The Inland Empire encompasses central Washington’s Columbia River Basin, from the Rockies to the Cascades; from the Columbia Gorge to Lake Pend Oreille; from Spokane to Lake Chelan. It’s a mostly flat landscape, forested hills and rolling grasslands scattered with ponderosa pines. Many back-to-the-land types moved there in the 1960s, and the culture hung on and flourished, spawning the Tonasket Barter Faire, now 30 years old.
I first heard of Tonasket while working on a farm near Coeur d’Alene. Ellen, my boss, had been a goat herder from the San Juan Islands. She made the convenient mistake of showing up at Tonasket without a sleeping bag. Paul, my other boss, made room in his.
Tonasket is hardly the only barter faire in the Northwest, but it has grown to be the undisputed Mothership. Originally, people came and traded for winter supplies and provisions, leaving with whatever they were not able to grow or make themselves. Nowadays, that goal is still the heart of the Barter Faire, but modern times have crashed the party. You can now buy glo-jewelry along with your seed potatoes and ax handles, as well as designer prayer flags, incense, T-shirts and sunglasses. Many people come just to walk around and be groovy, and cash is a widely used financial instrument.
My financial instrument of choice was a box of canned goods. My secret weapon in this arsenal was a jar from my finest batch, a pickled combination of hot and sweet peppers that I call Hotties and Sweeties.
The Tonasket Barter Faire has the feel of a village, with streets, neighborhoods and landmarks, and stories that develop over its week-long duration. It’s like a cross between Burning Man, a Rainbow Gathering and the Farmer’s Market.
Upon arrival, the first order of business was food. I made a beeline for the food circle. Only it’s impossible to make a beeline anywhere at the barter faire. Goal-oriented travel is quickly thwarted by the vortex goddesses, who rearrange landmarks and fold your sense of direction. That first night, navigation was especially problematic. I halted to take my bearing from the stars. When I lowered my head, I noticed a dark angel wrapped in a Hudson Bay blanket. I pulled out my notebook to make a note-to-self, and some guy in a turban got in my face to see what I was writing. A dude in quilted pants walked by and said, “Concentrate?”
“I’m trying, man,” I yelled at the dude, and ran away, finally coming to a stop in an attempt to trade my Hotties and Sweeties for a paper lamp shaped like a shooting star. Then I headed toward the food area, where I was seduced by the daring culinary/artistic statement of a deep- fried Twinkie, drizzled with raspberry and chocolate sauce. It was the perfect waffle.
Then came the deep-fried oysters, fresh from the coast, whose off-the-charts rich oyster goodness, in conjunction with the harmonious blend of homemade tartar and cocktail sauces, was almost too much to bear. A companion, who was on a liquid diet of cider, coffee and carrot/ginger/apple juice, pointed out that I was eating nothing but fried food. It’s good to have a theme, but I soon broke ranks when I bought some dried salmon from an Indian guy who said he caught the fish at Cascade Locks in Oregon’s Columbia Gorge—way down the river from Missoula.
I eventually realized that many people don’t trade for canned goods. It makes sense when you think about it. Canning is a complex operation and every step must be done with care, from the growing of the item to the harvest to the canning itself. Bad canning can taste horrible and make you feel worse. I knew that my Hotties and Sweeties were of the finest order, but nobody else knew that. Others had canned goods for trade, and I likewise wasn’t interested. What were the chances that their goods were as good as mine?
Chef Boy Ari’s highlight from the 2003 Tonasket Barter Faire came from Dixon, Mont.: Patty’s Garlic Syrup, an unbelievable blend of fire, sweet and acid that works wonders in marinades, sautés and salad dressings. I paid cash, just a few pieces of green paper for that amazing taste sensation.
One evening, after several failed attempts to trade my pickled product, I was munching on a barbecued rib and realized that I needed to be co-munching something from my Hotties and Sweeties jar. So I cracked it, and enjoyed my rib to the fullest extent possible.
The next morning, while I was waiting for a vendor to make me a honey mocha in his espresso tent, I asked his honey if she wanted to trade her honey for one of my jars of pickled product. Her green eyes were skeptical. I presented my half-eaten jar of Hotties and Sweeties and offered her a sample. I walked away with a 25-pound jar of genuine Inland Empire honey.
E-mail Chef Boy Ari: firstname.lastname@example.org