Pacific Northwest | December 14, 2003Pacific Northwest MagazineDecember 14, home
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Special Arts Issue

Forming a Palate
Through sharing and experience, we find the 'good' in food
ONE EVENING last summer, as the season drew to a close, I played host to a "Dinner in the Barn" at the home of my friend Jerilyn Brusseau on Bainbridge Island. On a whim, we scrubbed her old sheep barn from top to bottom and invited in the angels of air and light and water. Then we invited a bunch of friends to join us.

Jerilyn and my wife Betsy set a table for 18 and covered it with linen tablecloths, old silverware, bowls of flowers and polished brass candlesticks with beeswax tapers. When they lit the candles, afternoon sun still streamed in through open doors and windows, and through gaps between the boards of the barn itself. Before we were seated, a wreath of whole-wheat bread on a board piled with goat cheeses was brought forth, and as we spread the soft, white goat cheese over the warm, brown bread, I wondered if anything had ever tasted so good.

I suppose that given the setting, almost anything would have tasted good.

That gathering of friends in the barn constituted a charmed and magical moment. But it's also fair to say that the food itself was inherently good. The cheese, handmade by Beverly and Steve Phillips of Port Madison Farm on Bainbridge Island, was no ordinary cheese, and the bread was baked with considerable care by Brusseau herself, a world-class baker who created the original cinnamon roll that became Cinnabon.

So what makes food good? Is it the ingredients, or is it the care and attention applied to those ingredients by the cook? Do great food moments arise spontaneously now and then, here and there, or can they be orchestrated on demand? Why does some food strike one person as good and another as simply strange?

If you ask me, I would say that we each carry inside us a series of criteria that any food must meet in order to qualify as "good." And that arbitrary but exacting set of parameters constitutes a palate.

Like language, a palate is formed early in life. But just like language, palates can grow and change. One's food vocabulary is almost infinitely expandable. As a college student in New England, I drank the crisp and relatively dry cider pressed from apples in Vermont, and subsequently I lost some of my enthusiasm for the overly sweet stuff that came in bottles down South.

Just as I learned new words to express the various feelings that were once summed up by the term "cool," so I learned to appreciate crumbly white cheddar, and found the pre-sliced American cheese of my youth no longer satisfied in quite the same way.

Not long ago, I sampled several brands of apple baby food at the table of my friend Jon Rowley. (Rowley is the man responsible for the Copper River salmon craze, and for several other culinary marvels). I'm not sure what prompted Jon's obsession with applesauce for babies — it came in the wake of a gift of Gravensteins from the tree in my front yard. But Jon has a way of waking up my food senses, bringing deliberate attention to the textures and flavors, aromas and colors that distinguish "Good Food" and make it stand out from the pack of mediocre stuff that surrounds it.

We sampled a jar of something called "Dutch Apple Dessert," a jar of "Organic Apple," and another brand of "100% Gravenstein Applesauce." We also had a jar of my own homemade applesauce on hand to compare. The Dutch apple dessert was bursting with the flavors of sugar and cinnamon but the taste of apple was elusive. The other brands were better — especially the one that was 100 percent Gravenstein. But when we opened the jar of my homemade applesauce and the scent came wafting off the jar, I was transfixed.

Somehow, that jar evoked the tree in my yard, a breeze through my kitchen window, and the dinner in Brusseau's sheep barn.

That night, after the bread and cheese, we sat down to plates of simply dressed farmer's market vegetables on green gypsy plates. Then came grilled salmon with blackberry sauce and corn pudding. And for dessert, we had Gravenstein apples baked in pastry, apples from the same tree that yielded the sauce in that jar. And then it occurred to me: What makes food good might be the story that goes with it.

If we are awake to what's happening, every bite we take can link us to a story. And in the language of the palate, every pantry is a veritable Scheherazade, the source of a thousand and one intriguing tales. I like Gravenstein apples not only because they are fragrant, crisp and juicy. I like them because I associate their aroma with so many good experiences I have had.

And the same might be true of every other food I like.

I still like American cheese grilled on white bread — it takes me back to my grandmother's kitchen, the Formica table top and the vinyl-covered, chrome-legged chairs, the rooster-shaped cookie jar and the cuckoo clock; it all comes back. In the same way, white cheddar evokes Vermont and goat cheese conjures memories of farmer's markets in France.

The only vital connection between these things is my own experience. What makes food good is us. Our own perceptions, heightened by knowledge and awareness, fortified by a lifetime of experience from which we might draw our own thousand and one tales of delight.

Greg Atkinson is a Bainbridge Island writer and author of "The Northwest Essentials Cookbook" (Sasquatch Books, 1999). Susan Jouflas is The Seattle Times' assistant art director.

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