American REGIONAL FOOD - NORTHWEST. Pike Place Market: Northwest's best

THE early fog rolls in from Puget Sound, bringing a promise of showers, but no matter - it makes the berries and broccoli grow, as anyone can see at the famous farmers' extravaganza known as the Pike Place Market. There are mounds of bright red rhubarb, deep purple eggplant, cauliflower, carrots, chilies, and acres of fresh eggs: even blue, green, and speckled ones.

John Yokoyama is setting up his fish display, carefully placing row upon row of perfect fresh salmon on beds of shaved ice. Then he adds a layer of Penn Cove mussels; next, bushels of oysters and dozens of huge reddish, steamed Dungeness crab.

Perfection in displaying the foods is a hallmark of Pike Place Market. Seafood, vegetables, and fruits are meticulously arranged. Signs say ``Please DON'T touch the merchandise.''

Today there's black cod, skate wings, octopus, squid, mullet, mackerel, and Pacific Northwest specialties, such as mussels, razor clams, geoducks, oysters, and singing scallops - the little pink scallops from the nearby San Juan Islands that are new on the commercial market and expensive.

``The market extends through three city blocks and takes up parts of more than 10 buildings. Saturday is the busiest day,'' says Margaret Wherrette, a writer and former editor of the Market News, a publication for the market community.

She points out that there are often more than 80 farmers with stalls, some with several generations selling at the counters. ``New young farmers come each year, including many Asian immigrants. Some of them try growing a new foreign or trendy vegetable or fruit and bring it to market to see if it sells,'' she says.

The market has an abundant supply of longtime merchants too. Their personalities, as well as their products, give Pike Place its unique flavor.

Pasqualina Verdi is everyone's Italian ``mama,'' selling her home-grown vegetables at the market since 1954. Her daughter, Susan, helps in the selling of as many as 30 different vegetables and herbs.

Known for her sweet basil, Pasqualina may have literally taught half the people in Seattle to make pesto. She doesn't hesitate to praise her own vegetables and entertains Pike Place shoppers daily with her happy comment, ``Everybody look, nobody cook!''

``It used to be that the big attraction to the market was price,'' says Frank Genzales, produce merchant. ``People bought staples and got them for a few cents less than at the supermarket. I'd sell 15 or 20 crates of celery on a busy day, for instance. Today people buy a few things, really good things, and they don't mind paying a few cents extra if you have a few really good peaches or tomatoes.''

Somehow, everything at this market seems larger than life. A box of fresh, wild morels are perfect.The pointed black ones at Sosio's Produce stand are nine inches long. Smaller, rounded morels are $10.95 a pound, and Mario Sosio Manzo, grandson of Sosio Manzo ( 15 years in the market) said that awhile ago he had wild, white Oregon mushrooms priced at $900 a pound! That's expensive fungi.

Sosio's vegetables are perfection, especially the baby ones. Admiring them I told him we never have wild mushrooms like that in Boston. His answer was, ``No, but you've got the Red Sox!''

The aroma of freshly baked bread from Three Girls Bakery will bring you to the window of the second-oldest business in the Pike Place Market, started in 1912 by three women. The breads are truly special - fat loaves of orange and caraway ryes; extra-sour sourdoughs, nut and seed breads, and eight-grain loaves.

Alice Signey, ``the berry lady,'' and her daughter, Patti, carry on the spirit of the small farmer at their Signey Farms in Algona, Wash. They grow 11 varieties of plump, juicy berries, including little-known or forgotten varieties such as wild mountain blackberries, red and black currants, gooseberries, sour cherries, and the marion berry, which is a cross between the large Oregon olalla berry and the tiny sweet mountain black berry and the tay berry, a hybrid of black and red raspberry. They have jams and jellies when fresh berries are out of season.

All the family is bustling at the Pure Food Fish Market, started 75 years ago by Jack Amon and today manned by sons Sol and Irving, daughter Helene, and Irving's son, Jeffry. All take pride in the premium quality fresh salmon, the finest red alder-smoked king salmon, the world-famous Dungeness crab, Puget Sound sockeye, and other beautiful seafood.

As Sol is explaining to me what squaw candy is (strips of hard, smoked salmon) he's called outside to see a woman in the back of a truck, pulling around boxes of fresh flounder or sole.

It's Polly Gunderson whose husband is one of the small boat fishermen from the Hood Canal area. She's ``been doing it all her life,'' she tells me as Sol chooses the fish he needs for the day and Polly sorts it out and hands over the wooden boxes full of fresh seafood.

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