Take a walk through the tiny burg of Edison in the Skagit Valley and discover local, fresh-from-the-farm and artisan food.
The Skagit Valley is famous for its tulip festival and delectable strawberries come June. But poke around some more and you’ll bump into the valley’s tiny gourmet hot spot. Twenty minutes from Mount Vernon, Edison is the kind of place that zealous foodies in Seattle troll blogs to find, but without the big-city price tags or hoo-ha.
Lined with paint-chipped clapboard buildings, Edison is more street than town. Arrive hungry, park your car (or bike), and walk from one end of the street to the other for a complete meal — appetizers, main course, dessert(s) and goodies for the ride home. Call it progressive dining on foot.
At my friend Roger’s suggestion, we kick off our venture with lunch at the Edison Inn. (I trust Roger’s taste because he will drive an hour out of his way for the right cinnamon roll.) Fake laminated wood tops the bar, and pictures of near-naked cowgirls toting pistols hang from the walls. But one look at the menu board and you know this isn’t your average biker bar. Along with burgers and fries, the inn features dishes that surprise. Gazpacho. Pulled-pork sandwiches. Ribs.
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Tempting as these are, I’m here for the oysters. My mother grew up in Shanghai and passed along to me her love for all things from the sea. I order two Pacific oyster shooters. Each comes nestled inside a Jack Daniels shot glass, a dollop of hot sauce over the top. I gulp them down. They’re perfect — pudgy, squishy, bursting with brine. We follow up with pan-fried oyster burgers and crispy fries. Among a wide selection of beers, Roger is happy to find Boundary Bay’s Scotch Ale on tap.
We chat with Bob, a middle-aged, red-haired (what’s left of it) fellow who is bartender and historian rolled into one. He thinks people like the Edison Inn because they let customers be who they are. A dozen silver-haired ladies — you might picture them at a bridge club more than a bar — chatter away in the dining room. The women are Sedro-Woolley High School graduates who lunch together once a month. “We serve them good food and let them have a good time,” Bob says. “They can rearrange the tables, laugh and stay as long as they’d like.” And what the inn lacks in view or upscale ambience it makes up for in value. Says Bob, “You can get a basic all-American burger, fries and a beer for under $10.”
Roger and I finish our oyster burgers and cross the street to the Farm to Market Bakery. Jim and Lisa Kowalski recently bought the beloved business from Doris Robbins and her daughter, Chelan. As part of the deal, the Kowalskis inherited the coveted recipe for the lime-soaked polenta cake, a treat that boasts a following from Anacortes to Seattle. It’s just one of the items the couple has pledged to keep on the menu, along with fruit pies, cinnamon rolls and lunch fare like soups and sandwiches. They’re devoted to local, organic ingredients and a menu that shifts according to season as well as Jim’s mood.
All the same, the Kowalskis are eager to expand their repertoire to include treats like cheesecake and morel quiche. During our visit, we taste-test a lavender-honey crème brûlée. “Is the flavor too strong?” Jim asks. He swirls the crème around in his mouth, calibrating the balance of ingredients.
Before Roger and I leave town, we stop by Slough Foods, a deli wonderland, and the Breadfarm, an artisanal bakery. These are not run-in/run-out places. The chocolate, cheese, bread and cookies elicit oohs-and-ahs, storytelling and taste-testing. Lots of taste-testing. At Slough Foods, I order agrumi, a salami infused with orange and cardamom, and a chunk of Chistou, a Basque cheese. Next door at the Breadfarm, I fall in love with a loaf of Samish River potato bread.
So how did tiny Edison become such a food haven? Perhaps it’s the confluence of sea and farm. Edison’s proximity to Samish Bay means fresh shellfish, and the surrounding farmlands yield a wealth of farm goods. Or perhaps it’s a locavore thing. Only these aren’t just folks who eat local, but are local. Jim, a chef by trade via Detroit, learned to bake at the Breadfarm. Lisa is the granddaughter of Leonard Lee, the self-proclaimed mayor of Edison.
Edison businesses change hands routinely. And while this could spell trouble anywhere else, it seems to work here. Maybe it’s because shop owners are often locals who once went afield to learn about food and wine, then brought their knowledge back home. They revitalize the area in the same way that local salmon go out to sea and return to renew their native watersheds.
With Seattle to the south and Bellingham to the north, Edison is a crossroad. It draws visitors and cyclists eager for a scenic route and a respite from the concrete of Interstate 5. As Bob at the Edison Inn puts it, “All roads lead to Edison.”
Eve M. Tai is a Seattle freelance writer. One of her essays will be featured in “Best Food Writing 2008.” Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.