In every issue of The Georgetowner, Walter Nicholls, who passed away last Sunday, wrote a column called “What’s Cooking, Neighbor?” In the last of these, in this issue, we seem to be part of his conversation with Ruth Poupon.
This column and others over the past year make it clear that he was a real writer, a one-of-a-kind kind of person who breathed in and breathed out curiosity as if it were a rarefied ingredient in the atmosphere.
The former Washington Post staff writer was a Magellan of eateries and food shops. “He knew places nobody knew about and people who were not big culinary stars, but were special,” said Nancy McKeon, a former Washington Post editor who worked with him beginning in the 1990s.
He liked to go on expeditions where he would make discoveries – roots, vegetables, gardens, people who grew things or made them or cooked them – and the places where the process happened – barns, farms, country inns, out of the way bakeries and markets.
When you read his writing, you immediately get the idea that perhaps the most important ingredients of a meal are people: those who set the table, who serve the food, who cook and make and invent the food, and those who dine as opposed to just eat and digest. In this way, a dinner, a breakfast, a table can be a place where the imagination, in conjunction with educated and experienced taste buds, empathy, humor – and taste in the sense of appropriateness – can roam.
“We sent him to Alaska once for the Copper River Salmon Run, a fishing event, and he came back with detailed descriptions of the salmons, the fishing, the clothes people wore,” recalled McKeon. “He had so much energy, and he approached everything with intense excitement. He was almost like a toddler in his interests. He was always learning something new: a food, an ingredient.”
Walter Nicholls was 64. He had been diagnosed with liver cancer less than three weeks before he died.
Funeral arrangements are pending.