Guides to gourmet recipes don’t often dwell on the culinary challenge of preparing a lobster meal while stranded by black ice in rural Quebec, or using available vegetables to whip up an “Amazonian Gazpacho” for police searching for drug traffickers in jungles of Ecuador, or cooking salmon hash served at an annual Southwest Washington gathering of D.B. Cooper sleuths.
These treats are included in a delicious romp of a book, Soups, Stews & Stories: An Investigative Reporter’s Global Quest to Nourish the Soul, recipes brought home by Pulitzer-winning newspaperman Andrew Schneider and seasoned with stories told by his widow, former Seattle Times executive editor Kathleen Best.
Starting with service as an Army photographer, with subsequent stints at news organizations ranging from the Associated Press to the Seattle Post Intelligencer, Schneider made a career centered on reporting how environmental pollution and government inaction impacted lives of people who work hard and play by the rules. His last project was the asbestos poisoning of Libby, Montana residents thanks to a corporation, W.R. Glace, which knew contents of its ore but hid knowledge from miners and locals.
W.R. Grace was forced into bankruptcy, and the EPA into action, thanks to Schneider and reporting partner David McCumber. Naturally, Schneider fell in love with Montana, and Best became editor of the Missoulian. The Big Sky State offers two recipes for carnivores, “A Montana Standing Prime Rib Roast” and “Duck Breasts with Huckleberry Sauce.”
Soups, Stews & Stories bears an unlikely resemblance to climbing guides by renowned Northwest mountaineer Fred Beckey. In preparing one of Andy’s recipes, as in following a Beckey climbing route, you need to know what you’re doing. He lists lots of ingredients – it helped having a buddy at Washington, D.C.’s Eastern Market – while precise instructions can be sketchy.
Of the Montana prime rib roast, Schneider warns: “Yes, it’s a pain but my friends at the USDA say don’t try this at home unless you learn how to do it right. But I think it’s worth it because the results are oh so good. Of course, you can always order it from a high-end butcher if money is no object.”
The richness of this book comes as much on its essays about places and people as in cooking instructions. Covering the 1980 New Hampshire primary, Schneider and colleagues got regaled by Lillian Carter, mother of our 39th president. On “how to handle” the Ayatollah Khomenini, she declared: “If I had a million dollars to spare, I’d look for someone to kill him.”
Schneider phoned in the quote to his bosses at the Associated Press, where it made national and international headlines — and added to Jimmy Carter’s problems. In Schneider’s mail a few days later from Plains, Georgia came the recipe for “Miss Lillian’s Peanut Soup.” It’s in the book, coupled with Miz Lillian’s stern admonition to avoid using peanut butter because it “gave the soup the very wrong taste.”
To report health consequences to normal people, Schneider had to talk to them, and learn about their lives. Sure, he spoke to college professors, that staple of the New York Times news diet. But Andy also coaxed stories from such folk as Haitians victimized in the black market for body parts. Those Haitians celebrated with food looted from the presidential palace after the U.S. flew dictator “Bab Doc” Duvalier into exile.
Andy loved the Caribbean, although he had his thumbs broken by the Tonto Macoutes, the Duvaliers’ vicious militia. Soups, Stews & Stories holds the recipe for Armando’s Cuban Pork, as well as a vegetable soup created by French nuns in the Bahamas. There’s also a fascinating description of a chili recipe with 25 ingredients and based on a well-seasoned pork butt — the creative work of a U.S. military policeman from Georgia and a Cuban family.
Soups, Stews & Stories is a labor of love, and a story of adult romance. Andy proposed to Kathy at Reflection Lake on Mt. Rainier, with the pair crossing The Pond to be married by a Methodist missionary in Italy. The newlyweds went truffle hunting, and then joined the family of friends in Sicily. The honeymoon yields four recipes, topped by Pasta Carbonara with Prosciutto.
Visiting a small hilltop Sicilian hotel, in the book’s account, “the recipe was recommended by an old man who wanted to tell me, in very broken English and much chest thumping, the story of how Americans saved him (in World War II). He said this dish was the best. And he was right.”
Schneider and Best are of a tradition of political and investigative journalists who have used talents and travels to off-hours study of food. The most famous was R.W. “Johnny” Apple of the NYT, whose forte was grand dining experiences. Cragg Hines of the Houston Chronicle researched destinations. From Des Moines, Iowa, to Vancouver, B.C., Hines would find and gather friends at a restaurant superior to where “bigfoot” network anchors were dining. Seattle writer Timothy Egan, too, is in the tradition, using his book A Pilgrimage to Eternity, a trek from Canterbury to Rome, to lovingly describe meals in Italian villages.
Schneider’s father, an immigrant from Hungary, went to culinary school and worked as maître d’ at Fountainbleu Hotel in Miami Beach. He prepared a tableside Caesar Salad, the recipe of which passed on to Andy and Andy’s son Patrick.
One of Schneider’s final recipes is for Walla Walla Sweet Onion Pie, and there is a rub. At the Seattle P-I, I traveled to Eastern Washington with Andy to do a project on sloppy spraying of pesticides and lax regulation by our state’s Department of Agriculture. Alas, we only got as far as the Tri-Cities and missed out on the Walla Walla wine culture and cuisine.
Still, although newly arrived in the state, Andy knew to hit the Cle Elum Bakery on the way out, and Owens Meats while returning home. He was able to smoke out the state’s best beef jerky at one of the state’s best butcher shops.
Note: Soups, Stews & Stories can be purchased on Amazon, on the Politics and Prose website, or directly from its publisher at NewBaybooks.com The price is $35, a bargain for the product.