After reading only the first three pages of Matthew Amster-Burton’s memoir, “Pretty Good Number One: An American Family Eats Tokyo,” I was overcome with the need to visit that city.
The food writer, humorist and finance columnist, his wife Laurie, and daughter Iris spent last July living in a Tokyo suburb, the subject of the book. Matthew originally planned to fill a gap in English-language guides to Tokyo, but with its marvelous descriptions of food and local food culture, it became much more than that.
Matthew came to Seattle to attend the University of Washington in 1996. Born and raised in Portland by culturally Jewish former New Yorkers, “I’ve certainly inherited their sense of humor,” he says. “And their love of food.” In particular, he said, Chinese food. The long-standing “connection between Jews and Chinese food,” he muses, fed his love of Asian cuisine.
I wondered about sushi’s popularity in Japan, but Matthew calls it “an American obsession.” A “whole diverse selection of Japanese food…doesn’t even exist in the U.S.” One he describes is bonjiri, a skewer of grilled chicken tails, that scrumptiously fatty bit of flesh that once held tail feathers.
Happily, Matthew lives on Seattle’s food-centric Capitol Hill, close to Uwajimaya, his favorite supermarket.
“I love to discuss things to death,” he admits, and has created many outlets for food discourse. He’s published two books, blogs at www.rootsandgrubs.com, and co-hosts two podcasts: the R-rated www.closedforlogging.com with Becky Selengut (who appeared in this column Apr. 5, 2013), and the more family-friendly www.spilledmilkpodcast.com with Molly Wizenberg, known for her Ballard pizza restaurant Delancey and the popular food blog Orangette.
“Pretty Good Number One” became an independent publishing project — and learning experience — for Matthew when he received “the nicest rejection letter” from his first book’s publisher, Houghton Mifflin. He assumed “Pretty Good” would have a limited market, but is “blown away” by its success, selling about 100 copies a month.
Matthew, whose “day job” is writing a personal finance column at www.mint.com, created a Kickstarter campaign to fund the editing, design and production of the book, which is distributed on Amazon.com. He was left with enough for a follow-up trip to Japan this winter, and to get started on a new writing project.
It’s not just Asian food in the Amster-Burton kitchen. “I made enchiladas last night,” he told me. “I like to cook eclectic … [to] rifle through cookbooks for the next thing.”
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Locavore and author Leora Bloom. (Photo by Neil Black)
Also living the foodie life on Seattle’s Capitol Hill is Leora Bloom, whose cookbook, “Washington Food Artisans: Farm Stories and Chef Recipes,” was published by Sasquatch last April.
A pastry chef who was an undergraduate poli-sci major and worked in advertising and marketing after college, Leora took up food writing after cooking school.
“I’m a huge fan of the farmers markets,” she says.
She began shopping at them when she lived in California and has shopped at the University District farmers market since moving with her husband Paul to Capitol Hill in 2000. Getting to know the vendors, and to generate interest in supporting the market, “I thought it would be good to write the stories of some of these farmers,” she says.
After traveling our state visiting the farmers, she solicited recipes based on their produce from chefs also from around Washington. She worked on the book for two-and-a-half years, starting when her twins Leah and Sadie were 1 and son Harry was 4, collecting and testing almost 300 recipes.
“I made 95 percent of them,” she says.
Friends volunteered to make the others, and “the easiest to follow” were selected for the book.
Born in Capetown, South Africa, Leora’s family moved to the U.S. when she was 7. She was raised mostly in Delaware, where her parents still live, and got the idea to move to Seattle from family friends.
“My whole family comes originally from Lithuania, both sides,” she says, and it was the Ashkenazi food of her childhood that she first cooked when she got interested in food. When she first brought her husband home to meet her family, they headed straight to her grandmother’s, who “fed us roast chicken, homemade pickles and rye bread with schmaltz,” just like Paul’s grandmother, would have made them in his native Toronto.
Leora owned and operated the Linger Longer bakery in Bellevue for two years in the late 1990s and still runs into people who remember her challah.
“That was the last pastry chef job I had,” she says.
She writes about food occasionally for the Seattle Times, but is now the main design writer for the Times’ Pacific Northwest magazine.