Rowan Jacobsen, “American Terroir” and Taste of Place

The Taste of Place of an Oyster; illustration by Bambi Edlund

The night began at the bar of Savoy with a round of deeply cupped morsels of Shibumi oysters from Washington State’s Puget Sound. These were the oysters before the oysters. I had showed up early because I was nervous and needed a cocktail. I am a cook at chef-owner Peter Hoffman’s Back Forty, and was invited to Savoy, his first restaurant, for the most recent installment in their 17-year-old dinner series. The guest was Rowan Jacobsen, author of the new book American Terroir, and the dinner was appropriately called “Taste of Place.” Peter and Rowan met over oysters at a tasting panel and became friends.  There is a chapter in the book that recounts the tasting and Rowan’s visit to Washington to see the Totten Inlet virginica oyster in its crisp, taste-giving waters. That tale and the others in the book make Peter and Rowan great mutual advocates, and as Peter mentioned several times, while chuckling, to check out his blurb on the back of the book, which reads “American Terroir removes the mystery yet holds onto the romance about superlative ingredients and their source of great flavor.” Oyster tasting builds friendship.

It would be a safe assumption that, as the author of a James Beard Award winning book called The Geography of Oysters, Mr. Jacobsen had met many people while dining on oysters. I was glad to be another one. I have eaten a fair amount of oysters, but that night was my own first introduction-on-the-half-shell. Peter offered me the final oyster, which I was hesitant to take. “Someone other than Rowan can have a third,” Peter encouraged me, but it was not to be. “Oh, okay,” Peter said, somewhat surprised, after Rowan picked up the final intensely curved shell, bringing the sweet meat, and brine to his lips. “There’ll be more oysters upstairs,” Peter assured me as Rowan savored the final bivalve. I had hesitated, and I guess he just wanted it more.  But I couldn’t have cared less; I was just happy to be there and was sure that the night would be a joy.

We finished drinks and were ushered up to the second floor dining room of Savoy. The warmth was perfect upstairs, though the beautiful fireplace had not yet been lit for the season. The mantle, however, was bedecked fittingly for the dinner with goldenrod, pumpkin, and linden honeys, a basket of wild mushrooms, another basket with Ozette potatoes and copies of American Terroir.

And though the fireplace was untouched the same could not be said of the apples Savoy had set out, especially the Golden Russets. For me it was a revelation. The rough potato-like skin and complex interior were the least like what I expect from an apple. Not unlike an Asian pear in appearance, but with an apple attitude. It was neither too sweet, nor too tart, and super juicy. Like crisp, fall earthiness in one’s mouth. The Winesap apple was more popular, and with good cause. It was intensely tart and sweet with an insane crunch and bright red color and streaks of green. The Calville Blanc lost the gastronomic popularity contest due to mushiness from late picking. Perhaps it was a replacement apple for the ones accidentally used by the pastry chef for the day’s crisp. No event goes perfectly.

At times the crowd got rowdy. After Gruet Blanc de Noirs bubbly from New Mexico (“best in New Mexico,” said Jacobsen), the biodymanic “Ca del Solo” Albariño by Bonny Doon from Monterey, California (“one note like a zen gong”), and a “Bien Nacido Vineyard” syrah by Qupé in Santa Marta, CA (“this is the syrah from California”) a food and wine oblivion set in. “So who liked the russets? Who liked the winesaps? Who’s not listening?” Peter tried to get the dinner party refocused after the apple, cheese, and honey course. Wine and dessert have a distracting affect on people. I was still anxious for Jacobsen’s words on coffee. He spoke of a man named George Howell’s intensity to give coffee its truest representation, even though he’s not likely to make money doing it. In Rowan’s book many of the product tales talk about ideals, perfect environments, and ‘oh, wow’ moments, however he always stresses the economic viability of keeping those products alive.

Howell was a special situation because he was set for cash when he sold his cafes to Starbucks in the nineties. Then after years of a non-compete clause with his buyer he began selling his reevaluated vision of coffee perfection. In American Terroir, Howell is quoted as saying, “we’re still in the dark ages. Maybe we’re at the doorstep of golden age.” His job seems to be less of businessman and more the coffee industry’s most progressive beacon of change. Howell light roasts all of his beans except his espresso. He won’t take his coffee to that dark nutty place known and expected by the coffee consumer. Those flavors are more dependent on roasting and less on the subtle quality of sun-dried beauties of terroir that are coffee beans. Their “taste of place” can be masked by the caramelly notes of darker roasts. The night ended with Tarrazu Costa Rican Single Estate coffee, which made a strong case for Howell’s argument, and his appropriately named Terroir Coffee Company. The cup was rich and perfect for dessert and the accompanying chocolate cookie. Jacobsen told us about the attention, labor, and location of the unobstructed naturally bright-tasting beans. The coffee single-handedly made the point for Jacobsen’s book and the dinner: What is flavor and where does it come from?

Jacobsen’s mission seems to be showing off people, lands, and tastes that are disparate from the expected, the industry standards. Jacobsen makes the argument that divergence and contrast are what make great food. In a recently aired interview on WNYC Leonard Lopate asked Jacobsen if it wasn’t elitist to pay such attention to food. To which, he responded, “Isn’t it elitist to have food shipped everyday from Chile?” The Dinner Series rejoiced as the author retold the story. We were satisfied by his rebuttal. The difference between locavorism, or regionalism, and terroir was also on the menu. Locavorism is an environmental choice, but terroir deals with detecting the flavor of where food comes from. Jacobsen noted the advantage of consuming local, but not in a restrictive way. His notion was to take advantage of places that do things well.

Chef Hoffman’s wife Susan later asked me how I’d enjoyed myself. “Anything I could complain about before, I won’t.”

“Who’d listen?” She rightfully determined.

“Seated between Rowan and Anne Saxelby wasn’t such a bad way to spend a Tuesday,” I said.

“Isn’t that elitist?” she countered.

“What? Name dropping and talking about food?” How could I resist?

It is a luxury to be able to discuss food and its intricacies and nuances. However, that was not the only point of the “Taste of Place” dinner. “Interesting flavors are a cooperative effort,” Jacobsen said on the radio. The crux of the dinner was attention to places with special circumstances that productively create superb food. Sure, discussing flavor profiles might seem haughty, but that flavor is only one of the end benefits. Maybe the Peconic Bay scallops we enjoyed were a short seasonal autumn indulgence that many may not have the chance to enjoy, but those Golden Russet apples are only $1.25 a pound at the market. So just about anyone can decide what the fuss is about.

At the end of the night Rowan sniffed a basket of wild forest mushrooms with dirt still on them. “Food is more fun,” he said,  “when it comes with a story.”

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