Based in Olympia, Washington, the Gray Sky Growers are six families united under a common purpose: to win Sunset's One-Block Party contest. And, of course, to have a great time. Being in a cool climate, they've mixed cool-weather crops like kale and kohlrabi with the warm-weather plants like berries. This is their final posting, describing their lavish salmon-and-shellfish feast on September 5.
The warm air that settled on our shoulders and in the spaces between us was stirred up and lifted by the soft tinkling of forks being gently tapped on glassware. With her arms raised slightly at her sides, our team leader, Joellen, was beaming. With a bountiful harvest of thank-you’s, kudos, and general satisfaction at having achieved our goal, we toasted all who contributed to the feast before us.
We were not certain, when we entered this contest back in March, that we could make this little venture work. Gray Sky Growers live in the urban area of Olympia, Washington, within earshot and varying view of the downtown core. However, many of us had at least dabbled in backyard gardening. Having arrived here from many far-flung places throughout the world, some of us grew up on farms, spent years involved in 4-H clubs, or had the means and wherewithal to now work acres of land with crops and livestock.
And we did have just the right mix of myopic optimists, gold-star achievers, and practical planners to have some real fun with this, so we began. Certainly, we could grow the usual backyard-garden suspects of greens, onions, garlic, squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, beans, peppers, eggplant, berries, horseradish, potatoes, carrots, and herbs. We could harvest clams and oysters from nearby tidelands; we could talk with the beekeepers who supplied us with honey and listen to the suggestions of fellow fishermen and crabbers. We could keep chickens to collect eggs; we could make beer, cheese, dressing, butter, jam, and countless other home bounties. And we could use local well water for all our beverages, including the beer.
Harvesting Clams and Oysters
At a friend's beach on Case Inlet on the Puget Sound, we hand-gathered manila clams
and Pacific oysters for our feast. Photos: Joellen Reineck Wilhem
Stocking up on Artesian Well Water
The artesian well in downtown Olympia is in a parking lot…
kind of an odd juxtaposition of purity and grunge!
Photo: Joellen Reineck Wilhem
Could we grow our own amaranth for gluten-free baking?
As it turns out, yes, we could. No, it was not ready in time for the feast and the yield ended up being a mere trifle. It was worth it to us, though; the dozens of wanderers who take daily work-day walks within this neighborhood will be seeing those bold yellow-green leaves and brave chestnut-brown flower stalks raised toward the sun again next year.
Could we make our own salt?
Yes again. Earlier this summer, while on an annual camping trip, we gathered ocean water off the beach near Kalaloch Campground in the Olympic National Forest.
After baking the water for a couple of hours at 350°, we had salt. It was surprisingly easy, and ours is interestingly sweet—the result of the specific blend of algae and plankton floating about on collection day at the beginning of summer.
Could we roast and blend coffee?
It was one of the highlights of our project. At Batdorf and Bronson Coffee Roasters, we all learned a ton about coffee, and we roasted and created our own blend of Ethiopian and Costa Rican beans that we labeled "Blue Sky Blend".
Photos: Joellen Reineck Wilhelm
And: Could we catch enough salmon for the feast?
To many of the Gray Sky Growers, salmon cannot be topped as the centerpiece of a late summer meal.
One day before our party, very early in the morning, four men on the team set out on the Cowlitz River The boat slowed and quieted such that the little sploosh of each line dropped into the water could be heard. Minutes passed, then hours. At last, the cell phones of those waiting at home rang, beeped, and buzzed with calls and text messages bearing the good news—there would be fish for dinner! Five of them, in fact.
Grilled salmon, mixed green salad with raspberry vinaigrette, and Cascadian "zucchini" canoes with oven-dried tomatoes and fresh homemade mozzarella (they turned out to be not zucchini, but baby winter squash). For the entire menu, scroll down to the end. Photos: Steven Herppich Photography
As the toasting came to an end, the scent of the freshly grilled salmon drew us closer to the food, along with several uninvited yellow jackets, buzzing excitedly at their good fortune. The reds, greens, and golds of the salads, sauces, and side dishes rivaled that of the recently cut flowers from our many small but bursting urban gardens. The children waited as patiently as they knew how, the sweet-tart taste of strawberry lemon verbena punch still on their tongues, tempting their tummies. The homebrewed blackberry stout and rosemary witbier were likewise readying several others in the group for savory sustenance. The plump hens kept up their ongoing chatter, perhaps remarking on the injustice and mystery of their continually disappearing eggs. Then came the applause and cries of glee; at last, it was time to dig in.
As the adults settled into sturdy wooden chairs at white-clothed tables in the lush, green backyard, the children gathered on picnic blankets to alternately pick at and forget about their food.
We ate the dazzling green beans, drizzled with nutty basil pesto. We ate delicate little crustless quiches, light as air. We ate the salmon with two sauces—horseradish parsley or raspberry rosemary—and the clams steamed in their stone gray shells in a heady broth of rosemary witbier, sweet onions, garlic and extra rosemary. And so much more (see our menu below)!
The sun began its slow descent behind the hills, bringing shade to a long day and rest to a sated bunch of optimists, achievers, planners, and those along for the ride. For dessert, we had two dense and richly sweet treats: mixed berry sorbet and blackberry tarts with fresh ricotta. Between bites that made our mouths purple, we took deep swallows of our own hand-roasted and blended French-press coffee.
Sunset had the notion, with this contest, that given a wee bit of guidance, many, many people could make this idea work: produce what you can, where you are; find most everything else as locally as possible; and be mindful of what else you choose to consume.
We entered the contest because we thought that if we had a creative spirit, a sense for adventure, and a desire to share in community connection, we truly could feed ourselves and those around us. What is more, we could nurture life, be willing to risk, develop resilience through failure, and build connections within our community that would last long past the moment when the feast ended and we walked inside our homes and locked the doors.
As the evening breeze picked up, the coffee’s aroma, heat, and flavor anchored us to our seats, and we didn't want the day to end. Yet this was but one sunset feast. Perhaps success will be measured by the many feasts to come, and the continuing connections made. To this, we toast.
Strawberry Lemon Verbena Punch
House Chamomile Lavender Mint Iced Tea with Olympia Artesian Well Water
Roasted Sunflower Seeds
Caramelized Oly-Oly Onions
Garlicky Roasted Eggplant Dip
Petite Summer Herb Tomato Quiches
Witbier-Steamed Manila Clams
Butter, Buttermilk Rolls, and Focaccia
Hazelnut Pesto Green beans
Pacific Oysters on the Half Shell served on a bed of Kale
Mixed Green Salad with Handcrafted Raspberry Vinaigrette
Gray Sky Tomato Salad
Cascadian "Zucchini" Canoes with Oven-Dried Tomatoes and Fresh Mozzarella
Grilled Wild Salmon with Horseradish Parsley Sauce or Raspberry Rosemary Sauce
Blackberry Galette with Fairhaven Flour Wheat Crust and Honey Lavender Ricotta
Northwest Berry Sorbet
Batdorf and Bronson Gray Sky Growers Custom-made Blue Sky Blend French Press Coffee
RECIPES FROM THE PARTY
Katie Stoll's Hazelnut Pesto Green Beans
We chose hazelnuts because the trees grow like weeds here. These particular nuts, although local, weren't ours, however. We have a large tree outside our kitchen window that produces lots of nuts, but the squirrels start carrying them away in August and strip the tree bare before the nuts are ready for harvest in the fall.
3 large garlic cloves
2/3 cup olive oil
2/3 cup hazelnuts
3 cups fresh basil
Sea salt to taste
6-8 cups green beans
1. Press the garlic cloves and mix with olive oil in a food processor. Add nuts, then basil and salt.
2. Blanch green beans and toss with pesto. Serve hot or at room temperature.
Witbier-Steamed Manila Clams
3 dozen wild manila clams
2 cloves pressed garlic
1/4 cup diced sweet onion
2 tbsp. snipped rosemary
1½ cups witbier (wheat beer)
1. Purge clams in seawater to remove sand. Scrub clam shells.
2. Put garlic, onion, rosemary, and beer in stock pot. Bring to simmer and simmer for a couple of minutes to blend flavors. Add clams, cover, and steam for 10 minutes or until shells open. Serve immediately (discard any unopened shells).
By Jody Suhrbier, Team Member, and Joellen Reineck Wilhelm, Team Leader