SEA

Tending the Table

Plate Full of Purpose

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Cooking is one of the more beautiful forms that human generosity takes

__Michael Pollan

Our relationship with food is one of the most intimate we will ever experience. It’s the one thing we introduce into our bodies daily; the thing that literally sustains us, allows us to continue on. These days, there is an obsession with food unlike any other time in history. We count calories, cut carbs, plan our eating around macronutrients and superfoods, or time-efficient packaging. Mealtime has been revamped from old fashioned chopping, stewing, and serving to restaurant dining or grabbing careless bites as you make your way through days much too busy to cook. Amidst this modernization of eating, there are yet some left who do more than wait on a pot to boil, or an oven to preheat. Doing more than just cooking the occasional homemade meal, this group retains an appreciation for bygone ways of sourcing their food, hunting ingredients from a friendly neighbors’ garden or local farmer. Though small and unobtrusive, this group is growing thanks the efforts of a few determined eaters.

Along with our national preoccupation with what we eat, there has emerged yet another foodie phenomena: it’s own dedicated sector of journalism. Food writing has exploded in popularity over the last twenty years, helping us to understand our own dietary habits in ways our grandparents never needed explained. From recipe sharing, to restaurant reviews, to a wealth of scientific (often shifting) conclusions about what kinds of food are best for our taste buds and bodies, each attempts to describe an entity as old as mankind.

Sasha Swerdloff is a steady voice among the clamour. Whether it’s testing out recipes starring foraged ingredients, or sourcing local purveyors she trusts for meat and dairy, she contends to keep an idyllic form of hunting and gathering a part of her life. As an Oregon native, it comes as no surprise that she’s pro-local and organic, but through her recipes and the recounting of her days on her own richly written food blog, Tending the Table, she depicts a loyalty to best-practice produce that’s much deeper than trend. She’s intent on creating a thoughtful change in the way her readers eat, by inviting them into a vulnerable, honest look at her life from which they leave encouraged and touched by a sprig of beauty. Her blog is the seed of a growing story, planted in the soil of a childhood lived out on a farm, sprouted by her collegiate years in rural Vermont, that now matures in an unlikely place: the city. It’s there that she invites us to share an open seat next to strangers and friends, to learn a bit and share a bite of Brunch at the Table.

As with anyone who’s made a career out of mere passion, it feels fair to ask: why food? For Sasha, it began in the imagination of a little girl playing pretend. With plenty of land to wander and forage, she was primed for a life full of learning and exploration, and a love for hearty produce grown in her mother’s garden.

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In her earliest memories of “cooking,” she made – naturally – Mud Pie, and pantomimed what she believed at the time to be artisan dairy practices. “I actually stole eggs from the chicken house and used real eggs in the mud pie, which didn’t go over very well with my parents. I also remember turning a bicycle upside down and taking grass to run through the wheel to pretend like I was making cheese..? I’m not exactly sure.” It was an imagination that age couldn’t suppress. When she left Oregon for Middlebury College in Vermont, her love for slow food and cooking well would envelope all other passions. Without the option of pledging a Food Studies major at Middlebury, she instead chose to study English, managing to squeeze in her first love as an independent study. “There’s a program at Middlebury called Dolci, which is a student-run restaurant. I had volunteered to work one of those events and the girl who was head cheffing worked at this bed and breakfast, but was leaving.” Sasha’s interest and talent got her noticed as a volunteer, and she was offered to come on as the new chef. “I ended up working there, at this 100-year-old house; quintessential Vermont. I worked there for a couple of years, cooking breakfast on the weekends.” It wasn’t just a job to her, but a way of escaping into a place she felt most herself: the kitchen. “I sort of separated myself from the normal college scene as early as possible so that I could cook.”

At this point, Sasha was yet in a trial phase of culinary passion, still discovering what it was about the whole thing that deeply mattered to her, and kept her coming back to the kitchen. It wasn’t until she and her husband, Anders, were visiting friends in Ann Arbor that they were invited to a local brunch spot called Selma Cafe. What has now become a local hit, the gathering began as a CSA pick-up location, just hosting weekly potlucks for friends and neighbors coming to retrieve produce from a local farmer. “It sort of evolved from that into this weekly brunch where local chefs would come cook a meal. People would come, eat, and donate money to a local organization.” With one meal, it all seemed to click. “The fact that there were so many people interested in supporting this local food movement was pretty amazing to me. When we moved to Seattle, it felt like an opportunity to start something similar.” After settling into their new home and life back in the Pacific Northwest, she decided it was time. “I just emailed everyone I knew in Seattle, planned a menu and had people over! Then from there I started collaborating.”

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But hosting an event in her home is more than a celebration of a well executed meal; it’s a cumulative expression of her years spent understanding the value of a sustainable food system. From her experiences on her family’s land in Oregon, to falling in love with the preserved bond between farmers and community in Vermont, she’s a firm believer that there are flaws in modernized eating. While world changing would be ideal, Sasha understands that her role isn’t to guilt readers into a standard of eating she can’t always adheres to herself. But she knows too much about these flaws in our industrial food system to do nothing. “I think at some point I decided that the only thing I could do was to change the way that I live and the choices that I make. For years I’ve just forgotten about trying to change other people and just focused on what I could do.”

For Sasha, the question was how to share these choices that lead to a healthier ecosystem, a better world, a tastier meal, and make them accessible and attractive to the average eater. “A lot of people don’t have time to think about that, or they don’t care. And that’s fine. It’s really difficult to make people change, and you really can’t. The best thing you can do is to expose them to information that will encourage them to care.” Along with an honest look at her own convictions on her blog, Brunch at the Table serves as her own brand of philanthropy, making her message of creating change more palatable to guests. It’s the whole package, joining purpose with plate to yield creative changes within a community, by positioning people to share not only piled high healthy dishes, but parts of themselves.

Apart from educating her delighted guests, ticket donations for a spot at these brunch events go directly to an organization that supports the local food movement in Seattle. This February brunch benefitted the Beacon Food Forest, an organization that designs, plants, and grows an edible urban forest garden to inspire the community and rehabilitate the local ecosystem. As an added bonus, it was co-hosted by Preserve and Gather, a duo of restaurateurs launching their first location this year that will offer the community a selection of artisan preserves, pickles, spreads, coffee, and tea. With a new menu and a new organization to support at each of her events she hosts at her home, Sasha is also seeing new faces come through her door. “People would come and then next time, they would come and bring a couple of friends. It’s just grown from there.”

In all of her cooking, her first priority is sourcing food that she can feel good about eating and serving to the ones she loves. “It’s hard, and it can be frustrating, too,” she admits. Ideally, she stocks her kitchen with items directly from a farmer or local market. “Not only do you know where that food came from, but you know the person who’s raising that livestock or making that cheese or growing those vegetables.” But even if farmers sold quarter pounders and fries at market, Sasha would still be the one asking for kale. “A lot of my daily cooking is just what I want to eat, because it’s what I think is healthy for my body. […] It sustains us, but it also becomes a part of us.” But whether she’s cooking for a group or just the two of them at home, it’s about what it always has been. “I think I cook because I like to take care of people and that’s the best way I know how.”

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Her interest in the narrative around food has only continued to expand, and you’ll often catch her diving into learning something new, or making global connections with how we eat. “One thing that I’ve noticed is that there is a ton of overlap. […] Every culture has a bread. Every culture has their samosas and dumplings. Everybody has a pancake. There are so many versions of the same thing, and I think that’s really interesting. Somehow this crossover happened and things got adapted and changed and are culturally different, but fundamentally the same.”

To continue offering her readers truthful and engaging stories, she never fails to include in each post a tidbit of information on eating more sustainably, and her own struggle to make what she feels are the right – but often difficult – choices. She keeps her own mind attuned to the news, looking for things to offer readers in a manageable, sincere way. “The things that I most enjoy reading are stories or essays that deal with the sustainability of food. Issues that are going on in food culture that are important to know about – those are the ones I find interesting and help inform my choices when I’m eating and cooking.”

In her own writing, she’s diligent to splice in helpful or honest tips on making sustainable choices, educating her readers while dazzling them with vibrant shots of whatever incredible dish she’s devouring that day. Even her styling reflects a thoughtfulness in the way she treats food, with care and economy. Never wasteful or excessive; humble, yet elegant. We’re excited to see how Sasha continues to make changes in her community both at home and with her readers at large, tending the table with care and conviction.

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