Spot prawns cooked by Riley Starks at the Willows Inn
May brings good things to Lummi Island, Washington. Orcas, for example, start migrating south through Puget Sound, providing a prime show for anyone who happens to be on the deck of the Willows Inn at just the right moment.
May is also the beginning of spot-prawn season and a busy time for Riley Starks, owner of the Willows Inn. Starks buys the giant red prawns locally and serves them on the inn's deck every Sunday through August. It's become an island tradition, feasting on spot prawns while trying to glimpse orca fins as the sun dips into the Pacific.
"I love cooking them live and head on, because that represents a peak taste experience, and that's what I live for," Starks says as he works the stove. "They're so ephemeral, and they simply cannot be enjoyed that way except near where they are caught."
One-of-a-kind taste experiences are the rule on Lummi Island, where organic is in, small farms thrive, and an unusual sustainable fishing practice is being revived. "In the summer, we have meals where everything but the salt, pepper, oil, and vinegar is grown on the island," says Sharron Antholt, an artist who, with her husband, Chuck, grows lavender at Three Pheasants Farm.
"I used to think Pike Place Market was the most divine place," Sharron says. "But now when I ask, 'Chuck, when did you pick this?' and he tells me, 'This morning,' I say, 'Then I'm going to pick my own.' "
The last best place
Not far from the border with British Columbia, and about a two-hour drive (plus a 10-minute car-ferry ride) from Seattle, Lummi is not one of the more celebrated of the San Juan Islands. The rich and famous don't have second homes here, and the island's visitors sleep in only a handful of places. The main pastimes are visiting farms and art studios and tooling around the perimeter road on foot or by bike, taking in views of Puget Sound on one side and Mt. Baker on the other.
The main places to eat are the dining room at the Willows Inn, its Taproot Pub and Espresso Bar, and the Beach Store Café, all owned and run by Riley Starks and Judy Olsen.
"We're trying to create a model of small-scale production, eating what you grow," Starks says, referring to the organic produce and free-range chickens he and Olsen raise at their Nettles Farm. "People should be able to visit the place where their food is grown ― like our kitchen. We give tours of it all the time."