by Greg Atkinson illustrated by Julie Notarianni SOMETIMES CONTEXT is everything. Pluck a wild blueberry off a bush and you'll experience...

Share story






SOMETIMES CONTEXT is everything. Pluck a wild blueberry off a bush and you’ll experience one thing; find a few nestled on top of lime curd in a lace cookie cup at a fancy restaurant, and you’ll experience quite another. Of course part of the difference is in the berries themselves. The mountain berry in its wild splendor might just pack more of a wallop than the best domesticated berries ever could. But which berry tastes better depends as much on who you are and what you like as it does on the berries themselves.

Joshua Bell is one of the world’s greatest violinists whose instrument of choice is a multimillion-dollar Stradivarius. Not long ago, Gene Weingarten and his editors at The Washington Post persuaded Bell to play his fiddle behind its open case in the middle of morning rush hour at one of the busiest subway stations in the heart of Washington, D.C. Neither the paper nor the musician knew what to expect. Would commuters recognize the beauty of his music taken out of context at an inopportune time?

At 39, Bell is an international superstar and, Weingarten reported in the story he wrote, something of a heartthrob. “Tall and handsome, he’s got a Donny Osmond-like dose of the cutes. . . . When he performs . . . his technique is full of body — athletic and passionate — he’s almost dancing with the instrument, and his hair flies.”

Just days before the experiment, Bell packed the house at Boston’s stately Symphony Hall. Editors wondered how much crowd control would be necessary in the subway station.

As it turned out, hardly anyone stopped to hear the music; “exactly one person recognized Bell, and she didn’t arrive until near the very end,” Weingarten wrote. The story earned him the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing, and it got me thinking: Would I recognize great food stripped of its usual trappings? If I gathered enough of those wild mountain blueberries to bring home, would they taste as good in my kitchen as they do beside the campfire? I may never know. I am never going to pick enough of those wild berries to bring home. When we’re hiking in the mountains, we tend to pick just enough to slake our appetites, and move, bear-like, from one bush to the next, devouring them as we go.

For years, my wife, Betsy, and I spent her birthday in the Cascade Mountains, and I used to rise early to gather enough berries to put them in our pancakes. I would fry up some bacon and whisk together the batter from ingredients I had premeasured at home. Eventually, she told me to skip the pancakes. “I just like the bacon and the berries,” she said. “I hate pancakes.”

Once, when we had been trekking through a bird sanctuary in the Skagit Valley, we stopped at a farm stand to gather items for a picnic lunch. Among other things, we found just-picked blueberries and some delectably oily alder-smoked salmon. The salmon was tender and salty, the berries crisp and sweet. All the right notes were hit, and the combination really struck a chord with us.

A few days later, I tried to summon the spirit of that picnic at home with friends. Rather than drop a cryo-packed chunk of salmon on the dining-room table and pass a pressed-paper box of blueberries, I decided to plant shards of the salmon on a bed of well-dressed greens and tumble the best blueberries I could find over the lot. The resulting salad was evocative of the impromptu picnic in the valley, but it was also something entirely new.

Ultimately, I think each one of us creates the context for what we eat, creating our own frame or concert hall for every meal. It’s not about the silverware or the dishes; it’s about the awareness we bring to the table.

Greg Atkinson is a chef instructor at at Seattle Culinary Academy. He can be reached at greg@westcoastcooking.com. Julie Notarianni is a Seattle Times news artist.

Blueberry and Smoked Salmon Salad

Makes 4 servings

Smoked salmon teams up well with blueberries for dinner. The salad evokes the halcyon days of summer, hiking and marketing in the Pacific Northwest.

For the dressing

¼ cup rice wine vinegar

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon kosher salt

¾ cup canola oil

½ teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper

1 tablespoon poppy seeds

For the salad

5 ounces (3 cups packed) baby arugula leaves

½ cup sweet onion, sliced thin

1 pint fresh blueberries

12 ounces alder-smoked salmon, broken into large flakes

1. To make the dressing: Combine the vinegar, mustard, sugar and salt and whisk until smooth. Dribble in the oil, whisking all the while, then stir in the pepper and the poppy seeds to create a smooth emulsion. You will have more dressing than you need. Keep any extra dressing refrigerated for another day.

2. Toss the arugula in a large salad bowl with the sliced onion and about ½ cup of the salad dressing. Distribute the salad between four plates and top each serving with a handful of blueberries. Distribute the smoked salmon evenly between the salads.

Greg Atkinson, 2008