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ESSAY: Southern Seattle

A Wandering Kind of Goose:

Southern Food in Seattle

wandering goose southern food

The Wandering Goose is a Southern, bakery-style café in Seattle’s Capitol Hill that opened this fall. I’d been watching them work on the place for months. Every time they brought in a new piece of antique furniture I couldn’t wait to see how they were going to use it, what it was going to turn into. The style feels rustic, piedmont Carolina, antiquish. You might recognize some of the fixtures, like the cabinet where the silverware is kept, from your grandmother’s house.

I often feel like there’s a negative connotation to the phrase, a labor of love—as if something is not worth the effort that’s going into it, like having a garden in nasty rocky soil just because it relieves stress. But there’s labor of love in the sense of love and longing, as in: when you walk into The Wandering Goose and you see the hand forged lamps, and the milk washed benches and the tables with phrases burned into the wood, and then you smell the fried chicken and the butter and you order a biscuit and it looks how a biscuit is supposed to look.

“When you walk in I want you to tell that people’s hands have touched it,” says owner Heather Earnhardt, who happens to be from North Carolina. “I was born in Hickory,” she told me, but she has lived all over the state—the Triangle, Charlotte, Winston Salem, which was where she met chef Mike Law. But that was years ago, long before they came together again for this project.

In the summer of ’97 Heather came up to Seattle just to take a look around. At the end of the summer she went back to Tucson, Arizona, where she and her North Carolina crew were living, to pack her bags. The friend group had initially headed west in pursuit of the same mythic adventure and new beginnings that so many of us hope to find, but Heather was ready to move on from Arizona’s dry heat to Seattle’s lush dampness. At the last second a few of these friends threw their stuff in the moving truck and moved with her. When Heather told me this story I glanced at my own friends who were visiting from Durham—Courtney and her wife, Laurin. I brought them to The Wandering Goose on their last day in town. I hoped they were hearing this.

Before we left for Seattle my partner and I had this unrealistic notion that at the last second our friends would realize what prophets we were and hop in the car and come with us. If we all moved to the northwest without jobs it would feel much more like an adventure and a lot less terrifying. Instead, most of our friends have settled in Durham.

We brought Courtney and Laurin to The Wandering Goose because I had a biscuit on opening day and was pleased. It was salty the way you like it but sweet the way you want it, too. It was crisp on the tooth and moist on the inside, infused with butter. When you order a biscuit with butter and jam—because, yes ma’am, that’s on the menu—it’s inspiring how high that butter and jam gets piled.

Courtney got the Auntie Annie’s Biscuit (fried chicken with bread and butter pickles), and Laurin ordered the Oyster BLT Biscuit (fried oysters, pepper jelly, and bacon). My partner and I shared the vegetarian plate, which I know doesn’t sound nearly as glamorous, but it was perfect—two biscuits, beans, pimento mac and cheese, and greens. In Seattle you go to the co-op or you go to the big grocery store and the collards are going to be a meek bundle that cost about $2.49. Though collards have found their way off our shopping list, it was a delight to taste it cooked right—where the leaves melt in your mouth and there’s that perfect balance of vinegar and garlic and sweet.

southern food the wandering goose southern food the wandering goose

“If I lived here,” Laurin said and my heart skipped a beat, “I’d be eating sandwiches like these left and right.”

The goal of our meal, and what waited at the center of the table for us, was a classic yellow cake with chocolate frosting. If we had been in any other café and they were offering some yellow cake with chocolate frosting we might not have gotten it, but in The Wandering Goose cakes look special. They’re about double the size of a dinner plate, two layers, approximately five inches high. The icing was especially thick around the edges, and the flesh of the cake had clearly spilled over the tin while it was made, but this look was attractive in the classical sense of a cake; attractive like if Venus or Marilyn Monroe could be a reference for cake standard.

Courtney spoke of the cake with increasing affection.

“This cake has the perfect crumb,” to “This is the best cake I’ve ever had.”

“This fluff looks more organic, it’s not perfect fluff,” Laurin said. Then she added, “Look at those holes.” We all gazed deeply into the cake.

“Those are some good looking holes,” Courtney agreed. The holes were those moist golden pockets that are often the work of magic Grandma fingers. The kind of grandma who, when you ask for the recipe, says something like, I can’t give it to you, I have to show you.

“This cake doesn’t just feel Southern,” Laurin said.

“It’s living room,” Janie replied.

And finally, Courtney announced: “It’s like I’ve been invited to my best friend’s house and she’s a bad ass chef and she loves me!”

Here’s the thing that makes this place work: I want a biscuit, I want a piece of cake, and they have it. They have fried chicken, they have pimento cheese. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve had pimento cheese and really wanted it and that adds up to two. One time when my friend Liz made it for me, and the other time was sitting in The Wandering Goose, as I joyfully ate their mac & cheese.

When you feed pimento cheese to someone in Seattle there’s something at stake: communicating the South—what it is, what it feels like, what it sounds like. It’s what The Wandering Goose is doing with little effort, simply sharing this thing that they love with other people.

“It’s almost like they are doing Southern better,” Laurin said. “It’s in their hearts.”

southern food the wandering goose

Maybe some of it is from that old idea—that when you leave a place you can see more clearly what it is that makes a style work, or a cake. For example, if you live some place where there is a zero-percent chance of picking up some pimento cheese, you’re going to make it in a heightened way because there’s longing involved. There’s no temptation to just run to the Harris Teeter and get a couple of containers because people are expecting it.

Heather has been involved with other successful cafés, but she wanted to have a restaurant that served the food that she grew up eating. The style of cooking is clearly in Mike Law’s bones, and it may be his genius that elevates the food to this pristine level of grace.

The Wandering Goose is a work of art, from the food down to the subtle details—such as the tables burnished with phrases from Earnhardt’s children’s book, Bug & Goose, which is due out through Sasquatch books in September 2013. The place is holistic; all the aspects that make Earnhardt and Law artists, chefs, and humans are tangible and present. Someone’s hands have been on the cake, just as someone’s hands have been on everything you can see. And someone’s heart is in the menu, too.

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