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