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Originally published Sunday, September 1, 2013 at 5:09 AM

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‘Radical hospitality’ at the Hedgebrook writers colony

“Radical hospitality” is the order of the day at the Hedgebrook writers colony, where women gather to share meals and experience after a days crafting their words.

Seattle Times columnist

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The benches aren’t comfortable at all. Most people might sit long enough to eat a bowl of cereal, then stand up with visible relief.

But not the women who come to Hedgebrook.

Here at this writing retreat on Whidbey Island, women gather at the famed farmhouse table and spend hours, talking, sharing, reading, opening up.

And they eat. Lord, do they eat. Plates heaped with dense vegetable lasagna and salad fresh from the garden with dressing made from scratch. Thick wedges of quiche and chunky piles of colorful fruit. Homemade granola and blueberry cardamom bread. Chocolate shortbread cookies. Vietnamese noodle salad bowls.

The food is not just glorious, it is presented freely. Writers never have to cook or clean up. Just allow themselves to be nurtured so they are free to write books, poetry — whatever they like.

And now, after a quarter century of providing sustenance for the hundreds of women who have passed through this place, Hedgebrook’s food and FarmhouseTable are finally getting a book all their own.

“Hedgebrook Cookbook: Celebrating Radical Hospitality,” holds over 90 recipes from Hedgebrook head chef Denise Barr and her right hand, Julie Rosten.

The book also includes 18 original writings from Hedgebrook alumna such as best-selling novelists Karen Joy Fowler, Dorothy Allison, Ruth Ozeki, Jane Hamilton and Bainbridge Island memoirist Claire Dederer. It will be available in bookstores Sept. 10, and proceeds will benefit Hedgebrook, a nonprofit now celebrating its 25th year.

“Food is how we connect and it’s a way to take care of people,” Barr said one recent morning. “And the idea of a cookbook has been swirling around for years. It’s got recipes, but it’s got a lot of writing.

“People want to take a part of Hedgebrook when they leave. There is something to being able to go home and cook for your family and share that experience.”

In that sense, Rosten said, theirs is not so much a cookbook as a memory book.

“It’s a way to create a little Hedgebrook at home,” she said.

The foreword was written by feminist icon Gloria Steinem, who has become a regular visitor and member of its Creative Advisory Council.

“I’ve experienced the truth of the Hedgebrook phrase, ‘radical hospitality,’ ” Steinem writes. “It’s an umbrella of care that covers such things as fruits, vegetables, flowers straight from the garden and the attention given to preserving the long stretches of undisturbed hours that writers crave.”

Barr’s recipes are based on what will nurture, but also on what’s growing in the Hedgebrook garden and what meats and seafood she can get from local farmers.

“We try to do the local organic thing as much as we can,” she said, adding that she makes adjustments for food allergies and honors requests for standby comfort foods like macaroni and cheese and mashed potatoes.

The farmhouse table at which meals are served is as much a presence as the food, a solid island of calm in a swirling sea of words and paragraphs, ideas and memories, self-doubt and possibilities.

Hedgebrook founder Nancy Nordhoff found the table in a Seattle antique shop decades ago. Its provenance is a little hazy, but Nordhoff believes that the table — long planks of elm with matching benches — may have been built around the time of the French Revolution.

“I have no sense of how old it is, but revolutionary stories go with it, in my mind,” Nordhoff said the other day. “Those two benches have withstood a lot of bottoms for all these years and show no wear at all.

“But the importance of the table is what happens around it. It’s not the most comfortable place to sit, but people seem to do that and that just speaks to the stories and the conversations happening.”

Writers get to the table by following a path from their individual cottages that winds through the woods, passing a garden from which most of their meal will come, and opening a screen door that gently announces their arrival.

Shoes slide off as they set down a basket of empty Ball jars and Tupperware from which they carried their to-go breakfast and lunch that morning. And then they approach the table, take in the smell, the light, the faces, the food and speak, sometimes for their first time all day.

And they are cared for. They don’t have to do anything. Not chop or boil, set or clear. Because the cook always shares a meal with the writers, Rosten has become a better reader, and Barr got to hear Steinem’s story about working as a Playboy Bunny.

They both have been first listeners to pieces of writing, the experiences that spurred the words and the emotions stirred in the process. It is hilarious, it is painful, it is moving. So it is not just dinner at Hedgebrook. It is a ritual that soothes and heals.

“People feel safe here,” Barr said. “Our job is to feed them. To listen. Not impose. Not judge.”

But that takes some getting used to, as Amy Wheeler, Hedgebrook’s executive director, touched on in the book’s introduction:

“As women, we are used to being the nurturers. We make sure others are fed, clothed and taken care of. We enable their work and visions, sometimes at the expense of our own.

“When we turn the tables and nurture a woman writer — we send a powerful message: You are here to be a writer. Not a mother or wife or partner or daughter. Not even a woman writer. A writer.”

Nicole Brodeur: nbrodeur@seattletimes.com.

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Every Sunday, I bring you a conversation with a local who is doing something great, or a great who is doing something local: media personalities, big thinkers, visiting artists, colorful characters and doers of all kinds.
nbrodeur@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2334

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