A Tale of Two Peninsulas

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clamshell railroad

After a century and a half of struggle, the Washington coast is ready for its culinary close-up

As Seattleites, we hold certain truths to be self-evident: Umbrellas are for wusses, coffee is an essential human right, fleece is always included in the dress code, and there are no good restaurants on the Washington coast.

Sure, any of us can rattle off a few half-hearted recommendations from past excursions—a mediocre sandwich shop, a decent bakery, a seafood shack with amazing views and lousy fish-and-chips. But those of us who place a disproportionate amount of value on life-changing meals learned to temper our expectations when it came to Highway 101. The coast has many attractions: breathtaking beauty, primeval landscapes, varied outdoor pursuits, a little cultural phenomenon called Twilight. Needless to say, great road food is not among them.

This is about to change. The Washington coast is in the process of stepping up its culinary game, metamorphosing from a lackluster dining destination into a spectacular one. The region has always enjoyed bountiful seafood, locally grown fruits and vegetables, foraged mushrooms and berries, and locally hunted game—but these precious ingredients have only recently begun to be widely featured on restaurant menus. Which begs the question: Why on earth were we forced to endure iceberg salads and rubbery clam strips in the first place?

Part of the answer lies in a shift in society—culinary tourism has been on the rise ever since “locavore” was incorporated into the national lexicon, and savvy tourism boards and restaurateurs are capitalizing on the local food revolution. But it’s also due to a shift in self-perception. Coastal residents are learning that the process of being “discovered” as a culinary hot spot is not only about letting people find you; it’s about letting them know that you offer something that deserves to be found in the first place.


Farms & Forests

It’s hard to believe now, with the benefit of historical hindsight, but the Olympic Peninsula was once considered one of the most promising farm regions in the fledgling Washington Territory. Native Americans had lived off the land for millennia (archaeologists have uncovered wooden fishhooks, gill nets and harpoons nearly 3,000 years old), and though European settlement was initially sparse due to the region’s inaccessibility, word spread to would-be homesteaders about the peninsula’s rich soils, open prairies and prolific rainfall. The rumors were understandable— Forks routinely gets more than 100 inches of rain year, more than three times that of Seattle, and such abundant precipitation is one of the primary conditions for good fruits, vegetables and pasture—not to mention that the cool, damp climate must have seemed like heaven on earth to settlers after so many months and miles of arid central plains.

News of a planned railroad connecting the isolated Peninsula to the mainland was enough to sell Luther and Esther Ford. They turned down Arthur Denny’s offer of 40 acres in present-day downtown Seattle in order to move their family to a 160-acre homestead on what became known as Forks Prairie. The grassy, fertile plain—cleared and maintained by the local Quileute tribe—was ideal for growing hops, grain, hay, oats and vegetables, and provided plenty of room for beef cattle to graze. Luther Ford planted the area’s first orchard and established the first dairy in 1879, transporting the cattle by boat to Neah Bay before driving them nearly 50 miles down the beach to La Push, in an admirable display of pioneer can-do spirit.

The Fords were joined by only a few families in the early years, but many still believed in the peninsula’s promise. In 1891, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer published the initial findings of railroad surveyors Charles and Samuel Gilman, who predicted that the Olympic Peninsula would quickly become easily accessible, densely populated and highly productive based on the rich land “well adapted to the production of vegetables” and the “abundant rainfall which renders failure of crops an impossibility.”

They were half right, anyway—growing crops was easy, but selling them proved to be nearly impossible. Schooners avoided the treacherous, rocky coast and the nearest market was Port Angeles, 60 miles away. Cattle could be driven overland, albeit arduously, but crops regularly rotted before they could be transported. Time passed. The railroad was never built, and the Forks area stayed isolated until a road was built to Crescent Lake in 1927. By then, logging had become the peninsula’s main industry, and farming was regulated to the background.

Though the region’s economics shifted, its agrarian spirit never died. It just turned inward, creating a self-contained world of fourth- and fifth-generation farmers who maintain a fierce loyalty to their neighbors. Drawing it into the mainstream is the mission of the Olympia Culinary Loop, an organization dedicated to defining, promoting, and celebrating the cuisine of the Olympic Peninsula. It’s one of the first organizations of its kind in the country, a remarkably detailed cross-industry collaboration between tourism boards, chambers of commerce, growers, suppliers, distributors, restaurants, wineries and lodging. Far beyond a standard marketing program, the group has developed practices that nurture local connections from the ground up

To become members of the Culinary Loop, businesses must pledge to use, support and promote products grown, foraged, caught and produced on the Olympic Peninsula. Restaurants are required to feature at least three menu items made from local ingredients and using native preparation methods, like planking and smoking. All businesses must also educate their staff so they can disseminate the Culinary Loop’s mission to their customers.

The organization launched in 2009 and started out small—at press time, it has about 30 dedicated members—but has plans to expand with a new comprehensive website that will include culinary itineraries, member profiles and newsletters. And finally, the Olympic Peninsula has the potential to fulfill the dreams of settlers more than a century ago, connecting its rainy paradise with the outside world.


Bogs & Beaches


120 miles south of the wild, fog-shrouded Olympic Peninsula sits the Long Beach Peninsula—a narrow 28-mile long finger of land between the Pacific Ocean and Willapa Bay that’s home to a few thousand residents and a very separate, yet still very rich, culinary history.

The two regions are opposites in many ways. The Olympic Peninsula’s dense forests and cloud cover fosters a feeling of enclosure, even on the prairies; the Long Beach Peninsula is all about wide skies and 26 straight miles of beach. The Olympic Peninsula’s identity grew out of isolation and the hard work of stoic homesteaders, the Long Beach Peninsula’s economic fortune was shaped by the outside world’s interest in its natural resources. What links the two regions is their growing sense of culinary rebirth after initial failure.

Oysters first brought the Long Beach Peninsula into the spotlight, driven by the demand of East Coast transplants in San Francisco following the California gold rush. Willapa Bay’s easy access to the Pacific Ocean and harvest-friendly tide flats (half of the bay is exposed at low tide) quickly made Washington the biggest supplier of oysters to the booming city to the south, and the clapboard town of Oysterville—one of the oldest in the state—sprang up to accommodate the rush.

Though the Long Beach Peninsula’s climate is too cool and cloudy to support most crops, local Chinook Indians had always harvested the ruby-red berries that grew wild in bogs. In the 1880s, Anthony Chabot—a successful San Franciscan engineer interested in growing cranberries commercially—bought land in Pacific County and noticed that the region’s cranberries bore a striking resemblance to those of Cape Cod. He imported hundreds of thousands of vines from Massachusetts and planted them near Seaview. A few other entrepreneurs followed suit, and cranberry bogs became a permanent feature of the local landscape. Transportation was soon needed to run mail, passengers, oysters and cranberries up and down the peninsula—and because there was a built-in San Francisco market, the railroad companies didn’t dawdle. A railroad from Nahcotta to Ilawaco was built in 1888 with tracks laid on hard-pack beach. Construction, then service, had to run on the timetable of the tides, earning it the nickname “Clamshell Railroad” that stuck even when it became a branch of the Union Pacific.


The boom couldn’t last forever. Pests and mildew decimated Chabot’s cranberry vines within a decade, and after two decades, the native Willapa Bay oysters were overharvested. Despite efforts to introduce other varieties, the industry left as quickly as it came. Oysterville became a ghost town—and today it is a charmingly well-preserved peek into 19th century life and a great spot for a picnic. Piles of bleached oyster shells still haunt the beach with a ghostly look.

There’s a sense now of a second coming for the southern coast. Cranberries are a major industry once again, thanks to Washington State University’s Cranberry Research Station and Ocean Spray co-operative. Willapa Bay produces 1.5 million pounds of cranberries annually, the most of any region in the state, earning it the name “Cranberry Coast.” Oysters, too, eventually bounced back—Pacific oysters from Japan were introduced in the 1920s and thrived in Willapa Bay, and today, the beds produce almost 10 percent of U.S. oysters.

But most of all, a sense of community and identity has been established, led by restaurateurs Jimella Lucas and Nanci Main. The duo opened acclaimed restaurant The Ark in 1980 and quietly promoted local, organic and fresh food. Theirs wasn’t a conscious revolution; it was simply a function of their community. Lucas and Main maintained their own oyster beds, bought organic ingredients, recycled, composted, were awarded Statewide Environmental Excellence Award from the State Department of Ecology, and eventually distilled their ideas into four cookbooks. The pair sold the Ark in 2004, but now operate Nanci and Jimella’s Klipsan Market Cafe, a combination market/restaurant, where handwritten signs tell you the name of the oysterman who harvested the oysters you’re about to buy, and extol the virtues of the housemade, locally grown cranberry butter.

It will be interesting to watch the second act of the two peninsulas’ culinary lives play out. Unlike the tourist-friendly Oregon and California coastlines, Washington’s stretch of land along the Pacific has never been particularly outsider-friendly or accessible. (More than three million visitors come to Olympic National Park annually, but they’re interested in mossy trees, not the windswept beaches). Developing and presenting a local food movement to the outside world could help our coast define itself—as anthropologist Richard Wilk wrote in Home Cooking in the Global Village, “Maybe there is something about globalization itself that produces local culture, and promotes the constant formation of new forms of local identity, dress, cuisine, music, dance, and language.” As Seattle grows into a world-class city, and our national food culture continues to be directed by global brands, it’s increasingly more important to turn to our own past in order to understand where we’re going in the future. After all, the more we change, the more we stay the same.


Anna Roth is a food writer and editor. Her first book, West Coast Road Eats: The Best Road Food From San Diego to the Canadian Border, will be published by Sasquatch this month. She blogs at www.annaroth.tumblr.com.

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