On Vashon Island, a communitywide feast
A growing group of sustainable farmers, cooks and diners are fostering a self-reliant food scene on Vashon Island.
Special to The Seattle Times
While Vashon Island has long been a place where fresh fruits, vegetables, meats and cheeses are produced, lately, a fully formed chain from farmer to diner has taken shape as more and more like-minded people are heading here for a life dedicated to raising and sharing quality food.
“We have a number of great farmers, bakers, brewers, cheese producers, distillers, vintners and chefs on the island, and at times it can feel like a dream come true for our food-obsessed times,” explains Brian Lowry, farm manager at Hogsback Farm, one of the island mainstays.
Those great farmers, bakers, brewers, cheese producers, chefs and distillers on the island include Hogsback; Bill’s Bread, which bakes beautiful bread; Kurtwood Farms, where world-class cheese is made; Seattle Distilling Company, the first licensed distillery on the island; restaurateur Matt Dillon’s Old Chaser Farm; and Lauren Garaventa, butcher, chef and founder of the Meat & Noodle soup club dinners, to name a few.
“Vashon has a pretty independent spirit, people come here for that,” says Tami Brockway Joyce of Seattle Distilling Company, which has been distilling vodka, gin and whiskey here since 2011. For the handcrafted spirits, she works closely with island farmers, sourcing coriander from Hogsback Farm and lavender from the Lavender Sisters on the island for the Alpinist Gin.
“There’s a rugged individualist spirit that just seems to make sense for an island that has no bridge,” Brockway added. “We have lots of folks who want to make things happen here. Farmers, artists, musicians, performers ... there’s a creative streak here, so we end up with great farmers doing innovative things.”
In line with the Vashon ethos, the distillery also gives its leftover grain to island farmers to raise pigs, chickens, turkeys and hens. In return, one farmer gives back bratwurst and chorizo, which the distillery jokingly refers to as its “employee lunch program.”
At Garaventa’s Meat & Noodle soup club dinners — which happen weekly in the former Sound Foods space — cocktails are crafted using spirits from Seattle Distilling Company, and locals and their commuter friends hover over big steaming bowls of noodle soup.
“I think on Vashon, because there aren’t a lot of restaurants to choose from, a lot of people eat at friends’ houses; I think people kind of prefer the more intimate sort of style,” says one diner I met at a Meat & Noodle dinner who happened to be Leslie Mackie, founder of Macrina Bakery. “And for me, why I’m drawn to this, is sort of the authenticity of the product that’s simple but absolutely delicious. It’s made from the heart and then shared in this way where you have the opportunity to meet other people and have interesting conversations — it’s just a more intimate environment.”
Using vegetables from local farms such as Pacific Crest, Hogsback and Island Meadow, Lauren’s Meat & Noodle dinners also source any meat used in the soups, broth included, from the island.
“I think that a lot of people are moving to Vashon with the idea that it’s kind of a local food haven and I think that the more people who move here with that intention or the more people that there are who believe it, the more we’ll become that,” says Garaventa.
“With the distillery, with Kurt doing so well, I just see people getting more involved with food. It’s not like there was nothing happening on the island before, but I feel like young people are moving to the island to get involved in the food system more than before.”
The Kurt Garaventa speaks of is Kurt Timmermeister of Kurtwood Farms, who recently published his second book, “Growing a Feast.” He’s been here for almost 20 years, a period of time over which he says he’s seen quite a bit of change, particularly in the past decade.
“It’s accelerated over the last few years tremendously,” says Timmermeister, whose Vashon-made cheese is nationally renowned. “There’s Dragon’s Head Cider, which is extraordinary, they’re growing the apples and pears on their farm, and then producing it as well. There’s a winery down on Maury Island that grows the grapes and makes the wine, I think that’s extraordinary. And then there are better and better vegetable growers out there. I think the people are a little more serious and they are sticking with it.
Timmermeister, a pioneer in hosting island dinners, began inviting people to eat on his farm about eight or nine years ago. The meals used ingredients mostly sourced from the farm itself, but for him, he said, it’s about making a living, which is difficult to do relying solely on the island.
“If you want a business and just sell your food on Vashon, I think it’s going to be tough,” he said. He breaks the food community down into professionals, those who sell food products and “homesteaders,” people who choose to live on Vashon because they want to raise or forage for their own food.
Lauren Sheard, co-owner and operator of Farmstead Meatsmith, an island-based butchery and charcuterie service for small farms and homesteads, admits that, food professional or forager, “even the best of us take regular trips to the grocery store or Costco.”
“The farmers here are truly artisans,” says Sheard. “Some are bigger and have small markets in the Greater Seattle area; some raise food only for their families. Some have national reputations, some are known only by their immediate neighbors. All work tremendously hard. Differences exist, but we respect each other’s operations. We share a mutual understanding at the end of the day of what it means to get dirty and grow your own food.”
And while “the grocery store still rules,” says Lowry, he also emphasized that the support people on the island give to quality growers and cooks, combined with the unparalleled support within the island food and farming community itself, gives a unique strength to Vashon’s food community and culture.
Matt Dillon, Seattle restaurateur, Vashon resident and owner of Old Chaser Farm on the island, agrees that there is a community full of like-minded people on the island, “people [who] are doing amazing stuff,” but that the food culture on the island isn’t easily visible, and the financial feasibility as a farmer or restaurateur is tough.
“Back maybe seven or eight years ago there were a few small farmers that were moving out there, and I started going out there, you could kind of feel something starting to happen, like what a great way to feel rural and a little more connected to the food.” he said. “It seems like Vashon could be a really great incubator for ideas”
Hogsback’s Lowry loves growing food for his neighbors on the island, but says he also wants, and sees a need for, Vashon to reach out a bit more to people in the city and become a destination for Seattleites who care about small farms and good food.
“Because we are an island — without a bridge, thank you very much! — we are set apart from the wider urban area around Seattle,” he says. “Little farms like ours can thrive here where we might not if we had to compete directly with larger producers from the East side or Skagit. I think it makes sense for farmers and other producers to start to think of ourselves as part of the city. There are so many talented people here right now and I think the island food scene will just keep growing and growing.
“There are more youngish people here now in general and more folks in their 20s or 30s growing food or cooking than there were five years ago,” he adds.
Lowry sums up a sentiment that seems to be the spreading root of most all food endeavors, whether on Vashon Island or anywhere else in the world.
“I like to think about all the good dinners people are preparing at home with our food and the food our friends grew. It can feel a bit intangible but I guess the idea of nourishing people, as corny and cliché as it sounds, still holds up for me.”
Amy Sung is a freelance food and travel writer. Follow her at @amy_sung.