This is the latest installment in our Nourishing Heroes series, in which we feature the individuals and organizations who inspire us with food that nourishes body, soul and planet. Do you know a Nourishing Hero we should feature? Let us know who inspires you!
It would be easy for Tamara Murphy to rest on her culinary achievements: a James Beard Award, a Food & Wine Best New Chef designation, a shot at “Iron Chef” and over two decades as one of the grande dames of Seattle cuisine. Yet with an unyielding drive to dig deeper and understand our relationship to the food we eat, Murphy has found herself at the helm of a multipronged mission to support local, seasonal, sustainable food and the farmers who grow it.
With her Elliott Bay Café, and an upcoming earth-to-plate eatery (Terra Plata) in the works, she continues a long commitment to supporting local farms. After years of working with the farmers who supply the food she cooks, Murphy knows them and their livelihoods intimately and donates the proceeds from her annual Incredible Feast fund-raising event to the Good Farmer Fund.
She also created Burning Beast, an annual outdoor food fest that brings together local farmers and food producers with Seattle-area chefs, while some very lucky eaters get to enjoy the results. Those of us outside her Seattle realm can sink our teeth into her new cookbook, Tender: Simple Ways to Enjoy Eating, Cooking and Enjoying Our Food (Shin Shin Chez).
When did you start thinking deeply about where your food comes from?
It really started with the pigs. One day I was invited to a party at Whistling Train Farm and saw some piglets running around. I asked if I could buy one. Those were all taken by the neighboring families, but the farmer said I could have one from the next litter.
I was there while the piglets were born. I immediately felt a connection like I had never before. The farmer asked me which one I wanted. I couldn’t decide, so I said I would take all of them. I went down to the farm every week to feed them apples and scraps from the restaurant. It seemed important that I share my experience as it was happening. [The blog] Life of a Pig was the result of those visits.
I’d just signed up to nurture, prepare and eat these creatures. I needed a really good reason why. My newfound connection to something I’d been eating for years took on new meaning. My enlightenment didn’t come from a book; it came from my experience of a firsthand connection to an important food source and a particular farmer. That had been missing from my life. Those little piglets changed my life, and I will be eternally grateful.
What inspires you most about this hands-on intimacy with food?
Even before Life of a Pig, I went out to a farm and picked greens with the farmer. That was backbreaking work—the little mesclun greens, they cut them with a knife at the root. When you start to actually use your hands and experience things that way, the appreciation just becomes so much greater, and obvious.
What are some of the struggles unique to small farms?
One that comes to mind, along practical lines, is the flooding we’ve had recently in our area. On one farm up the Stillaguamish, the river flooded the banks. They had to move the farm and the animals. The water came into her house.
These farmers, they’re doing the right thing, using the right methods, and they don’t get any assistance. They’re not subsidized. That’s what the Good Farmer Fund is for, those unexpected hardships.
Aside from buying local and shopping at farmers’ markets, what else can we do to help ensure a local food supply?
The CSA (community-supported agriculture) program is good. We’re seeing more of that. Because you pay ahead of time, you’re helping the farm get ready for the growing season. They can ensure they’re not just getting money when they harvest and you buy. There are a lot of upfront costs.
What does the title, Tender, mean to you?
Obviously there’s the food relationship, and the price we pay for good food, but I also think about it in terms of the farmers, the ones who tend the earth. All of those definitions fit in our relationship with food and with what the book is trying to convey. It’s about community and the circle of farmers, cooks and eaters.
Food writer and cooking instructor Ginny Mahar currently resides in Missoula, Montana. Read about her mission to bring people back to the table on her blog, The Sunday Dinner Revival.
Meet our other Nourishing Heroes:
- Paul Greenberg, author of Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food
- Kelly Masini, San Jose, Calif.-based community garden activist
- Chris Guillebeau, author of The Art of Non-Conformity
- Curt Ellis & Ian Cheney, documentary filmmakers (King corn and Truck Farm)
- Ana Sofia Joanes, director/producer of FRESH: The Movie
- Rebecca Katz, author of “The Cancer-Fighting Kitchen”
- Ruthi Solari, founder of SuperFood Drive
- Kelly Anderson, The Lunch Bunch