Ruth Reichl’s Seattle Seafood Excursion

A platonic love story in which three unfortunate (but tasty) spot prawns meet their maker.

By Allecia Vermillion July 17, 2012 Published in the August 2012 issue of Seattle Met

Ruth Reichl’s trip to Seattle in May to speak at a benefit for the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center spanned all of 19 hours. So how did the former New York Times restaurant critic and editor of the now-defunct Gourmet magazine ensure a little quality time with old friend and local seafood guru Jon Rowley? Co-opt the last of the day’s scheduled media interviews, which Rowley refashioned into an oyster-eating excursion to Taylor Shellfish Farms’ shop at Melrose Market. 

“You’re getting skinny,” the snowy-haired Rowley admonished, stooping down to hug the petite food writer. Since Reichl left Gourmet, “or after Gourmet left me,” she no longer works in proximity to eight test kitchens and the buttery stream of recipes they produce.

Back in 1993, Reichl was the food editor at the Los Angeles Times and invited Rowley down for a little seafood lesson. He explained, among other things, how a fish can actually taste better several days after it dies, after coming out of rigor mortis. Her resulting article, “How to Buy Fresh Fish,” earned Reichl a James Beard Award.

For the duo’s Taylor rendezvous, the oysters were prepared by literally the best—recent International Boston Seafood Show champion oyster shucker David Leck. But after a large platter of Olympias, Kumamotos, and Virginicas and a little bit of wine, Rowley, knowing his lunch companion has eaten at the best tables in the world, made his move: “Do you want a spot prawn?”

“Oh, yes,” she breathed. “Yes.”

Taylor manager Kevin Bartlett called out for “three live spotties,” an awfully offhand term for the delicately flavored crustacean, so prized and so fleeting of season that sometimes the store doesn’t even bother posting prices on the tank.

The trio arrived, coral colored, befuddled, scrabbling and clacking in a stainless steel bowl. This was a first, even for Reichl. The prawn writhed uncooperatively between her fingertips. “Grab him right here,” Rowley instructed. “Behind the head. Now hang on tight in case he flips. Then take the tail there and just…” his instructions faded away at the audible twisting and cracking of shell.

Once Reichl had fully dismantled her prawn, sucked it clean of meat, filled the metal bowl with bits of shell and tail and head, and declared the whole experience “amazing,” she departed to pretty up to speak at the Hutch’s Premier Chefs Dinner, a night that raised more than $572,000. Rowley was her date—her husband, Michael, would meet her in New York the next morning for a flight to Italy. But his Seattle stand-in had one final morning-after gesture in the works. 

Rowley met Reichl in the lobby of the W Hotel at 5am, on her way out the door for an early flight, with a just-cooked portion of pristine Copper River king salmon, stored safely in a plastic container until she could eat on the plane. Says Rowley, “She volunteered after that it was perfectly cooked.”

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