, where she had her first job out of college with Hoffman Construction and he was the chef at Lucy’s Table, a well-loved Pearl District fixture known for featuring fresh, local products.
They moved to Seattle when Mark took a job with chef Tom Douglas as a line chef at Etta’s, at the Pike Place Market. He eventually became the executive chef at the Dahlia Lounge before breaking away in 2008 to open Spring Hill.
Here the menu is built on a foundation of fresh seafood and produce from around Washington, Marjorie explains. “We do it because it’s the right thing to do.” Mark sources sea salt from his family in Hawaii and uses local eggs, shellfish, greens. “We don’t look solely for organic,” she explains. “We want to feature local food. I think we’re very fortunate in the Northwest. We have a lot to use.”
My dining companion Zach Lyons, president of the Seattle Chefs Collaborative, arrives and hugs Marjorie before trading places with her in our booth. “Oh sure we know each other,” he says. “Seattle, and Washington in general, operates as a community.” As he picks up the menu, it becomes clear that ordering will be a negotiation. Will I share plates? If he gets the oysters, will I get the soup? Which entrées sound most intriguing?
As the first plates arrive, our table goes quiet. I look up to realize Zach has just bitten into a crispy fried Washington oyster that he dipped into a harissa mayonnaise. The silence ensues. Then ... a smile.
What about the mayonnaise flavored with the hot chili sauce?, I ask. That was good, too. But this is a prime example of Washington cooking, he says. “The harissa is ... hmm ... trendy. It’s featured in restaurants everywhere in the country,” says Lyons. “But here in Washington, the oyster is the star.” That’s one thing our chefs do very well, he explains. They try new things, but do it to elevate the incredible ingredients we already have.
This is something Lyons preaches regularly. Now a freelance writer, co-author of the Washington State Farmers Market Manual (published in cooperation with WSU), coordinator of Taste of Washington State University, and former executive director of the Washington State Farmers Market Association, he has deep ties with the state’s food scene and its small-scale farmers, the kind like the Tonnemakers who sell directly to restaurants like this.
We’re not in this lively West Seattle joint just to share a meal. Our mission is to try to define Washington cuisine. And somewhere here, between the butter lettuce and the popcorn ice cream, we hope to discuss not just what it was. Or is. But what it’s becoming.
Maybe we’re not as noisy about our food as other parts of the country, says Lyons. Northwest chefs are not celebrities. They’re not self-promoters, he says. It’s a subtler and friendlier scene than in many other cities. When it comes to ideas, inventions, it’s a free-for-all. “They’re all stealing from each other all the time,” he says. “And nobody cares.”
The notion of sharing manifests itself in many ways. The trend now is toward small plates—like the ones we’re sharing this evening. It’s why we can both try the oysters, the potato leek soup with turkey leg confit, the butter lettuce with radishes, the bavet steak with purple and orange cauliflower, and the roasted hen-of-the-woods mushrooms served with grits enriched with Beecher’s cheese (owned by Kurt Dammeier ’82).
It makes sense in a place like Washington, where there is such a variety of good things to taste. “It works on so many levels,” says Lyons. “It’s far more interesting for the customer and the chef.”
It’s also time for us to realize we have incredible local food every season, not just in the summer and fall, says Lyons. “There’s a vigorous, year-round food pattern happening.” Even in the leanest months of February and March, we have parsnips, rutabagas, sunchokes, potatoes, and Brussels sprouts.
The driving force is not the customer. It’s not even the chef anymore. “Now it’s the farmer,” says Lyons. He points to the orange cauliflower next to the steak. “That’s cheddar cauliflower. The farmer decided to grow that, that’s why we’re trying it here,” he says. “People are taking risks, trying new things.”
Chefs read cookbooks and magazines for ideas. In the winter, the farmers are poring over their seed catalogs with the same intensity, he says. “The whole region has this culture, and the farmers are driving it.”
Same place – new name. Just after the magazine went to press, the Chang Fullers rebranded their restaurant from Spring Hill to Ma’ono. Many things will stay the same – including chef Mark Fuller and the commitment to using fresh and locally available ingredients.
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