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Seattle's Peter Miller Reflects On The Year With Poetry On Tomato Cans

At Peter Miller Books in Seattle, 'tis the season of tomato cans.

For the last 20 years, Miller has been giving away cans of quality tomatoes to his regular customers. What makes these tomatoes unique is Miller’s original poetry glued to the front.

Words On A Can Of Tomatoes That 'Make A Brilliant Sauce'

Miller is the owner of the architecture and design bookstore in Belltown that bears his name and has a dedicated following. Miller loves good food — he wrote a cookbook this year — and he is a voracious reader. He brings these two passions together by composing a few thoughts reflecting on the year and sticks them onto a 28-ounce can of Italian San Marzano tomatoes.

Miller says tomatoes from this part of the world “make a brilliant sauce quite simply with garlic and a little hot pepper, and a little olive oil and a little good cheese." 

"And I think the first was the recipe for how to cook that, and then I thought, 'Well we should just put a little quote on here,'" Miller said.

'They Are Very Thoughtful Things'

The quotes are really bits of poetry. Sometimes the sentiment is grumpy. Consider this 2008 quote, which Miller penned after the drawn-out presidential election: "I shall ignore you probably at my peril, but most certainly at my pleasure."

In other years, the tomato cans have offered advice.

“In 2013,” says Miller, “there was a good one called 'an endangered list, a cautionary list: Eat well, dress warmly, drink fresh water, be helpful and save some time for reading.' I thought that was a good list.”

Veteran architect Rick Sundberg, who designed the Wing Luke Museum and The Fry Art Museum, collects Miller's tomato can every year and saves each quote.

“I have them pinned up in my studio at home,” said Sundberg when he stopped by the shop to do some holiday shopping. “And there are other quotes, too. He gets very remorseful and he writes a quote. He gets a little melancholy and he stays up for three days in a row, writing a quote. No, seriously, they happen at the change of season, they happen at the change of life. They are very thoughtful things, actually, so I save them.”

Words From The Year 2000

Miller reflects on a quote from the year 2000. “That was the December when my children were invited on New Years Eve by [then Seattle] Mayor Paul Schell to come with him to the Space Needle to turn on the lights," he said.

"And with two days to go, he called up and said, ‘I have to cancel. I can’t talk about it. It’s complicated and it can’t go in the press, and I can’t tell the story. But I talked to the head of the FBI today and I said that I was bringing your two kids up to the Space Needle for New Year’s Eve Celebration, and the head of the FBI said, 'Well, I wouldn’t let you take my kids,’” Miller said.

Ahmed Ressam, who would soon be known as the millennial bomber, was in custody. He had enough explosives in the trunk of his car to blow up the Space Needle. Later, we’d find out that Los Angeles was the target.

“We didn’t catch him by cunning; we caught him by sheer luck and by humanity. He didn’t look normal,” says Miller.

It was a ferry worker in Port Angeles who noticed that Ressam looked ill and started asking questions. Miller took all of this information, viewed it through his lens and wrote two sentences for that year:“The new world where cleverness has slyly descended to a modern day virtue. How nearly fresh it now seems what was once mere cunning.”

This Year's Wisdom: Optimism

“Where he gets these, I don’t know,” said Rodger Elo, one of Miller’s longtime friends and customers. Elo spent 40 years in the produce business at Pike Place Market. He has big plans for his tomatoes.

“Bacon, onion, these tomatoes,” said Elo with a far-off look, imagining his ingredients, “and a little pepper, red chili flakes, oregano, then I let it cook all the day and it’s the best.”

The quote on this year’s can: "How slow is the clock that chimes for grace."

Miller is certain 2015 will be a good year. “While the clock chiming for grace is a very slow clock, if you feel that the tide is toward that direction then the wait is not so long. And your sense of optimism that it is coming is not so long," he said.

One sign that things might be a little more hopeful in this part of the world is that Miller is having a hard time keeping paper calendars for 2015 on the shelf. Some years, says Miller, people don’t want to know the date. But there are times, like now, when his customers are looking ahead and making plans, driven by an invisible undercurrent of optimism.  

Jennifer Wing is a former KNKX reporter and producer who worked on the show Sound Effect and Transmission podcast.