When Ari Nordhagen moved to Spokane from Reno with her husband, Erik, and four sons in 2015, she set out with a camera in hand to explore her new community.
A chance visit to a local pizza joint spawned a new addition to her photography career.
“I was taking pictures of my food and the owner asked if I was a photographer,” she recalled. “He asked me to shoot their entire menu. The only food I’d photographed professionally before was wedding cake!”
That first job led to more and eventually resulted in her new book “The Spokane Cookbook.”
But before the book came the children, and they changed the trajectory of the Stanford University graduate’s life.
“I wanted to be a doctor, but I gave up medical school to stay home and care for my kids,” Nordhagen said. “I loved taking creative storybook photos of them.”
Those photos prompted friends to ask her to take pictures of their kids, which evolved into family Christmas portraits, senior portraits and eventually weddings. She launched Amen Photography in 2008.
When their oldest son approached high school, the family decided to relocate to Chattaroy, where Erik’s family had farmed. The kids thrived in their new environment, but Nordhagen wasn’t sure how her photography business would fare.
“It’s hard to break into a new market,” she said. “I didn’t know anyone.”
Shooting the pizzeria’s menu opened up a world of foodie opportunities. Chefs began calling. A visit to Cherry Hill Orchard & Market in Green Bluff led to her meeting the owner, Ronda Bosma.
“She was my first foodie friend and she was the first photo I shot for the book,” said Nordhagen.
Nordhagen had found her Spokane niche: food photography.
“I enjoy it and my kids love it because I get to take a lot of food home,” she said, laughing.
“The Spokane Cookbook,” like many creative projects was birthed during the long, dreary months of COVID.
“Everything just stopped,” she said. “I was stuck at home.”
While watching YouTube videos to further enhance her photography skills, she found Phoenix-based food photographer Joanie Simon’s online workshops and learned Simon had shot the “Phoenix Cooks” cookbook.
“I was mesmerized,” Nordhagen said. “I thought this was something I need to do!”
“When you’re bored during COVID you think you can do anything.”
Nordhagen delved into research.
“A few Spokane cookbooks have been published, but none of them have color photographs,” she said.
Her idea was to trace the evolution of the city’s food scene and profile chefs, farmers and food entrepreneurs.
“I wanted to learn the stories of the people,” Nordhagen said. “Photography is documenting people’s stories. That’s what I love.”
She honed her writing skills with a monthly feature called “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” for Spokane Coeur d’Alene Living magazine.
In 2021, at the urging of her friend Grace June, Nordhagen applied for and won a Spokane Arts grant for $10,000. Then work began in earnest.
“I didn’t want to pretend I knew everything about Spokane, so I reached out to Larry Cebula.”
Cebula, a history professor at Eastern Washington University, suggested she began her book with the story of Spokane itself, starting with the people who lived here first.
Nordhagen contacted the Spokane Tribe of Indians and was invited to a salmon ceremony.
“It was a life-changing experience for me to be invited into something so sacred,” she said. “It was such an honor.”
She ended up devoting an entire section of the book to Spokane’s beginnings. Another section focuses on Feast World Kitchen. The nonprofit restaurant and catering company features a rotating group of former refugee and immigrant chef-entrepreneurs. Their story is dear to Nordhagen’s heart.
“I’m an immigrant,” she said. “I came here from the Philippines at 12.”
The 248-page fully illustrated book highlights 61 chefs, farmers and food entrepreneurs and is organized alphabetically by last name.
Well-known names like Adam Hegsted and Chad White mingle with lesser-known chefs such as Michelle Ho.
“Michelle is a Feast World Kitchen chef from Hong Kong,” Nordhagen said.
You can’t have a cookbook without recipes and “The Spokane Cookbook” features 72 of them. There’s Ho’s Hong Kong Style Pork Chop Fried Rice, Bosma’s Very Cherry Signature Pie and Hegsted’s White Wine Poached Sockeye Salmon.
“When I asked Adam if he was willing to be featured, he said, ‘My mom has always wanted me to be in a cookbook!’ ” Nordhagen recalled.
“The Spokane Cookbook,” ($44.95), is available locally at Auntie’s Bookstore, Atticus, Wishing Tree Books and Lucky Vintage. Nordhagen will be signing copies at the book launch on Friday at the Wonder Building and also on Saturday at the Wonder Winter Market. A portion of proceeds will go to Big Table, a Northwest-based outreach organization for restaurant and hospitality workers.
Nordhagen has relished this foodie journey.
“My household’s story is representative of what’s happening in Spokane,” she said. “My kids are a mix of their immigrant mom and their meat and potatoes dad. Your cultural identity is most shareable through your food. Food gets everyone together on a level playing field.”
Cindy Hval can be reached at email@example.com.
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