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Cinnabon, oysters and an 'inferiority complex': behold Seattle's food history

Seattle's food scene is booming.

Not only is it doing well economically, but people come from all over the world to try our oysters and berries and stroll Pike Place Market.

But how did we get here? What's the history behind Seattle's food? And what makes food inherently Seattle-esque?

The Museum of History and Industry, also known as MOHAI,  is exploring these questions in a new exhibit called "Edible City: A Delicious Journey."

Food writer Rebekah Denn curated the show, and she told Bill Radke that some of Seattle's food history is surprising. For example, Cinnabon was created in the Puget Sound region. The first Cinnabon opened in Federal Way in 1985.

But there are also some recurring themes. Take the popularity of oyster bars that many attribute to Renee Erickson's mini-empire of restaurants in the city.

"I remember her saying when she first opened the Walrus and the Carpenter, 'Why don't we have a kinda casual-ish place here where someone can just go and get a dozen oysters and walk in and walk out?' And I thought, 'Yeah why don't we?'" Denn said.

But then in her research for the exhibit, she encountered oyster menus from the 1890s. "They look almost just the same!"

Denn also believes that Seattle's "inferiority complex" manifested itself in our food scene throughout our history.

[asset-images[{"caption": "A menu for Don's Oyster House from 1943 shows that oysters in Seattle go way back.", "fid": "131649", "style": "offset_left", "uri": "public://201611/oystermenut.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Courtesy of MOHAI"}]]For example, an advertisement for Olympia oysters it says in big letters near the top: "In California sometimes wrongly called California oysters."

When Denn saw that she though,"Oh, dear Seattle. Even way back then you had to defend yourself."

"I think we've always felt like we weren't big enough, we weren't shiny enough," she added. But that's been changing in recent decades as the region has experienced incredible growth. 

If there's one thing she wants visitors to take away from the exhibit, it's that our geography and cultural diversity play a huge role in what's on our plates.

"We actually do have Seattle foods, and we do have a Seattle way of eating," she said.

To her, a quintessentially Seattle food is one that combines the natural world with the various cultures that have migrated here over the years.

Year started with KUOW: 1985 – 1986, 1991 – 2004, 2012