It is spring, and it is a Saturday in Seattle. Seattleites are up and enjoying it. In the Ballard neighborhood, at the farmers market, there’s fresh honey, homemade pickles in fine jars, and a butcher selling raw milk as well as bacon from the pigs he raised on a nearby rustic and green island.
Meanwhile, across town at a city park, a man is holding a field trip and telling people how to urban forage. Are there greens one can eat? Berries in the empty lot across the way that can be made into a pie? The group wanders the park and eats what they thought were merely weeds. They learn what can be harvested from a shoreline, a forest, and even an ill-used parking lot.
In Fremont, at Le Petit Cochon, someone is sitting down to a meal. On the menu: escargots. They come from a snail farm on the Olympic Peninsula, owned by a man who used to work in the marketing department of Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo until the call for snail farming was too strong for him.
Honey. Pickles. Ferns. Snails. People in northwestern Washington State are literally eating it all up. The locavore movement is alive and well in places like the Emerald City and its outskirts. Turning away from corporate food and big box retailers, more locals are finding ways to enjoy food in a new way—their own way.
So how did this sustenance success story begin? The locavore movement was born eight hundred miles south, when, in 2005, a group of four women in the Bay Area, inspired by the idea of eating all locally sourced foods, challenged themselves to eat only local foods (defined as within one hundred miles) for a month. Since they were chronicling their journey, they needed a name for it; blending two Latin roots together, they dubbed themselves locavores. In 2007, Oxford University Press named locavore its Word of the Year, and the word—and the movement—caught steam in the years that followed, compelling people to a new way of eating.
Then again, perhaps it’s not new at all. “Embracing the locavore ideal is really about returning to what was the only way to eat,” remarks Ric Brewer, owner of Little Gray Farms, a snail farm in rural Quilcene. “It’s more of a homecoming than anything else.” Instead of searching elsewhere for quality foods, northwesterners are looking into their own neighborhoods. They’re discovering their neighbors are doing things they’re passionate about and doing it well.
Chris Curtis, executive director of Seattle Neighborhood Farmers Markets, echoes that sentiment. “Shoppers are interested in buying local, quality farm foods directly from local farmers,” she notes. “They want diversity, freshness, quality, sustainable growing methods, transparency, and a chance to meet the people who actually grow and produce their food.”
The proof is in the numbers. Sales at Seattle’s farmers markets were up 3 percent from where they were in 2015, and the year before that, sales were up 12 percent, a banner year. “In 2015,” Curtis says, “all of Seattle’s farmers markets provided approximately $15 million in sales to farms and artisan food vendors.”
Artisans and food vendors aren’t necessarily in it for the money. They’re in it for their singular passions, whatever those may be. Take, for instance, Britt Eustis’s passion. During business trips in Japan, he became fascinated with the process of creating and consuming fermented foods. He went home and tried his hand at it, fermenting cucumbers, garlic, and spices. In 2012, with cofounder Deborah Noonan, he opened Britt’s Pickles, a retail outlet in Seattle’s iconic Pike Place Market. It was the market’s first pickle purveyor since 1929. They’ve grown a lot since. They offer five flavors of pickles, two of sauerkraut, and two of kimchi. Their products can now be found at Whole Foods, and at area grocery stores PCC Natural Markets, Town and Country Markets, and Haggen. Robert Hunt, director of sales for Britt’s Pickles, credits their customers for their success: “Consumers of natural and organic foods are known for their strong support for locally grown and handcrafted food products.”
All true, but it doesn’t even have to be handcrafted. The food can just be mint growing in a neighbor’s yard or something growing at the park that people had no idea they could eat. That is, until Langdon Cook came along. Cook is a writer, instructor, and lecturer on wild foods. His first book, Fat of the Land: Adventures of a 21st Century Forager, put him firmly at the forefront of the foraging movement, which is full of foods people often overlook—such as ferns, mushrooms, and even stinging nettles.
One day, eager northwestern food enthusiasts tromp through Tiger Mountain State Forest with Cook looking for things to eat. On another day, others go to a city park with him, and within a couple of hours, they have a bounty for their kitchens. Other days Cook is at Hood Canal, a short drive away, doing some shellfish foraging. (Geoduck, anyone?) No matter where he is, however, he is connecting with the landscape through its often overlooked bounty.
The area’s landscape is as rich and varied as the people within it. Jeff Steichen is the owner of Batch 206 Distillery. Opened in 2012, it’s now one of the top three selling distilleries in the state, though Steichen insists that working with the community is just as rewarding. “One of my favorite aspects of working here is the people we work with in the Northwest,” he says. “We have that sense of ‘we are all in this together,’ and we care deeply about the environment and how we engage with it.” Another type of business involving fermentation is thriving: a yogurt shop also found in Pike Place Market. Not a frozen yogurt shop, mind you: yogurt.
Greek yogurt, to be exact. Ellenos Real Greek Yogurt is a family-run outfit devoted to producing authentic Greek yogurt and prides itself on only using locally sourced milk and combining it with the family’s unique blend of cultures and flavors. The result? A wildly popular product that verifies the quality and taste of using local products.
It’s Saturday evening now in Seattle, and the sun is starting to set, dipping behind the Olympic Mountains and, beyond them, the sea. Bees are returning to their hives (as there are a myriad of professional apiarists calling Seattle home and growing numbers of residents owning beehives). Folks tending to their P-Patch plots are hanging up their trowels (as Seattle abounds with these local public community gardens, and people often wait for years on a waiting list to get their own plot). The brewers and distillers are locking up, and the curious who went to Langdon Cook’s class are brewing stinging nettle tea while tending to their aching muscles after a long day of foraging. (Fortunately, they’ve also learned that nettles help for that sort of thing.)
On Sunday, they’ll all wake up, eager to start it all over again. Luckily, a farmers market will once again open for business. What a joy it is to have likeminded folks making their own treats—pickles and pies, bourbons and cheeses, candies and cucumbers, ice cream and kale, yogurt and eggs, honey and pasta, asparagus and jerky. All of it a bounty to be had in the Pacific Northwest’s green, burgeoning oasis.
For more info, visit seattlefarmersmarkets.org.