SEATTLE — To define Seattle at all is a tall order. Right now, we’re involved in an expansive, sometimes contentious civic debate about who we are — in newspaper articles and online threads, in bars and cafes. With Super Bowl XLIX imminent, let me explain Seattle — by way of its food — to you, Boston, the city of baked beans.
There’s much discussion here of “newcomers,” of who they are and what they mean, of skyrocketing rents, of terrible traffic, of cultural shifts, of cold “natives.” The real natives, of course, ate Chinook, coho, and sockeye salmon, and steelhead trout. Stinging nettles, the curly tips of fiddlehead ferns, weirdly elongated razor clams, and hugely phallic geoducks are our delicacies now.
We take credit for the improbable greatness, the objective superiority of our sweet Dungeness crab and lush local oysters, made sweeter and lusher by our frigid waters. In the middle of the night, in the rain, on the Seattle waterfront, you’ll see weirdos shining bright lights into the cold, clear water, jigging for squid. Along the roadsides in the summertime, you’ll see us infiltrating thorny, insane tangles of blackberries, only to make jam that is undeniably too seedy.
Blackberries, however, aren’t native, either. They’re a freaky invasive plant that took root here and won’t let go. Our local restaurant heroes serve these foods in season (of course). They live these foods: James Beard award-winning chef Renee Erickson pulls crab pots into a boat on sparkling Puget Sound. Chef Matt Dillon, who also has a Beard (plus a beard), keeps bees on nearby, verdant Vashon Island.
This part of the food life here is relatively young, but growing absurdly fast: Seattle is fifth in the number of full-service restaurants per capita in the country. We’ve got 125-plus Thai places. (We had only one in 1981, but now Thai food is more popular than pizza in Seattle, and we’ve got four times as many Thai restaurants as you do, Boston.) And countless places for pho, the Vietnamese rice-noodle marvel: The favorite food of a local guy called Macklemore, it has arguably become Seattle’s favorite soup (supplanting clam chowder, which we like New England style — thanks for that).
Sir Mix-a-Lot extolled the virtues of Dick’s Drive-In, and that’s still where we get our late-night burgers and perfect, salty, floppy fries served in a paper envelope. From what is remembered of the grunge era, everyone just drank Rainier beer. Jimi Hendrix ate only acid.
The biggest Seattle restaurant story of all time (so far) is, oddly, the sudden shutdown of a tiny Cuban sandwich shop called Paseo last fall. The city’s favorite (and messiest) sandwich — the Caribbean roast pork loaded with caramelized onions and secret-recipe aioli — was seemingly lost forever. There were allegations that the owner had underpaid and mistreated workers, then a declaration of bankruptcy. People lighted candles in front of the store. Then, suddenly, Seattle’s sandwich nightmare was over: A new owner came to the rescue, rehired the workers and reopened Paseo, to what might seem like inordinate citywide rejoicing. We just love that sandwich.
Speaking of workers, we voted to give everyone paid sick time (reducing sneezing in salads) and a $15-an-hour minimum wage. We’ve got legal pot. When it comes to bite-sized THC chocolate chip cookies (like those from local baker SPOT), eating dessert first is the new Seattle way. We’re jumping over instead of trying to push through.
Sure, for every locavore lovingly sauteing tricolor chard, there’s a bunch of people staring at a big or small screen, shoveling food into their collective face from a new delivery dotcom. But, then, former Microsoft nerd Nathan Myhrvold created his six-volume, 2,438-page “Modernist Cuisine.” And former Microsoft nerd Wassef Haroun and his wife, Racha, created their Syrian, Lebanese, and Persian restaurant, Mamnoon, making food an ambassador for their culture.
It nearly goes without saying we have the best coffee, and an unmatched amount of excellent local beer. We’ve got distilleries proliferating unbelievably, making delicious local booze. Then there’s the wine, lots of it made right here — the grapes come from over the mountains (the ones to the east; we’ve got majestic peaks in all directions). So do Washington’s famous apples, which make a crisptasting, dangerously drinkable cider. Seattle’s all-cider bar, Capitol Cider, serves all gluten-free food.
In this city, some of us make magic: flying machines, virtual stores where you can get virtually anything, computers and holograms. Some of us ride bikes, do yoga, meditate. As a city, we still love books. We’re freaks and we’re geeks, and we don’t care.
We’re Sasquatch. We’re Beast Mode. We’re the loudest ever. We’re a silent, soaring hawk of the sea. (They’re ospreys, a bird of prey. They eat fish.)
We came all this way; we’ve got no desire to be defined. We were losers for a long time. It only makes the winning taste more sweet.Bethany Jean Clement, the food writer for The Seattle Times, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @BJeanClement.