NAHCOTTA - Nanci Main and Jimella Lucas have known each other over 30 years, been in business together over 20 years, and during that time have become well known up and down the Pacific coast and all around the country. How did they do that? How did they get here - to the Peninsula - in the first place? Where is the beginning?
"We both have a great love of food," says Jimella, as Nanci gets that sparkle in her eye. For a moment the room has the feel of reunion in which the mind does a flashback and starts pulling up memory snapshots, faded, wrinkled, dog-eared, one or two with the sepia tone of childhood, that cuttlefish of memory that knows how to protect itself with its firm interior and inky screen. Then Nanci laughs out loud, and she begins to tell her story.
"I came here because my boyfriend moved here while I was in Europe. I had no idea where Long Beach was." More hearty laughter. "Got back to Seattle and found out, got on a Greyhound Bus and got as far as Longview - that's all the money I had. Then I hitchhiked from Longview to the Peninsula - with my guitar and my pack - and I truly, literally had one dime in my pocket when I got here, truly. I went to what is Chen's now, but was the Big Z Drive-in back then, and I walked in and saw two guys in their early twenties. I asked if they knew my boy friend. They said, Yeah, he's down fishin' at the jetty. Do you want a ride down there? I said, Sure, and they drove me down to the jetty." Nanci laughs that signature laugh again, and then adds, "And that's how I arrived. I got a job opening oysters. Then I got a job at Red's as a waitress. Jimella was the cook there, and that's where we met."
We are laughing at the story, but I know and Jimella knows and Nanci certainly knows that this is the chutzpah that has always been part of who Nanci Main is, a feisty facet of the glitter queen. Jimella has chutzpah, too, but hers is the steelier facet of the kitchen philosopher.
Nancy begins to sketch the south end of the peninsula 30 years ago. "Red's is an antique mall now, but back then it was the place on the Peninsula. That was the hey-day of charter boats when there were lines and lines and lines of cars coming down and the season was open - gosh! - the whole summer, and this place was hopping. Red's was open day and night, twenty-four hours. At three in the morning, it was packed with people getting ready to go out on boats. The Peninsula was really, really busy then and really hopping."
"It was the salmon capital of the world," Jimella adds. "Actually, it was a Mecca on the west coast from San Francisco north."
"Yes," Nanci agrees, "and Red's Restaurant and the Flame Room were famous. They advertised all up and down the Peninsula and on the road coming in with signs with big red flames on them. That was the traditional place where everyone went. Like today people go to Marsh's (museum and souvenir shop which is home to Jake, the Alligator Man), back then people went to Red's. Jimella was a great cook even then, and we got to be friends. She made these special cheese omelets. Remember?" Jimella nods. "Another waitress that was working there at that time is still living here in Nahcotta. She still comes in the restaurant. Escargots. We used to feed her escargots. It's funny how that web is."
And how did Chef Lucas get to the Peninsula? The kitchen philosopher pauses thoughtfully.
"Well, the Peninsula has always been a special place for me. I discovered it when I was 13 years old. From down in Portland, everyone would go to Seaside. But when I was 13, the family of a friend I went to school with owned a cabin up in Ocean Park, and one holiday she asked if I would like to come up with her and her family. We went to Seaside and took the ferry over and drove up to where her family had this little cabin. It's not there anymore. But we got on the Peninsula and turned on Sandridge - it was a gravel road then - totally different than what it is now. You could drive that 12 miles all the way up to Bay Avenue and see maybe five or six houses. I had such a special feeling when I came onto the Peninsula. I just knew it was some place meaningful to me. When things got crazy for me in the city - working two or three jobs just to get culinary experience - all of a sudden I would just have to stop what I was doing and come up here and chill out. In '70 or '71, I really started thinking about what it would be like to actually live here. I worked at Red's. Then I started working at the Ark, and it was really a going concern. Just been purchased by Frank Glenn, a cranberry grower. We would have incredible lines of people lined up outside waiting sometimes for two hours. There were no reservations in those days. We'd be open from eight in the morning until midnight with a breakfast shift, a lunch shift, and a dinner shift."
They start talking about the good ol' days, reminding each other about certain recipes and how they were derived. They recall people they worked with who still come into The Ark. They talk about things they did then that they don't do any longer. The more they talk, the more animated they become. Then they get to the good stuff: favorite recipes and their origin.
"We knew even then," Chef Lucas says, "to showcase our indigenous area. Cranberries grow here. Get the cranberries, girl!"
"Yes! My cranberry butter!" Nanci Main replies waving one hand in the air. "I've modified the recipe somewhat, but I still serve the cranberry butter I served back then. That's a big Ark tradition. We still serve a lot of things that are Ark tradition. Wild blackberries. That started with Lucille Wilson." Then she sits up in her chair and narrows her eyes a bit as she scans a mental list of the traditions carried over from the beginning years. "When I look at the way we run our business, we put a lot of energy into honoring the people that started a certain tradition and what came before us. Lucille. The Glenns. We honor the tradition of it all because, in fact, this is a small community. These people were and are important in the community. What they did and what they stood for was important. It's all integrated."
"And we're part of their history," Jimella adds, "as they are ours."
"Yes," Nanci agrees. "And one day someone will say, 'Then Nanci and Jimella bought it, and now I have it.' "
Nanci Main grew up in California, the Bay area, and Jimella grew up in Oregon. But there is something about this Peninsula. There is an energy here, something compelling, something that brings people here in the first place and then back again if they leave for a time.
"People come back," Nanci agrees. "I did. I've come back over and over again. Not just to visit, but to live. All the time people do that. You leave and then you come back. Over and over again. And you do the things people do here. You pick wild blackberries. You dig clams. Eat salmon. Pick berries in a pasture with a bull. It's part of the business."
For Chef Lucas, the business is about source and resource. Where 'it' comes from, and what 'it' is, she says, connects her to a greater part of herself, coming as it does out of what she loves to do.
"The Peninsula allows me to do what I do best. I could not match this kind of product anywhere that lets me work so close to the earth, so close to the sea that I am part of it. It really lets me expand my greater self." Then she adds, almost reverently, "There's not any part of me, after almost 40 years of doing what I do, that doesn't get excited about the first spring salmon. No matter what I do or where I go, that can never be erased from me. There are times when I can smell that smell, what a spring salmon smells like when you hold it in your hands. That really feeds me. It connects with a larger part of who I am in the web of life."
All four of The Ark cookbooks follow this theme of being connected to the land, to the community, to the history, and to a sense of place. Jimella and Nanci have chronicled the totality of the Peninsula that feeds through a shared hunger of its inhabitants for putting down roots and knowing who and where they are, who and what went before, and who and what will come afterwards. An Ark cookbook is not a run-of-the-mill cookbook, not just a book you take off the shelf to check ingredients or portions for a recipe. Any one of these cookbooks could be one you pick up with the good intention of making something for dinner, and then find yourself two or three hours later in an rocking chair immersed in history and story and legend and biography and autobiography and hopes and dreams - come true or not. Any one of these cookbooks could distract and delight you, until there is no time nor light in the day left to prepare that meal you had in mind. Not to worry. You have tasted morsels from the matchless bounty from all around the Peninsula, and you are satisfied in a way in which you have never been satisfied before.
We first come to The Ark because we are hungry. We keep coming back because we are fed.
The first cookbook, The Ark, Cuisine of the Northwest, 1983, is flavored with a bountiful introduction by James Beard, in which he says with a star-struck tone that, from the beginning, Jimella Lucas and Nanci Main offered "something we had all waited for many years ... new imagination ... new creativity ... variety and goodness. They discovered a restaurant on the water ... called The Ark ... they dared to move in, and it has been a success."
In her own introduction, Jimella decodes for the reader any mystery that might surround the Ark chefs. "Just as a painter chooses colors and shapes and lines to appeal to his or her own eye and the eye of the beholder. Just as the composer arranges notes and rhythms and instruments to please musician and listener. Just like any other artist, we think of our raw material - the food we have access to. Then we let those flavors, aromas, and colors speak to us. Thus, we express ourselves. With our recipes, we tell you who we are."
With each new cookbook, Chefs Main and Lucas demonstrate more and more creativity in assembling their recipes, tips, stories, pictures, story poems, and history vignettes. If you bought the first one, you most certainly wanted the second, and almost as certainly, when you bought it, you sat down and read everything but the recipes. Not that you liked one or the other better, but as surely as you had developed a taste for The Ark cuisine, you had developed a hunger for the stories scattered among the recipes, a specialized hunger, almost a craving. Such developed and refined tastes are not to be satiated with substitutes. Thus, the palate cleanser of stories tucked in among the delectable recipes of an Ark cookbook. And there is an added advantage. If you read the stories first, you are less likely to be distracted when you really do go looking for that one recipe which you really do want to make for dinner - today.
Most delightful, encouraging, and impressive, however, is the last section of the last cookbook entitled on a treed shot of the road winding through Oysterville, Recipes that Create Community. Turn the page, and there is a two-page spread of snapshots of Chefs Lucas and Main and several young children in the kitchen and bakery learning to cook this, bake that, decorate and display all of it, and celebrate the results. Every face of every child and adult is a smiling face - no, not just smiling, beaming and happy, genuinely delighted. The next two pages describe "the partnership between The Ark and the local elementary school that introduces into the curriculum topics that include information about our environment and resources via a food program. Called Kids Feeding Kids, this hands-on approach to learning is intended "to strengthen and build confidence in children eight to 12 years old, encouraging their unique creativity to demonstrate and present food as art."
The day is moving toward dusk as we talk more about what feeds the people who feed the masses. Chefs Lucas and Main are always going back to the land, to the source.
"It's something that is meaningful," Chef Lucas explains, "and I think about how I train people, and how I deal with kids, how they need to be reminded where they are, and their responsibility to help care for that." Not being privy to this cloistered venue, one could easily forget the humane, environmentally and socially sensitive conscience of the kitchen.
"In 23 years," she continues, "I have put through countless people, but of the ones that stand out in my mind I can count about 15 that can be used as role models [of how] to dream and craft their own style and art of being a chef. When we first started we had people who had no idea what a chef's knife was or what to do with it. It was a job, and they needed a job. We provided a job market. But I needed to have them to do specifically what I wanted them to do so I would not lose sight of the goal I had intended for what I wanted to see my kitchen produce." I believe that's called integrity - in a kitchen, a bakery, or anywhere else, God willing.
Unlike the kitchen, the bakery of The Ark Restaurant is visible through plate glass windows where customers can look into the bakery as they come in from the parking lot overlooking the bay and as they enter the front door. On any given working day, customers of The Ark bakery can get a glimpse the bakery crew producing rolls, icing cakes, measuring flour, or burning (intentionally) the sugar coated top of a mouth-watering creme brulee.
Meanwhile, that Salmon with Wild Blackberry Praline Sauce, those Grilled Sea Scallops with Mandela Sauce, that Sauteed Halibut with Artichoke Hearts, and those Oysters Baked in Garlic Cream Sauce with Goat Cheese and Pesto remain a mystery - delicious, but a mystery - and they would remain more of a mystery if Chef Lucas didn't make an occasional appearance throughout an evening to chat with guests, to answer questions, to lift a bit of that veil of mystery. And the cookbooks help the kitchen and bakery wizards share the secrets of their magic.
Nonetheless, as Doris Lessing reminds would-be writers: "Talent is plentiful. What is needed is staying power." The women of The Ark definitely have staying power.
Water and light.
Good people, good food, and water and light.
We first go to The Ark because we are hungry.
We go back to The Ark because we are fed
Water and light.
Good people, good food, and water and light.
NEXT: THE WOMEN OF THE ARK: TWO BY TWO PART III: MOVING ON