“This is Kim Williams in Missoula, Montana.” For more than 10 years prior to her death in 1986, listeners of National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” grew to associate this spoken byline with weekly commentaries lush with enthusiasm and life-affirming vigor. The words “Missoula, Montana” rolled off her tongue and did more to put Missoula on the map than perhaps anything since Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It.
Williams lived in a universe of local and wild foods, her four food groups defined by the four seasons. From the “spring tonic” of dandelion salads through the huckleberry harvest of summer, the elk roasts of autumn and the canned fruit of winter, her work is a celebration of food from our home ground. Kim Williams is a hero to me, and to our town as well, memorialized by the trail bearing her name along the Clark Fork River.
William Marcus, Montana Public Radio station manager, remembers her well. “She was an incredible presence,” he says. “To this day, when I travel to conferences and mention that I’m from Missoula, people ask if I knew her. Her indelible effect was a combination of her spirit, the sound of her voice, and what she thought was important.”
Did she ever bring any of her local food creations to the station?
“She’d bring things made from her garden, like zucchini bread,” says Marcus. “One time she brought French-fried earthworms. She was talking about protein at the time, and how people in other cultures get their protein from insects and lizards and such.”
Although only 5’ 3”, Williams was big enough to contradict herself and get away with it, and French-fried earthworms are a good example. While she was dedicated to healthy eating, she rebelled against puritanical restrictions, embracing a lifestyle that included a healthy level of excess, in moderation. Food was always an adventure for Kim Williams.
“My life is not perfection,” she announces in the introduction to Kim Williams’ Cookbook and Commentary (Knight-Ridder, 1983). This wonderful book demonstrates her ability to encompass such disparate dictums as, “If you have ever tasted bread made from whole flour milled that same day you will know what I mean when I say good bread needs no butter” and, “You just don’t make fry-bread out of whole wheat flour.”
“I believe in ritual,” she writes, “and ritualistic eating. To use white flour and white sugar in celebration is one thing. To stuff our stomachs with it three times a day is a different matter.”
The other day I was on the way home after picking plums from a tree at an undisclosed location. I could feel Williams smiling down in approval of my gleaning, and I got a wild hair to try a recipe from her book that I’ve had my eye on for a while: corn-stuffed tomato. I stopped at the grocery store and called home for the recipe in case I needed to get anything.
The only things we didn’t have were corn and tomatoes. Both grow in my garden, but the corn crop was pathetic and ripe tomatoes don’t last long around my house. It’s tricky to make corn-stuffed tomatoes without corn and tomatoes, so I hung my head in shame as I entered a place I hadn’t been all summer long: the produce section (it’s been all garden and farmer’s market for this Chef Boy). My angst was compounded by the fact that they were out of corn, and the tomato options were from California and Mexico.
I couldn’t do it, and I knew Kim wouldn’t want me to. I left the store empty-handed, without a plan, but determined to find a way. Before I left the parking lot, my friend Tim told me to stop by his house on the way home and help myself to tomatoes (four, large and ripe). Encouraged, I determined that even my measly corn crop could spare two cups.
At home, I cut around the stem of each tomato and scooped the pulp into a strainer to drain. I diced the pulp and mixed it with the corn, 1/4 cup chopped pepper (green or hot), three tablespoons (or more) minced onion, 1/2 tablespoon chopped basil, one tablespoon chopped parsley and a pinch of black pepper.
Williams’ recipe calls for mayo and I was happy to comply. I went to the chicken coop and took two eggs, which I cracked into my blender. I dropped in two cloves of garlic and blended for one minute. Then I slowly added a cup of Montola safflower oil, grown and processed in northeastern Montana. Then I blended in two tablespoons each of lemon juice and vinegar. Just like that, I’ve got mayo!
In the spirit of Kim’s non-puritanical culinary approach, I modified her recipe by adding a strip of bacon, crumbled, to the mix. I stirred in the mayo, stuffed the tomatoes and toasted my patron saint.