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Earl Emerson: Gumshoe Cuisine in Seattle


Earl Emerson, one of the Northwest's most popular mystery writers, is an expert on gumshoe cuisine. Like his alter ego, Thomas Black, he knows how to track down a swell pizza, a mean chocolate chip cookie and a nice juicy slab of Chinese barbecued pork in Seattle.

"Thomas Black eats where I eat," says the tall, soft-spoken writer, a fulltime firefighter who works at the Yesler Way and 23rd Avenue station in Seattle. "We have exactly the same taste in food."

As befits a local sleuth, Black is a clean-living guy. He's one of the few paperback detectives who's never had a drinking problem.
"That's because of my religion," says Emerson, a Christian Scientist. "I don't drink coffee or alcohol, so Thomas Black doesn't either."

Like Black, Emerson is also a long-distance bicyclist who doesn't have to watch his weight. "I'm a huge eater," he says. "I'm always burning off calories."

He traces his fondness for simple foods back to his hardscrabble boyhood in nearby Tacoma. His parents divorced when he was young, sending Emerson and his three siblings to live with a succession of elderly women paid to provide room and board.

"One of them was from the country," he says. "She cooked cheese on toast. Stuff like that. The next lady was from Texas. She made black-eyed peas and things I couldn't eat. I was really skinny back then. At some point, I started cooking for myself."

Emerson and his wife, Sandy, live just outside Seattle in North Bend. She likes Vietnamese and Thai food, but he prefers to eat where his characters eat, near Black's fictitious law office in the Mutual Life Building on First Avenue. That's why the first stop on our gumshoe gourmet tour is in Pioneer Square. Down on Yesler Way, where the scent of saltwater clings to the air.

"This is Thomas Black's favorite haunt," says Emerson says in Trattoria Michelli, with its dark wood walls and tables covered in flowered oilcloth. "He comes here in my latest book. He orders, but doesn't have time to eat." Why does Black favor this Italian joint?

"It's close to his office and it used to serve great meat ravioli. That's the only kind of ravioli he'll eat. They've taken it off the menu, but he still likes to come here." Unrecognized, Emerson takes a seat in the bar, where big windows reflect the neon lights of the Pioneer Square Hotel, featured in many of his works. Tucking a paper napkin into the collar of his shirt, he calls for a Thomas Kemper root beer. Then he orders a thin crust pizza he finds tasty, topped with roasted chicken, tomatoes, red onions, mozzarella cheese and barbecue sauce. His only regret? The restaurant no longer features Skid Road chicken, a dish he planned to work into a detective novel. "It sounds like road kill. I like the idea of that."

Next stop, Cow Chip Cookies on Yesler Way, a tiny bakery near Black's law office on First Avenue. Instead of reaching for a cigarette in time of crisis, like Sam Spade, Black reaches for a cookie. We arrive at Cow Chip at twilight. "I'm addicted to chocolate chip cookies," Emerson admits, sadly eying the closed sign. "My wife won't make them anymore. I eat every single one."

We head uphill to Fourth Avenue. Our destination, McCormick's Fish House & Bar, is a clubby, dimly lit hangout, where many a business deal is consummated over oysters and beer. It's a steep climb, in more ways than one, from Black's Pioneer Square digs. "Thomas Black feels more comfortable in this place than I do," admits Emerson, sliding into a wooden booth. "It's really upscale. Lots of rich people. I feel most comfortable at the firehouse. I've been there 19 years. I know what I'm doing. Plus, I'm a lieutenant. I'm the boss."

 Still, McCormick's appears in Deception Pass, a Thomas Black mystery. And Emerson couldn't be happier with the nightly special: succulent Hoh River steelhead topped with a horseradish crust and served with garlic mash potatoes and a side of broccoli.

 " I could get used to this place," he says. "But I could do without the broccoli. It's too tough. I like it really well steamed." Our final stop is also the most important. It's hard to think of a Thomas Black mystery that doesn't feature the Kau Kau Restaurant on South King Street in the International District.

As Thomas Black says in Deviant Behavior, "Though it was an unpretentious as a bowl of rice, the Kau Kau had some of the best food in town." Before Emerson dips into a bowl of fried rice, he calls for a fork. Wait, does this mean Thomas Black, his alter-ego, has never mastered chopsticks? "I don't know." Emerson laughs. "I haven't said."

Another mystery: Why doesn't Black ever bump off a thug in a restaurant? The Mafia does it all the time. Has Emerson never seen "The Godfather"? "Most of my murders happen in the home," he says, motioning to the waiter for a to-go bag, which he will haul home in his Subaru wagon. "Didn't you know? Home is the most dangerous place to be."

By Candace Dempsey, from MSN.sidewalk.com