Nourishing Hero: Tamara Murphy

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:

London Calling: British Fare Inspires an American Cook

Earlier this week, a survey from Animal Welfare Approved and the Center for Sustainable Tourism landed in my in box. It was designed to gauge how far people are willing to travel for food, particularly cruelty-free fare. If you love food, all your travel plans–whether they’re around the world or to the next county–likely start with researching what to eat and drink.

The survey was timely, since I’ve just returned from a week in England, which is a wonderful destination for compassionate foodies. It’s been awhile since my last trip across the pond, but I’ve certainly been aware of the rise of British cuisine. Still, there was a time–not that long ago–when great food was the last thing you’d expect from a trip to Britain. Aside from high tea, of course, and old-school pub grub (not to be confused with the swankier gastro-pub fare that has washed up on our shores).

We all know how much that’s changed. British chefs are all over American media these days–Jamie with his Food Revolution, Gordon with his potty-mouthed antics, Nigella with her Earth Mother food porn. Their approaches may be different, but they all share a passion for fare made from high-quality, seasonal ingredients. I saw evidence of that everywhere I went, from the heart of London to the ‘burbs.

London’s vast Borough Market may well be ground zero of the British food celebration, with a heavy emphasis on the organic and sustainable. Three days a week, merchants sell the country’s best produce, cheese, meat, poultry and seafood–along with plenty of offerings from elsewhere in the European Union. This is where Londoners can stock up on free-range eggs from the Lake District, wild boar sausage from Cumberland, scallops harvested from local waters and other treasures.

Of course, there are many well-known restaurants showcasing great British food–St. John Bread & Wine, to name just one–as well as top local ingredients used in other cuisines. But I found care for quality and origin is a common theme. Hungry commuters passing though London’s busy rail stations can swing into Camden Food Co. outlets to pick up organic, fair-trade grab-and-go food in recyclable packaging. Then there’s Loch Fyne, a nationwide chain that specializes in sustainable wild-caught and farmed seafood from British waters. (Think Red Lobster, but more upscale, with a conscience and much better food.)

I brought a bit of this inspiration home, in the form of Nigel Slater’s cookbook, Tender, Volume I: A Cook and His Vegetable Patch (Fourth Estate). If you’ve signed up for a CSA and need ideas to use up all that bounty, order a copy of Slater’s book forthwith (along with the followup volume on fruit). You’ll be seduced by Slater’s approach to cooking–usually just a handful of well-chosen ingredients made even better with simple techniques that I think typifies British chefs’ no-nonsense style and love of homey comfort. That’s coupled with the opinionated charm with which he writes about his subject. Slater on Brussels sprouts: “The petit chou has never been a star and we do the best we can to make them palatable.” But he does much more than simply make them palatable. His half-dozen sprout recipes render the much-maligned veggie mouthwatering.

Rule Britannia.

Warm Brussels Sprouts Slaw with Bacon

This recipe is inspired by British chef Nigel Slater’s book, Tender, Volume I, A Cook and His Vegetable Patch. Slater calls for blanching the whole Brussels sprouts before sauteing them in the bacon fat. Shredding the Brussels sprouts allows you to skip that step and yields a slaw-like side dish that’s great with roast beef, pork or fish. Juniper berries have an astringent quality that’s a nice counterpoint to the earthy sprouts and smoky bacon. If you don’t have them on hand, substitute a splash of gin (which is made from juniper berries) or, in a pinch, a squeeze of lemon. I like to season this dish with flaky Maldon salt, which comes from the town of Maldon, not far from where my husband’s family live in Essex.