Skagit Valley Fare: A Cookbook
Skagit Valley Fare: A Cookbook


Skagit Valley Fare: A Cookbook Celebrating Beauty and Bounty in the Pacific Northwest - Paperback – June 1, 1996

A Review

Skagit Valley Joys -- A Cookbook Celebrates People, Place And Spirit

Sep 22, 1996

John Hinterberger

     THE 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.

     In the meantime, I was musing about another set of cookbook evaluation guidelines: Those you want for yourself; those you would wish on nobody; and those you think you'd like to give to someone you care about. For that final consideration, I picked up Lavone Newell's "Skagit Valley Fare" the other day, and found myself involved with it.

     Put out 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. That 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.

     How many other cookbook authors would begin their work with a quote from Tom Robbins (also a resident of the Skagit): "Amanda picked the Skagit Valley up by its damp green heels and shook its whole stash of goodies out onto our table . . ." What 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. Included 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.

     In 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 partied. Newell 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.There 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 kitchen.

     She 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." In 1972 she moved downriver to Fir Island, "a haven of fertile loam" between the forks of the Skagit.

     A 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. It was 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. It was 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.

     Caviar 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 cookie sheet).

     It is not, clearly, a typical cookbook. It's intensely personal. At times, it's quirky. For 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.

     Most 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. But "Skagit Valley Fare" is about people: immigrants and innkeepers, tulip growers' beef ragout and Croatian farmers' cabbage rolls.

     It's the kind of a book that makes you want to send it someplace else. Maybe someplace far away.

     To say: This is what it's really like out here.


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 Lavone M Newell-ReimMount Vernon, WA360 707 8850