Reviving a flavorful piece of the island’s living history

I met “Coming Home to Eat” author and local foods advocate Gary Nabhan at a conference I covered in April. He had just given a talk about the nation’s dying food traditions, and mentioned the Marshall strawberry, a variety that was once a central part of Bainbridge Island’s identity, economy and landscape, but has almost disappeared over the last half-century.

He snatched the notepad from under my arm when I mentioned I planned to one day write a story about the Marshall.

“Here’s my email…’s my cell phone number,” he said, scribbling on my pad. “We need to tell this story.”

But when to write the story? It seemed like the best time to write about the Marshall is when the little red berries were popping on the vine. I called Karen Selvar, the island’s last remaining strawberry farmer, in July to see when the Marshalls would ripen.

That was weeks ago, she said, adding that the Marshall’s got “a real short” season.

Short as in two-weeks short. Blink and you’ll miss them. I figured I’d write about the Marshalls next year. But, about a month ago, Bainbridge Island Historical Museum director Hank Helm mentioned that Marshall starts would be sold at this year’s Harvest Fair, giving me an earlier-than-expected reason to delve into the berry’s history. The museum, through the work of volunteer Carol McCarthy, and a government lab in Oregon are the last two places making a serious effort to preserve the Marshall before it disappears. As with the last two fairs, the museum offered Marshall starts on Sunday as a way to raise funds and repopulate the island’s soil with this living piece of Bainbridge history.

You can read the story and see a short video about the Marshall at the Sun’s website by clicking here.

In writing the story I learned that the Marshall is more than just history. Thanks, in part, to two of Nabhan’s latest books, the berry is making something of a comeback. Food writers, gourmet chefs and various “slow food” enthusiasts are clogging McCarthy’s e-mail with requests for samples and starts.

But on Bainbridge, the berry is largely unknown, McCarthy said. She has scaled back the number of starts she offers at the fair. While some stop to look, few are willing to put a plant in their yards or gardens.

That’s a shame, said Nabhan.

“This is one of the most distinct berries,” he said. “It still has a place at the table.”

The best of my interview with Nabhan is the story. One aspect I couldn’t fit in is his belief that promoting and celebrating the Marshall on Bainbridge could create a bit of food tourism for the island.

“For purposes of tourism, this is something that’s truly unique,” he said. “I can’t see Bainbridge not thinking of this as an edge. Why would you travel to Bainbridge if (everything there) is available every other place.”

He also suggested Bainbridge take part in an “American heritage picnic.” Last year’s picnic in Seattle featured speakers, musicians and local foods made by prominent chefs. The menu included Ozette potatoes, foraged chanterelle and lobster mushrooms, sheep’s cheese and lots of salmon. This year’s picnic is scheduled for Oct. 5 at Discovery Park in Seattle .

If you want to read more about the Northwest’s endangered food traditions, check out Nabhan’s “Renewing Salmon Nation’s Food Traditions.” It’s like a field guide, with brief descriptions of the Gillette fig, Orcas Pear, Olympia oyster, Klamath plum and over a hundred other varieties. Nabhan’s “Renewing America’s Food Traditions” has a broader focus but includes a section on the Marshall, and mentions island historian Jerry Elfendahl, the historical museum and McCarthy.

Oh, and by the way, the Marshall can sometimes surprise. I took the above photo of a Marshall plant on Friday. McCarthy was as surprised as I was to see a few ripe red berries in late September. She bit into less-than-ripe one for Carolyn Yaschur’s video (see it here).