Almost everyone who loves good food owes a debt to Jon Rowley, whether they know it or not.
The interest has accrued over the past 40 years from the gleamingly fresh fish we eat at restaurants or buy in supermarkets, from just-shucked oysters and the simplicity of a foraged salmonberry, from Rowley’s insistence that even good foods had to be coaxed like children into reaching their greatest potential. Most famously, Rowley turned Alaskan Copper River salmon from a lowly cannery catch into a premium signature of spring.
“There is nobody like him,” said Ruth Reichl, former editor in chief of Gourmet magazine. She called Rowley, who died on Wednesday at the age of 74, a pioneer along the lines of Alice Waters. “He really understood that quality is everything in food, and he thought it was important, and he thought we could do it in this country.”
An Alaska-based commercial fisherman turned Seattle-based marketer, Rowley embraced his true role as a tastemaker. He corresponded with Julia Child for decades — her name for him was “the fish missionary” — and they traded research on “fascinating” topics like piscine rigor mortis. When “The Silver Palate Cookbook” co-author Sheila Lukins visited Seattle, Rowley took her on a strawberry-picking trip with his daughter Megan’s fifth-grade class. The shortcake he made the group with his favorite fragile Shuksan berries went into her “U.S.A.” cookbook as the best one ever, a fairly standard reaction to the foods Rowley champions.
For decades, his white-haired figure was busy behind the scenes, organizing evening oyster picnics on Washington state’s Totten Inlet one week, lecturing international gastronomy groups the next, prowling farmers markets with a sugar-measuring refractometer wherever he went. But most diners who benefit from his work have never heard his name.
“He never was in it for the money or the glory,” Reichl said.
In the weeks before he died, Rowley’s name started trending in food circles, after word spread that he had terminal kidney disease. A GoFundMe to help his family turned into a full-blown tribute, accumulating stories of cold-poached halibut, sun-warmed nettles and tender garden leeks (they once won a “Most Beautiful Vegetable” award).
“I’ve never met you but every time I’ve heard your name, it’s been in connection with something that makes life better. Thanks,” one donor wrote.
I visited him on Vashon Island near Seattle recently, after the diagnosis. Family photos were displayed more prominently than his 1987 James Beard Foundation Who’s Who Award, and Rowley’s mind was typically fixated on food rather than legacies. He talked about his latest research on heirloom tomatoes, and made sure guests poured the requisite “critical mass” of heavy cream on plates of biscuits and peaches.
Rowley’s phone and doorbell rang throughout the afternoon, ushering in old “co-conspirators” including Stephanie Marquis, who tended a plot at the P-Patch community garden that Rowley led during a years-long obsession with compost. (Rowley and his former wife, Kate McDermott, met online on a gardening forum; they asked wedding guests to contribute compostables in lieu of traditional presents. Their “thoughtful garbage gifts,” they later wrote, included an IRS refund check, 33 salmon heads, a case of artichoke leaves, and a gift-wrapped banana peel from Child.)
Paging through photographs, Marquis reminded Rowley of the time after 9/11 when their group composted flower bouquets piled at Seattle Center, delivering 1,000 earthy pounds of memorial compost across the country to a community garden near the World Trade Center ruins.
“It was a lot of work, remember? We had to untie all the notes, all the wrappings,” Marquis said.
What would give even a seasoned promoter an idea like that?
“Well, compost is . . .” Rowley said, and trailed off. “They needed to start all over.”
If Rowley was so singular it was because his background was too, a mix of hard labor and rough times, shrewd research and romantic quests.
He spent his early years in Alaska and then Oregon, watching fishermen unloading their catches at the mouth of the Columbia River and sailing away. The solitary beauty of the ocean was “a calling,” he said.
As a teen, determined to escape his alcoholic parents, “I packed a rucksack and put my thumb out.”
He bused tables in Stockholm, did forestry in Finland, and once cleaned toilets at a Marseille campground to earn enough to buy a bouillabaisse, which he had read about but never tasted. “It was wonderful,” he said.
He studied French at Reed College, then headed to Paris, where he metamorphosed for life after reading Ernest Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast” and its descriptions of eating oysters. Robb Walsh, in his book “Sex, Death, & Oysters,” wrote that Rowley “was intrigued by the idea that something you ate could give you a positive outlook.”
He left school when a fellow student sold him a boat, working for years in his favorite places, “where the fish were.”
Oddly for a man who fished alone, he turned to marketing after landing in Seattle in 1979. He had sold the boat, devastated by the death of his infant daughter after his car was hit by a drunk driver. Within a year he was on the cover of Seattle Weekly, planning to change the city’s regulations on seafood sales, with writer Roger Downey saying Rowley’s fish tasted “the way you’ve forgotten fish could taste.” (He was described as an almost lifetime fisherman “with three months in the pen for refusing the draft thrown in as seasoning.”)
Rowley worked for a time with Seattle’s top restaurateur, Robert Rosellini, after telling Rosellini with typical prickliness that his fish was inedible and he could do better.
The rich, red Copper River kings became his crowning achievement in 1983, as he worked with fishermen to improve how they caught and preserved the salmon, then hand-delivered samples to convince chefs of the quality.
He moved on from passion to passion, pressing suppliers to test ideas that might provide sweeter fruits or less-polluted waters. He helped markets set up fish counters around the country, led groups of food-lovers on strawberry-picking trips and shared his philosophies on far-flung visits to execute marketing plans or just shuck oysters at culinary events.
Whatever Rowley was working on was worth a look, whether he was lugging around boxes of Comice pears or, in a rare failure, pails of flopping lamprey eels that he intended as the next seafood sensation.
“Lampreys would have taken off, but the season is so short,” he insisted recently.
It was enough of a victory for him that one Basque chef, remembering the dishes of his childhood, put them on the menu. “When I went in there with that bucket of live lampreys, he picked one up and kissed it,” he said.
It’s hard to imagine that Rowley won’t continue searching for still more examples of what he called “the beautiful taste.”
Rowley “introduced Zen” to the art of appreciating food and ingredients, author Rowan Jacobsen wrote in an email. Rowley avoided hyperbole, he said, and made it clear that the best way to honor a given food was to simply pay attention to it.
“He taught a whole generation of us to do that, purely by modeling good behavior,” wrote Jacobsen, who shares Rowley’s obsessions with oysters, apples and the terroir of ingredients.
“I don’t think he has any successors, and I don’t think what he had to teach will resonate long with mainstream culture. Zen lessons never do. But there will always be a few of us out there who find ourselves on some beach or fishing boat, likely in a Puget Sound kind of foggy drizzle, and think of Jon, and remind ourselves to get the small things right.”
If Rowley ever knew we owe him a debt, he probably considered that as the perfect way to pay it.