As she takes on a new role reviewing restaurants at The Seattle Times, Bethany Jean Clement shares the story of a meeting with a fan that illuminates where she comes from and how she became a food writer — and she gets an unexpected gift, too.
A reader called me the other day. “Bethany Jean?” she said. “This is Martha Jean!” She said she’d kept up with my food stories since I started at The Seattle Times five years ago, and that she knew I must be busy, especially with the changes coming up — she’d clearly guessed that I’d be stepping into the restaurant critic role, but tactfully didn’t say so, as that was still under wraps. But she wanted to give me the Hamilton Beach Mixette hand mixer her mother gave her for her wedding 50 years ago. Who could say no?
Could I come and pick it up? Martha asked. So I found myself in her tidy retirement apartment. In the process of downsizing, she was “finding homes for things.” She’d already gotten in touch with chef Heather Earnhardt and given her some antique plates — she loved The Wandering Goose and the Tokeland Hotel, though she’d not been to the latter since Heather took over. “The plates will be perfect on a shelf in the dining room there!” I said, which is true, and Martha agreed, with maximal satisfaction.
She used to get out to all the new restaurants, Martha said — she’s 89 now and can’t anymore. I told her she looked great, which is true. She wears very cool glasses, the kind you’d see on the proprietor of an art gallery.
She asked when I had started writing, and I had to stop to think. The answer seemed like a strangely intimate one, but I already loved Martha.
I was little, I told her, maybe 7, when my mom’s father died — she got a phone call, then, strangely, went out on the front porch with my dad, where, yet more strangely, she wept and wept while he held her. I watched through the picture window, getting my first inkling of how suddenly cruel life can be. I went up to my room and wrote a story about it. I called it, I told Martha, “The Call.” All I really remember about my grandpa is the bright orange, salty-smelling roe he used as fishing bait — that and the taste of a steak from a moose he’d hunted, and how I could sit, fitting perfectly, in the center of its antlers.
We talked a little bit about mothers, and I asked Martha if she’d grown up in Seattle. She’s been here for many years but came from the Midwest, where her parents had a sheep ranch. She told me about that, and I told her about my paternal grandmother’s one-woman Angus cattle operation outside Sunnyside, Washington, and how we went over on weekends to help — mending fences, taking the cattle out to the sagebrush in the spring and back to the pasture by the house in the fall. My job during branding was to clip away a square of hair.
Martha had lived in Madrona for decades, by the end of which, it wasn’t the same — not as mixed in terms of race, overall snootier, she said with regret. I told her that I grew up in a house on Capitol Hill, back when people like my family could afford such a thing.
We talked about gardening, and it sounds like both Martha and my mother are better at than I am. And about cooking — ditto. Martha asked me what I’d had for lunch, and I told her cold roasted red pepper and tomato soup, with a few cherry-sized fresh mozzarella balls dropped in and some fresh basil on top. She approved. I didn’t tell her I bought the soup at Trader Joe’s; while I’ve made soup in the summertime, I don’t make a practice of it. She said that at her age, she didn’t need much for lunch. She’d have a proper dinner, though? Indeed.
Martha told me about her work in social services, and she was pleased by the fact that both of my parents had long careers as social workers. She’d once gotten her dream job, in vocational rehabilitation, then got laid off due to budget cuts before she could enact any of her plans. She’d put her head down on her desk and cried. I told her about getting fired during a regime change at Seattle Weekly, where I started as a copy editor, then became the food editor and managing editor, and how I cried too — then we both laughed.
She asked me how I got my job writing about food at The Seattle Times, and I gave her the short version: That I wrote restaurant reviews and a bar column (and more) for The Stranger for seven years, during which time I was also the managing editor, which was a lot, too much, really, and how much I loved having only one fantastic job now. The longer version would include an alarming adolescent growth spurt that made eating an urgent, indiscriminate matter; working at a French bakery and as an easily rattled tavern cook; unglamorous freelance writing for the likes of coffee trade publications; a miracle gig getting paid to write mini-reviews for a proto-Yelp while living in San Francisco; traveling as much as I could afford. She said she loved my writing, and I told her that I love what I do, and if that came through, I was so happy.
Martha gave me the mixer, which still works. She said it outlived the marriage, and she laughed. She showed me a small Chihuly she’d bought for $40 long ago, at one of his first shows.
She had something else for me, she said, and had me fetch a box. Inside were seven mismatched miniature saucers of heavy porcelain, in the style of old dinerware. They were individual butter dishes, she said — she loves butter, and when she was little, she’d eat it plain. Who doesn’t love butter? I said. I mentioned how at my grandma’s, I’d go up to the shed by the barn where the giant bag of rock salt for the cattle sat in a barrel and eat salt out of my hand.
She said the little butter dishes were from old restaurants around Seattle; uncharacteristically, she couldn’t remember which.
Wait a minute, I said. You stole these!
Yes, she said, with total delight, and we laughed. The purloined butter dishes!
She gave me some pages from The Seattle Times to wrap them up in. I must remember to write her a thank-you note.