Marc Hinton is a chef and food author who during his career has opened more than 25 restaurants from Boston to San Francisco. He runs a wine and winemaking website called Enobytes and blogs at Wine Bytes for OregonLive.com.
On Wednesday, the Hillsboro, Oregon, resident will speak about his new book, “A History of Pacific Northwest Cuisine,” at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma.
Q: What’s the earliest known meal in Washington?
A: It’s the earliest known meal on the West Coast – 13,800 years ago. This bowling alley owner was trying to dig a pond in his front yard (in Sequim) and he thought he’d run into railroad ties. He got off his bulldozer and started scraping away mud and realized it was mastodon tusks.
That mastodon had a projectile in its rib cage. That means somebody was trying to eat that thing. But that projectile didn’t kill it. It was killed later but it was obviously butchered.
Q: What other species did Native Americans presumably hunt into extinction?
A: Camels. They originated in North America.
Q: When did Paleolithic peoples switch to more complex diets — growing and cooking their food in addition to hunting and gathering?
A: About 9,000 years before present. They found earth ovens in Paisley Caves in Oregon. But we didn’t see much agriculture in West Coast tribes until the first cross-cultural contamination in 1777. A Spanish ship came ashore in Neah Bay where the Makah Tribe is. They left the Ozette potato. (The Spaniards) had a small garden. Then there was a small outbreak of violence so they got in their ship and left.
Q: Speaking of the Makahs, what can we learn today from the ancient potlatch system — festivals where native peoples gave away or even destroyed food and material possessions? The feds eventually outlawed it.
A: It wasn’t the guy who had the most; it was the guy who could give away the most. I grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma. My father’s mother was full-blooded Choctaw. A lot of those values were instilled upon me when I was young. It’s not about what you have. It’s about what you can do for everybody else that makes their lives better.
Q: You devote quite a bit of space to the Lewis and Clark expedition. What was their cuisine like?
A: Lewis liked dog meat but Clark wouldn’t eat it. They’d rather eat dog than elk. I’ve cooked a lot of elk in restaurants over the years and I gotta tell you, dog must be tasty because elk cooked well is really good.
Q: And they ate their horses too?
A: Yes. They’re up in the mountains, close to the Columbia River. They were thinking about giving them to a tribe they didn’t know. One day they’re riding horses and the next day they’re sailing down the river.
Q: When settlers first started coming here in the early 1800s, what were some of the tall tales and exaggerations they were told?
A: Wheat grew as tall as a man and there were 500-pound turnips.
Q: What were the first restaurants in the Northwest?
A: The oyster parlors in Astoria would be some of the first. Most of the places up to the 1850s were known for selling liquor. Food just kept people from passing out and spending more money. The lengths they went to to keep the men in the bar. They came up with an idea to dig a trough right under the bar with a screen so men could relieve themselves while still standing at the bar.
No wonder Prohibition came about. Men would go to the bar for lunch every day because they would get free food. If you were the only breadwinner in the house and you spent it all at the bar. I could see how the temperance movement happened.
Q: How did Prohibition change the culture in the Northwest?
A: When they observed Prohibition and the men became sober they were a little more picky about what food they paid money for. If you opened a restaurant, you had to be good. That changed the restaurant and food scene in the Northwest quite a bit.
Q: Who were the first people to make wine in what would become Washington?
A: Marcus Whitman was a Methodist missionary. When they stopped at Fort Vancouver (on their way to Walla Walla) they had European wine grapes growing (in the 1830s). The variety they liked to grow was Lambrusco. When the Oregon Trail was going in the 1840s, the Whitmans would ride out to meet them and provide them with supplies. Today, Walla Walla is coming in to its own. They produce some of the finest wines in the world.
Q: Why just now if Whitman started growing grapes there in the 1830s?
A: Because it’s the only place in the world where they keep farming grapes when they die. When it gets six degrees below zero it kills the roots. So they have to replant. And you can’t harvest grapes until the fifth year.
Q: Let’s fast forward to the 20th century. When did the Northwest become a food destination, on a par with New York or San Francisco?
A: I’ll tell you when it changed for me. My first time in Seattle (in 1995) was for an executive chef retreat. The Painted Table was open then. Tom Douglas was just coming to fame. We went to Pike Place Market and we went to a Thai restaurant and it had a great wine list. That was the first time I had been to an Asian restaurant with a fabulous wine list. And I thought, “Something is going on here.” And then it spread across the country.
Q: Seattle influenced the rest of the country?
A: You’ll be in New York or San Francisco and writers will say, “So and so restaurant just opened and it has a Northwest vibe.” They’re actually using that term.
Q: What is a Northwest vibe?
A: For me it’s local, fresh ingredients. Always seasonal. And the decor. It used to be you’d go to these fancy places and they’d spend a lot of money on these decorations. But these (Northwest) restaurants aren’t that fancy. You know, Grandma’s attic. These days it’s all about the food. The art on the plate.
Q: Where is Northwest cuisine headed?
A: In the culinary food we’re going two directions. Molecular gastronomy and raw food.
A lot of people want to get back to the basics. There’s a lot more young people realizing they don’t want to have the same physical ailments their parents do. Especially the diabetes and obesity rates we have in this country. People are getting a lot smarter about what they eat.
On the other hand, there are people who just want to have great experiences and they’ll pay anything.
IF YOU GO
What: Marc Hinton talk
When: 11 a.m. Wednesday
Where: Washington State History Museum, 1911 Pacific Ave., Tacoma.
Cost: Free with normal admission rate to the museum.Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541 craig.sailor@ thenewstribune.com