Skagit Valley Joys -- A Cookbook Celebrates People,
Place and Spirit
Sep 22, 1996
STORAGE PILE OF 1996 cookbooks is now up to about 5 feet high in the corner of
the dining room, and in a couple of months we'll print the annual rundown of
what's good, what's bad and what's merely recyclable.
meantime, I was musing about another set of cookbook evaluation guidelines:
you want for yourself; those you would wish on nobody; and those you think
you'd like to give to someone you care about.
that final consideration, I picked up Lavone Newell's "Skagit Valley
Fare" the other day, and found myself involved with it.
by Island Publishers of Anacortes ($19.95 in trade paperback), it is a curious
and joyous slice of Northwest life and lore, poetry and art.
probably inevitably follows from the personal history and occupational choices
of its author. Newell, who has lived along the Skagit for 25 years, is a
retired teacher, a writer, a former truck-stop cook, an Alaskan fishing-boat
cook, a painter and a gardener of eye-popping scope and distinction.
many other cookbook authors would begin their work with a quote from Tom
Robbins (also a resident of the Skagit):
picked the Skagit Valley up by its damp green heels and shook its whole stash
of goodies out onto our table . . ."
Newell assembled is a celebration of a place and its people and their artistry.
Some of the recipes are hers, or her mothers. But most are from her fellow
artists, poets, sculptors, restaurateurs,
bed-and-breakfast hosts and just plain fine cooks in the valley.
are color plates of paintings by eight Skagit artists (Guy Anderson, James
Clayton, Alfred Currier, Richard Gilkey, Morris Graves, Anne Martin McCool,
Philip McCracken and Maggie Wilder) and works by 11 poets.
short, "Skagit Valley Fare" is not so much a reference book as it is
a journal of how a remarkable group of people chose to live their existences in
a fecund patch of earth - what they ate day to day, what they shared when they
wrote all this in a historic home on a mini-farm a few hundred yards from the
river. It's a structure of fieldstone and cedar, fir and hemlock, faded boards
and stained glass that seems almost a miniature cathedral to the nature that
made it up.
are studios in the out-buildings and up in the loft of the barn. Her gardens
and the flat surrounding farmland frame it all. In the middle of it is her
grew up in the upper valley, "by the craggy vista of Sauk Mountain. So
many memories. Lullaby sleep to the soughing breeze, fingering, combing great
fir branches. The woman's scream of cougar, leaping from fir tree, to roof, to
ground. Each primal scream goose-bumping my being. Twilight, and the bear
growling over the compost heap."
she moved downriver to Fir Island, "a haven of fertile loam" between
the forks of the Skagit.
couple of months back, I drove up to the haven for a dinner party and was
greeted with a slice of Caviar Pie, an appetizer created by Anne McCracken,
owner of something called the Piping Rabbit Press, and the wife of
artist-sculptor Philip McCracken.
representative of what "Skagit Valley Fare" was all about. It had
been chilled overnight and was as cold as a November tide flat: chopped eggs in
mayonnaise, topped with chopped sweet onions, cream cheese and sour cream and a
spread of inexpensive, local caviar.
a simple dish, yet at once hearty. Not quite elegant, but festive. To ensure
the latter effect, Newell stuck a glass of Washington champagne in my hand.
Pie is the first recipe in her book. The second, by valley artist Anne Martin
McCool, is Oven Barbecued Chicken Wings (three pounds, tips removed; coated
with two tablespoons of oil and a half-teaspoon of cayenne, then drizzled with
chopped garlic, a half cup of soy sauce, two tablespoons of ketchup and a cup
of honey, and baked at 350 degrees for an hour in a shallow baking dish or
not, clearly, a typical cookbook. It's intensely personal. At times, it's
example, anybody can poach mussels - and these days almost every restaurant
does, usually far too long. But only Phyllis McKee (Newell's friend and cooking
buddy) makes Penn Cove Mussels Poached in Pale Ale (three pounds of mussels, in
a bottle of Bridge Port Blue Heron Pale Ale and a half cup of whipping cream,
augmented with 15 cloves of garlic and 12 sprigs of fresh thyme). It's served
in soup bowls, broth and all, as a first course.
regional cookbooks begin with topography and move on to natural resources;
hence assorted Northwest praises of fish, potatoes, soft wheat, crabs and
berries. And that is fine.
"Skagit Valley Fare" is about people: immigrants and innkeepers,
tulip growers' beef ragout and Croatian farmers' cabbage rolls.
the kind of a book that makes you want to send it someplace else. Maybe
someplace far away.
This is what it's really like out here.