Pike Place Market


Pike Place Market

There is rarely a morning sun over Washington’s Cascade Mountains and volcanic range. Morning is Seattle is glacial grey and perpetually 55 degrees Fahrenheit. It is for this reason that the locals imbibe so much coffee—a caffeinated solution for the Vitamin D-filled sunshine locked behind the billowy clouds. Locals don the practical outerwear of outfitters like REI, Filson and Columbia, being prepared at a moment’s notice to take to the natural world surrounding the city. And tourists and locals alike scurry toward the Puget Sound for their provisions, where along the vast Seattle shoreline sits a venerable West Coast institution, Pike Place Market.

Most Americans know the name, usually declared in its short form, “Venti, Pike,” at a million Starbucks establishments daily. The Pike Place blend is named for the very first Starbucks location, along Market Street in the heart of the market district. Pike Place Market has, like many charming destinations, been overexposed by the foodie industry’s minions. You know the type—the food porn intelligentsia and celebrity chefs that scour every bit of America for that unique, authentic local experience. Pike Place is a curious tourist trap in that most of the goods for sale there are perishables—Dungeness Crab and Alaskan Salmon, regional berries, nuts and vegetables. The tourist will neither haul Pacific seafood on a 2000 mile flight back east, nor prepare a savory dish in their hotel room. Aside from the instant edibles in the market stalls, and the occasional shrink-wrapped fare, Pike’s offers memories for the senses to preserve.

Pike Place Fish Market

Fortunately, I first came to know Pike Place not through the prodding of a food porn huckster, but by one of those cheesy videos that Human Resource directors love—the team building/inspirational type. The FISH! Philosophy was inspired by the fishmongers at the heart of Pike Place, the ebullient staff revel in their fish handing, tossing 30+ lb salmon through the air to one another with abandon (tourists can now try their hand at catching the flying fish.)

I cannot help but feel in a good mood wandering through the food stalls, the boutique markets, despite the gloomy overcast skies. On my most recent visit, I caught myself whistling the same tune over and again, preserved here via a jazzy, muffled (albeit tinny and poorly tuned) trumpet.

What can the tourist take home from the market then? New visitors are forewarned: Prepare for sensory overload. The early morning sound of farmers and fishers unloading their bounty, the yeasty plume of baked bread fills the streets. The glint of crushed ice catches the neon from the stentorian signage.  Buskers claim their corner for the morning, eeking out the first chords on the guitar. The earliest of birds are up before the tourist onslaught, to get their groceries and drink deeply of their morning coffee rituals.

Vital Tea Leaf, Seattle

What began as kiosks and grocers’ stalls in 1907 has become a celebration of fare and the joie de vivre. I usually began my trips at the far end, near the Vital T-Leaf, a Taiwanese tea house offering the visitor an authentic tea house experience. Sitting at the counter, the vendor prepares samples for his guests, reading the reaction of the sippers to the fermented pu-erh, the grassy green needle and the peaty monkey-picked varieties of green tea. Showing the correct temperature and method for steeping his prized teas (some of which are in the hundreds of dollars per pound), I settle on my particular favorite–Tie Guan Yin–the “Iron Goddess” oolong tea. He is as proud of his calligraphy as he is of his tea, and marks my sachet with the Chinese characters for the Iron Goddess.

Making cheese

There are other worthy delights. Piroshky-Piroshky offers up savory Slavic pies and pockets. Nearby Beecher’s has put cheese making on display, as cheesemongers curdle and press massive tablets of soft cheese for their toasted sandwiches and satin mac-n-cheese. And the Confectional offers up the sinfully decadent cheesecake truffle–a perfect trinity of candy, cake and chocolate.

The 1st Starbucks

Each of these vendors hopes for the good luck of another once-local, now international vendor, who grew from its humble roots as a 70’s era coffee and espresso shop into an American success story. Starbucks has maintained its store number one, complete with its Renaissance (yet burlesque) original logo, dated 80’s fonts and gritty counter tops as a museum piece. Nearby, a much larger Starbucks has opened to capture the overflow from the original act.  Ordering the “Venti, Pike” at the milestone seems as about as American now as taking the family photo before the Grand Canyon.

Still beyond the vendors are the shops that linger on the periphery–Restaurants in Pikes, the Pink Door-serving Italian cuisine–and the Athenian oyster bar offer a slow food experience amidst the hustle of the market below. Left Bank Books, near the main entrance, offers that jolt of socialism and anarchy for the bibliophile, as shelves heave with Marx, Trotsky, Gramsci and Abbe Hoffman, and nearby racks of pamphlets written by the next anarchist await a sympathetic reader. Left Bank is perhaps the only vendor activity eschewing any of Starbucks success of course. But I cannot help but note the irony of seeing tourists with their little mermaid paper cups thumbing through the Left Bank’s stacks with their corporate-coffee free thumb.

Pike Place Market, Seattle, Left Bank Books

Certainly other major cities can lay claim to having an older local market building–recently revived to capture the locavore spirit. But Pike Place is more than a weekend market or the must-see attraction, as declared by a food porn industry. The charisma, the experimentation, and the positive love of life within Pike Place for this author rank among the very best travel experiences. Pike Place is one of the oldest and longest running markets in the country. Its quasi-governmental board assures that the locals and tourists alike will “Meet the Producers” and not phony vendors pretending to be farmers and fishers. Pike Place is a pantheon to the food gods, a living museum, and the ur-farmer’s market that so many towns have emulated from coast to coast.

Day 230/365 - Sunset at the Public Market

Pike Place Evening Photo credit: michaelrighi / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Pike Place Sunset Photo credit: Great Beyond / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Fish Throwing Photo credit: dbnunley / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Left Bank Photo credit: Curtis Cronn / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Beecher’s Photo Credit: afagen / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Vital T Photo Credit: Sammamish Arts Commission / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

First Starbucks Photo Credit: Frank Kehren / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


Chowdah, Coast to Coast

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New England Clam Chowder was noticeably absent from my Midwestern childhood. After all, the nearest clams to the Midwest that were not shipped or flown in were found in nature, at least 600 miles away. The Midwest is corn country. We have fresh corn. If we eat chowder, it is made of corn. And that chowder is yellow. This is hardly what the Puritans had in mind with their creamy masterpiece.

If you really wanted clam chowder in fly-over country (or as we called it, the Mid-Best), you could try the canned variety. The tinny, brackish bowl of grey with chewing gum bits and perplexingly geometric potatoes was hardly a substitute for the real thing. You can only imagine the true chowder’s revelatory impact on the tongue of the innocent Midwesterner–a cream-based, salty, tender, vibrant, rich restorative. It was ecstasy–as in the manner of St. Theresa.


The chowder purists of New England, like their Puritanical ancestors, insist upon a brief list of ingredients in their “chowdah”–clams, stock, cream, onions, and potatoes. The ecstasy was not included nor probably appreciated. One can almost imagine Sam Adams himself declaring “A plain soup, for a plain people.”

Legal Seafoods, a Boston-based restaurant that in recent years has expanded along the East Coast, makes the definitive New England Clam Chowder. A family business now in its third generation, Legal strives to support local fisheries and fisherman in their operation, often supporting sustainable fishing efforts. Their flagship clam chowder has been served at presidential inaugurations since the 1980’s. They have expanded over the years to a behemoth 30+ locations, but it is one of the few chains I can happily support.

Legal doesn’t mess with success. They use quality ingredients that make this New England Clam Chowder tops for me. In the words of David Chase, voiced by his character Uncle “Junior” Soprano, this soup “comes heavy, or not at all.” Cream is part of the base, and if you are a 2% milk person, you are going to notice the milk fat immediately. Then you are going to wonder why you have denied yourself cream your whole life. Add in butter, onions sauteed in salt pork fat, clam juice simmered with garlic, potatoes cubed, and toothsome fleshy Littleneck clams with a hit of black pepper and oyster crackers adrift in the cup, and you have what I think is a perfect chowder. Legal offers a light version to satisfy the American obsession with no-flavor, non-fat cuisine. It is fine if you are into that self-flagellation. (Same goes for pointless light beer, I suppose. Someone has to eat and drink it. And that someone is not me.)

There are other claimants to the chowder throne, even within New England. They are the Voldemort’s of chowder–the red variations of Rhode Island and Manhattan. They are not the inspiration for this essay. So perplexing is the tomato and broth based chowder that certainly it is this reason–and not religious conviction–that the pilgrims told Roger Williams to get out of the settlement and go found Rhode Island, taking his septic, red brine with him. Maine in fact banned the inclusion of tomato in clam chowder (can a state actually do that?) in the 1840’s to prevent its return to the land of cream-based chowder. But by then, New Englanders were off to settle America, and new immigrants to the East Coast would follow them.

No traveler is left unchanged by their travel. And clam chowder is no exception. As the settler’s spirit moved across the American frontier, taking the memories of their sea breeze and soup with them, the chowder was transfigured by the American Experience. By the time the settlers and immigrants got to the ends of America, to the place where Lewis and Clark saw the Pacific for the first time–the Pacific Northwest and her Puget Sound–the settler’s palate had gathered up the flavors of the the heartland, the terrior that includes aromatic veggies and bacon.

One of those immigrants to the Pacific Northwest was Ivar Haglund. Old Iver was a folk singer and an adventurer in the spirit of Mark Twain. Entrepreneurial, he founded an tourist trap aquarium on Elliott Bay on the Seattle waterfront. However, by the 1940’s, his seafood stand was doing better business, and he focused his efforts on his restaurant, Ivar’s Acres of Clams, with outlandish and pun-riddled slogans (“Keep Clam and Carry On!) and encouraged locals to engorge lazy seagulls with his french fries off of Pier 54.


The clam chowder of the Pacific Northwest doesn’t really have an official name. I have seen it as “Ivar’s Puget Sound Clam Chowder,” “Northwest Clam Chowder,” “Seattle Clam Chowder,” and so on. How Pacific of the west coast, so laid-back, so unassuming, that they can’t be bothered to give this variation an official handle. What I have found consistently in the Pac-Northwest varieties is a more pronounced use of celery, onions (sometimes green onions) and smokey bacon added into the traditional mix of New England ingredients. What you end up with, is a wholly unique flavor adapted to the overcast, cool and calm Pacific coast.

Ivar’s seems to be available day-long–from the early hours on the morning ferry boat ride to the Olympic Peninsula to the late-night line to ward off an impending hangover.

Those varieties of the clam chowder, the foundational New England Clam Chowder and her cross-continental cousin in the Pacific Northwest, accomplish the task for their climate. They provide the weary with a cauldron of dense warmth that will reach the coldest bone. As for this traveler, I seek out a reunion with a cup or bowl of the stuff often. It is the first order of business when arriving in Boston or Seattle, and when I depart, I think longingly toward the next encounter with this American classic, in its rightful setting–whether in the east or the west.

Legal’s Chowdah Photo credit: Jack Amick / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

Ivar’s Chowder  Photo credit: I am Jeffrey / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Ivar’s Seagulls Photo credit: Laurent Bugnion / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SASt.

Teresa’s Ecstasy Photo credit: profzucker / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Post-Script: Ivar’s Acres of Clams, his restaurant, takes its name from the folk song, “The Old Settler’s Song.” Ivar surely could have played the tune on command:

(This tune instantly transports me to the Puget Sound, leaving that spinal chill, and a slight tear in my eyes for one of my favorite places in the world.)