Northwest cuisine has been its own category for a long time. At its simplest, it boils down to seafood and fresh produce — salmon, Dungeness crab, Penn Cove mussels, blackberries, and a plethora of farm-fresh vegetables along with locally sourced meats. But, what about the original Northwest cuisine — foods that are native to this region and have been harvested and utilized by indigenous peoples for hundreds of years? The culinary team at The Herbfarm asked just such a question last year. Never an institution to cut corners when it commits to an ideal (for example dinners where ingredients are sourced from a 100-mile radius), chef Chris Weber and proprietor Ron Zimmerman consulted ethnobotanist Heidi Bohan, author of The People of Cascadia, to lead the way on this project.
Bohan was first exposed to Northwest-native foods during her marriage to a Haida tribal member. “During our 14-year relationship, I was privileged to attend many traditional-foods feasts enjoying amazing traditional foods,” says Bohan. When both of her parents-in-law passed away from diabetes and heart disease she says was attributed to a diet largely lacking in traditional foods, Bohan began to research the health benefits of historic traditional foods. Through her research over the next several years, she helped to restore native plant habitats and gardens for the purpose of harvests, supporting efforts to bring back the traditional-food systems within tribal communities.
Many of the traditional foods cherished by Native Americans are all but impossible to find — like the potato-like water-loving Wapato bulbs, tubers of the Pacific Silverweed, the corms of Camas. Lacking dairy and olive oil, fats were sourced from fish and even bears.
Weber, Zimmerman, and Bohan researched for months to discover what proteins and edible plants are actually native to the Pacific Northwest and designed a one-of-a-kind menu to reflect their findings. The “Land of Totems” menu did not attempt to prepare the ingredients according to traditional methods, but rather to utilize these forgotten items with modern cooking interpretations.
“There is a longstanding tradition of food here that we are learning for the first time,” Weber said.
Zimmerman says that even though The Herbfarm has worked with wild, indigenous edibles for well over a quarter of a century, the sheer number of foods that were historically eaten in this region still surprises him. Bohan supplied them with some of the foods she had collected and preserved over the years, suggested some cultivated sources, and harvested some of the foods prior to the meal.
When they debuted the menu in May, it was challenging to imagine how it would all come together. But, the experience was true to form — another excellent and insightful presentation by The Herbfarm.
On the menu
For the first course, Weber’s “Shellfish Midden” consisted of mussels, clams, oysters, and pink scallops accompanied by goose-tongue grass, marsh samphire, and wild nodding onion. The shellfish juices were thickened with cedar. While we waited for the next course, we dipped bannock bread in smelt oil — a delightful surprise, says Bohan.
The next course featured elk tartare with Sumac berry, Devil’s club, and sunflower seed stones. Weber’s favorite course was the “Bulb and Bear” — light, fluffy Wapato doughnuts fried in bear fat with wild onion and turnip greens that were melted into a sauce with little slices of a “leather” made from salal berries.
The traditional salmon-head soup was perhaps my favorite course, served with Salish spot prawns and alaria seaweed. “Duck: Corpse of Discovery” (an unappetizing but clever play on Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery) featured duck prepared in several ways, from duck-leg sausage with cranberries to barbecued neck to smoked heart with cattail shoots.
Dessert was an acorn-meal fry bread sweetened with hazelnut sugar, whipped berry juice, and wild Nootka rose meringue.
Chef Weber anticipates attempting this concept again next year.
“My hope is that this meal will help to highlight the importance of helping to preserve, protect, and restore these lost resources for traditional-foods access within tribal communities.” theherbfarm.com