I, believe it or not, had an experience so fun and special a few weeks ago that it actually inspired me to log back in to Seattle by Sarah in order to share it with you. The fact that I haven’t been writing anything is thanks to a combination of factors, which include (but are not limited to): career chaos, Whole30 (x2), heartbreak, Bikram yoga, laziness, and just feeling rather despondent about the whole project. But maybe things are looking up?
A few months ago, I received an email from my friend Jessika (co-founder of Starvation Alley) inviting me to their annual cranberry harvest – cleverly named the Bog Social. I assumed that I was part of a giant mailing list and didn’t pay much attention until she came and invited me personally at work a few weeks later – at which point I actually opened the email, read the contents, realized what a special invitation it was and immediately purchased tickets for the weekend getaway. The Bog Social is just one way that they are able to bring their food-producing/loving community together and I was thrilled to be part of it.
That’s the short version of how we ended up trekking out to the coast to Long Beach, Washington – home of the world’s largest frying pan and largest pair of chopsticks (neither of which we actually saw). More importantly for this story is that it’s also the home of Starvation Alley Farms. I’m a huge fan of Starvation Alley for several reasons: they are a great team producing great products with organic cranberries (juice, jelly, and whole berries), their approach is actually transforming the way cranberries are being farmed in the region, they’re a BCoroporation, have been funded by Community Sourced Capital and the team works part-time from Impact Hub Seattle.
We kicked off the road trip with a trip to Eltana on Capitol Hill (where I find it to be impossible to order something that is entirely satisfying) for bagels and then piled in the car for the 3-ish hour journey to Long Beach. We’d made reservations at the Adrift Hotel, which is ocean-front and just steps away from the beach and also happens to be part of the Community Sourced Capital supported family of businesses.
I found the Adrift Hotel to be utterly charming. They sent text messages a few hours in advance of our arrival, sharing tips and helping us to secure a reservation for that evening at their restaurant, The Pickled Fish. The lobby space was warm and inviting and actually in use by guests – they had a coffee/tea/hot cocoa bar, basic sundries and games along with comfortable furniture and an impressive and colorful assortment of beach cruisers, which guests were encouraged to take for a ride along the path that runs parallel to the beach.
The rooms themselves were rather industrial, minimal and modern. I snuck a picture of a neighboring room that included a more interesting lounge area than we had.
Once we’d gotten settled in our room, we headed up to the restaurant for cocktails, and were delighted to find plenty of cranberry juice concoctions on the menu, before making our way back down to the banquet hall room for the official Bog Social Kickoff/Welcome party. I was thrilled to see several familiar faces from Impact Hub as well as other random parts of life – particularly the dynamic duo that makes Timber City Ginger Beer – a fun Seattle by Sarah episode that unfortunately never aired.
You guys, I’ve been to a zillion “special” farm-to-table, food community events and while I’ve always walked away feeling like they’ve been some of the best meals I’ve ever had, none of those dinners can even hold a candle to what we were served at the Bog Social weekend. Let’s start with the welcome party menu:
Oysters. Oysters! OYSTERRRRRRS.
I am not the Oyster’s biggest fan. I enjoy and appreciate them in small quantities, but I have never been the person who orders a dozen, eats them all and then wants six more. No, I am more likely to eat 2-3 (MAYBE 4) of the smallest oysters on the plate, drown them with whatever mignonette is being served and call it a day.
But as it turns out, maybe I’ve just been eating sub-par oysters my entire life, because the Hama Hama oysters that the Tournant team were shucking at the Bog Social were without a doubt, the best oysters I have ever consumed in my life and I couldn’t get enough. It’s entirely possible that I ate two dozen of them – not to mention plenty of crab, ceviche and other items from the raw bar.
The oyster + raw bar (surf) was complemented by a “turf” station at the other end of the room, thanks to the team from LETumEAT. They were slathering what can only be likened to a spreadable salami on pieces of grilled bread and piling them high with a variety of pickled toppings, while simultaneously slicing thin strips of their farm-cured lardo (which was amazing on it’s own but also made for a fantastic oyster topping, omg).
I probably would have been satisfied after the surf and turf, but we’d made reservations at The Pickled Fish (where they have live music every night!) and so we headed back to the restaurant and proceeded to order a wild mushroom pizza (fantastic) and a crab mac & cheese which was actually really disappointing compared to everything else we’d had earlier.
The next morning we woke up bright and early for breakfast back at The Pickled Fish, before hopping on beach cruisers for an 8-mile bike ride on the Discovery Trail along the coastline. The weather was super gray and rather drizzly but still completely gorgeous as we made our way down the coast and into Cape Disappointment State Park.
The rain had really began in earnest by the time we got back in the car to go to the cranberry bogs. When we arrived, we headed to the house for lunch which was steaming hot bowls of cioppino, prepared by Han and Lyle – the team from Kim Jong Grillin’ – a Portland-based Korean food truck/cart.
Once we were fed (yet again), it was time to actually do the work we’d come to do: harvest the cranberries from the bog! I’ll try to explain how it happens with really technical terms (many of which I’m pretty sure I made up):
First of all, cranberries grow on vines pretty close to the ground, and in order to harvest them, you have to flood the area with water, turn it into a bog and then use this tractor-like machine to get the berries off the vines. Once you do that, they float up and hang out on top of the water (which is less than 2 feet deep).
Once the tractor has done it’s job, many hands are required to stretch this giant orange weighted but still floaty “boom” around the perimeter of the bog. For whatever reason (science, obviously), the berries seem to migrate to the edges of the bog, so you have strap on a giant Ghostbusters-like leaf blower and blow the berries back towards the center before you put the boom in. Obviously, that was the perfect task for me.
Once the weighted-but-floaty boom is in, everyone works together to help pull the cranberries towards the other end of the bog, using a combination of rakes, pushers, your hands and the boom itself. Leave no berry left behind!
When the berries make it to the other end of the bog, they’re scooped up by an elevator/ladder and loaded into giant crates in a truck and then taken to be processed and frozen so they can eventually be turned into juice, sauce, or sold as whole berries.
Once there’s a critical mass of berries in one place, you must take as many photos as possible… I mean, how often do you get to stand in a cranberry bog?
Believe it or not, there are about 400,000 acres of cranberries being farmed in the United States, and only THREE HUNDRED of those acres are grown organically. Talk about an industry that is ripe for disruption – though it takes three years to fully transition from a conventional operation to an organic one. The Starvation Alley team operates their own farm, and has also partnered with other farmers in the area to make the transition to organic processes.
One of the things that makes Starvation Alley’s goals so interesting is that there actually isn’t very much information about farming cranberries organically, so they are really having to take the lead on how to to do it – and it’s not easy! I highly suggest reading this great article in Conscious Company Magazine to learn more about the company!
After we finished with this particular bog, we headed back to the hotel to clean off and dry off and then we headed back down to the banquet room for dinner which had been prepared by the crew from LETumEAT. Here’s the menu, which I should just let speak for itself…
BUT OH MY GOD I HAVE TO SPEAK FOR IT:
As I mentioned earlier, if they had simply replicated the offerings from the welcome party, I would have been happy – but instead, they went above and beyond – to the moon and back with this menu. I felt utterly spoiled and will confess that I had to leave the party and go to bed early because a) I had too much to drink, obviously, and b) because I was TOO FULL OF GOOD THINGS.
Let’s start with appetizers – my mouth is literally watering just remembering them. Thick pieces of grilled bread, layered with a spreadable cranberry lardo, topped with beef tartare and THEN topped with roasted bone marrow and pickled vegetables? I died. More oysters – but grilled this time. The most delightful halibut beneigts with a cranberry romesco.
Then the family-style courses started rolling out – and let me just say that NONE of my photos do this meal justice because the priority quickly shifted from taking photos to devouring everything that came our way. A gorgeous salad with albacore tuna. Pillow-like cranberry and ricotta gnocchi. Platters of crispy potatoes served with lamb that had been roasted that day and was literally carved in the room and put on our plates. Miniature mason jars filled to the brim and topped with toasted mashmallow fluff.
It was shortly after dessert and what was probably my 4th can of Underwood Pinot Gris that I had to call it a night and promptly passed out in my bed, too tired and too full to even pick up one of the adorable gift bags that they had made for us, full of products from the local food community, and of course, Starvation Alley Cranberry Juice.
We headed home the next morning, stopping only to look at “The World’s Most Giant Oyster” (I’m skeptical) and then back the big city. Here’s one last senic photo – the weather finally cleared up on our way out of town.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this super long post, the weekend was so special that I wanted to share not only what it’s like to harvest cranberries, but also to provide a window into what an amazing, thoughtful, talented inspirational group of people can do and create together. I feel so honored to have been invited to participate and to be considered part of their community. I’m also grateful because it also helped inspire me to get back to what I really love – writing in this space and sharing about people, products, businesses, and organizations in the Northwest that I support.
You can find Starvation Alley Cranberry products (possibly made with berries that Iiiiiii harvested) in Seattle at PCC, Whole Foods, Cone & Steiner, and at Farmers Markets – or buy online!