A visit to Seattle is always a feast for the body, mind and spirit.To many, Seattle is defined by its culinary comforts — its locally grown ethos, its toothsome food grabbed on the go and its inventiveness in the kitchen. Puget Sound, the 100-mile-long estuarial system that touches Seattle’s downtown as well as its bohemian beaches and rustic residential islands, is the conduit for some of the country’s best seafood. And the fertile, nearby farmlands deliver an almost unprecedented range of organic produce that brings to mind a kind of permanent Thanksgiving.
Put that nearly religious devotion to locavorism in the context of Seattle’s live-and-let-live hippy/hipster atmosphere, and many visitors encounter the Pacific Northwest counterculture first through their palates. The city is informed by, and famous for, its well-documented indie music scene, but to me the sound of the Sound — the lapping and chugging of the fishing boats and the extensive ferry system — has always meant good, fresh eating. I frequently visit Seattle for work, and to me, perhaps no place in the country signifies the urban harvest — from land and sea — as much as Seattle.
The city’s almost aggressive local pride is on full display at Pike Place Fish Market, in many ways the touchstone of Pike Place Market, Seattle’s five-block-long public space and tourist attraction. If a fish counter seems an unlikely place to lure onlookers five deep, then stick around for a few minutes. The entertainment consists of the palpable camaraderie on display between young guys clad in T-shirts and orange vinyl overalls; they boast big tattoos, big earrings and even bigger personalities as they move around the ice troughs, commanding the space.
While jumbo rock lobster tails, Alaskan halibut cheeks, fresh wild sockeye salmon and fresh albacore sit half buried in ice chips, orders ring out (“Crab cocktail! Crab cocktail!”), bells clang triumphantly when sales are made, and 20-pound fish fly from fishmonger to fishmonger. It’s seafood shopping as circus act. Seriously, this must be the only fish counter in the country amusing enough to inspire parents to hoist their kids onto their shoulders for a closer look. The act is unusual enough for the kids to be distracted from reaching into their dads’ brown paper bags, which are filled with fresh treats from the Daily Dozen Donut Co., the tiny, unprepossessing stall around the corner that draws lines for its plain, cinnamon and powdered donuts — not to mention the sprinkled variety, which typically sell out first.
The strenuous work of the fishmongers makes me thirsty, so I meander back to the smoothie booth I’d seen before. I live in Southern California and pride myself on my homemade fruit smoothies, but the ones at Tiny’s Organic put mine to shame.
“What’s in here?” I ask the scruffy 20-something farmer behind the table. “Strawberries, peaches, nectarines and pluots” — a plum-apricot hybrid — “and we’ve been organic for 30 years.” I look up … at the largest pluot sign I’ve seen. Not that I’ve seen especially large pluot signs, but this is a single, emphatic word spread across an eight-foot banner. And it’s justified: It’s that slight tartness of the pluot that perfects the smoothie.