Tribute to a Food Pioneer in 5 Essential Dishes
He regularly sent Dungeness crab to Julia Child. He was friends with Alice Waters and Ruth Reichl, and scores of chefs. A James Beard award hangs on the wall of his Vashon Island home. Jon Rowley dedicated much of his life to making the world a more delicious place in daring ways. He died October 3, and he will be missed by many fans and friends and family. Here's a tribute to his incredibly tasty legacy in 5 essential dishes.
As a young man, Jon spent time in Paris -- he worked as a nanny! -- and discovered the pleasures of eating oysters on the half shell, which he advocated for when he returned to the Northwest.
Jon often quoted Ernest Hemingway: "As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans." Years later, that quote inspired Jon to launch the West Coast Oyster Wine Competition, a smash success that encouraged this brilliant pairing. He also launched the Walrus and Carpenter Picnic, a late-night, low-tide beach campfire cookout that's a fundraiser for the Puget Sound Restoration Fund.
If you don't care for them raw, Chef John has a 5-star Oysters Rockefeller that's a must-try. Watch the video below for the scoop on how to make them:
Jon was a commercial fisherman in Alaska, and when he moved to Seattle in the 1970s, he noticed a lack of quality fish on the menus in local restaurants. He changed that by heading to the coast and buying salmon from the Makah tribe. He and his daughter, Megan, were regulars at salmon ceremonies held by Northwest tribes. Years later, he championed salmon from the Copper River in Alaska, preaching the gospel of the rich flesh, turned crimson by the fish's feeding frenzy before making its journey to spawn up that long river. These days, the opening of the season is celebrated by chefs and home cooks across the country.
Jon carried a refractometer in his shirt pocket during summer tree fruit season, measuring sugar in peaches, in particular. He worked with growers, encouraging them not to over-water as harvest approached. That way the peaches were much sweeter. He helped a Seattle supermarket chain launch Peach-O-Rama, another huge hit, one that helped turn many into fans of Frog Hollow Farm.
Jon fell in love with an obscure variety of strawberry grown in Skagit Valley, and arranged pilgrimages to pick the super sweet, very delicate Shuksan. He called them "bliss in a bowl" and those picking parties always culminated in a juicy feast.
I've known Jon for decades, and we have shared lots of lovely meals. One year, after he took me out to lunch on my birthday, we went foraging for blackberries, near the Pea Patch he'd been devoted to. Since then, I've brought him blackberry jam, the last delivery was just a couple of weeks ago, shared over an incredible lunch of chicken caccitore made by a friend, and ending with blackberry jam-slathered buttermilk biscuits topped with sliced peaches and cream. Before leaving his home that day, he asked me to give him a biscuit-making lesson. I'm so sorry that's not going to happen. Rest in peace, friend. And next time you eat an extra sweet peach, strawberry shortcake that makes you go mmmm, slurp and oyster or enjoy a smoke-kissed salmon fillet, think of Jon.