Three women find inspiration in food … and Angus cows

By Tiffany Ran
Northwest Asian Weekly 

After dedicating herself to caring for her family, Korean American Alice Currah found herself dealing with an identity crisis.  

“I felt a deep sense of loss towards the activities and hobbies I used to do. I had allowed myself to believe I couldn’t pursue them anymore. Blogging became a lifeline to me … to reclaim a part of myself and all that I enjoyed doing,” Currah said.  

Currah started Savory Sweet Life, a blog that features homemade recipes like golden chicken coconut curry soup and fluffy pancakes submerged under the weight of an unctuous blueberry sauce. Her blog motivated her to experiment with different ingredients and become a better cook.  

Xinh Dwelley (Photo from www.xinhsrestaurant.com)

Xinh T. Dwelley, chef of Xinh’s Clam and Oyster House, started cooking as a teenager at a mess hall in her native Vietnam for an entire battalion of American soldiers. Dwelley married an American GI and immigrated to the states in 1970. Prior to taking a job with Taylor Shellfish, Dwelley, from the small Vietnamese village of An Hoa, did not even know what an oyster was.  

“First day, I did about eight pounds. I picked it up pretty quick though. [The] reason is that I know what hard work is because I plant[ed] rice in Vietnam,” Dwelley said. 

Given time with the shellfish, Dwelley started winning cooking competitions with her soul-settling oyster stew. VIP buyers of Taylor Shellfish were also won over by her exuberant personality. Her employers took her dream of having her own restaurant seriously. In 1996, Xinh’s Clam and Oyster House in Shelton, Wash. was born.

When Japanese American Eiko Vojkovich got married, a close friend gave her an Angus cow as a wedding present. That cow was the beginning of a herd and that is how Vojkovich and her husband started Skagit River Ranch. Vojkovich, who was once a managing executive of a fishing company, rolled up her sleeves with her husband, George, and embraced a life of backbreaking work. She spent two weeks with a butcher learning about different cuts of meat and learning how to quickly process chickens. 

“It was kind of comical actually. I went from trading one container, about $200,000 worth of product, to [selling] one carton of eggs at a time. … I think it’s more meaningful to me personally because I raise them by my hands. I wash them myself and I’m selling to the customer and they’re going to eat it for me,” Vojkovich said.  

Alice Currah (Photo provided by Alice Currah)

Currently, Currah puts out a new recipe every three days, including a short introduction to every glorified meal. It is hard to imagine with such abundance that Currah once struggled with hunger growing up as a child. 

“I grew up in a family with six kids and little means,” Currah writes on her blog. “I know what it’s like to go without food and how hard it can be to get by. I watched my mom eat rice and water soup while giving us kids whatever else there was to eat.” 

Currah raised awareness for hunger by documenting her participation in the United Way Hunger Challenge, where she and her family lived for five days on a food stamp budget. 

“I want people to know that I understand hunger,” Currah says in her blog. “I think this is why this challenge disturbs me so much. I don’t really like remembering the hard times. However, having to remember explains why I enjoy food so much now.”  

Dwelley enjoys working with Taylor Shellfish in her “off the wall” fusion dishes offering local shellfish with her native Vietnamese flavors such as lemongrass, Thai basil, and tamarind paste.  

Skagit River Ranch became completely sustainable and organic about 15 years ago after Vojkovich’s husband was diagnosed with health problems caused by chemicals in the environment and the food. Though she grew up in Japan eating her mother’s delicious and wholesome cooking, Vojkovich became a junk food lover while going to school and soon noted her unhealthy weight gain. They decided to remove the contaminants from their diets, starting with their method of farming. A change that started as a necessity soon became a change of heart.  

Eiko Vojkovich and her husband, George (Photo by Clare Barboza)

 

“[Our customers] consider us their farmer[s], so we have a responsibility as farmers to supply them with ethically raised meat to keep them healthy. That’s a rewarding feeling. We love it. We are definitely not doing this for the money, I’ll tell you that!” 

Having now reclaimed her right of self expression, Currah works tirelessly by managing a busy household. She blogs at night after her kids have gone to sleep. Her blog generates around 20 to 30 comments an entry.

“I had a grandpa e-mail me to thank me for my recipes with step by step photos. He used to be a trucker and now is a caretaker for his wife. He said he never learned to cook and was intimidated to try but my recipes have given him confidence. … I get e-mails like this at least once a week and each time that I do, I feel like I ministered to someone, and I feel great that I could help them.” 

So even as exhaustion kicks in, Currah continues to blog.

Over the years, Dwelley has gone through the struggles of an immigrant, endured a divorce, raised children, and remarried. “I think for women, we have to be strong. We need to maintain our self identity and be strong and take care of ourselves,” said Dwelley, who, despite her obstacles, has successfully run the restaurant for almost 14 years. 

Within Currah’s first year of blogging, Sweet Savory Life won recognition from Saveur and Forbes magazines. Her blog, which she thought would merely be a collection of recipes, became a tool that connected her to a community of food writers, some of whom became personal friends.  

“Belonging to a community will help [moms] feel connected to others who will provide support and encouragement. Taking time to replenish oneself is a gift to everyone, especially our children,” Currah said.  

Vojkovich’s husband is now in good health. They had mortgaged the house and cashed out their retirement fund to establish the farm. However, Vojkovich is less concerned about money as she is concerned that the ranch fulfills a social responsibility.  

“My job as a farmer is to raise the animals the best way in the most natural environment, the most humanely way that we know how,” Vojkovich said.  

“When you get to my age, money is not everything. What [are you] going to do in your life that is meaningful as a responsible person in this society? What are you going to give back instead of just take, take, take? … Whatever you do, do it with a glad heart. Do it with everything you have. Don’t do it because your parents did it. Especially in Asian culture, tradition can cripple you. This is about you. Do it right,” Vojkovich said.  ♦

For more information, visit savorysweetlife.com, www.xinhsrestaurant.com, or www.skagitriverranch.com.

Tiffany Ran can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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