Stardew Valley is the ultimate farming sim fantasy video game.

If you’re unfamiliar, it’s like the original Harvest Moon for Super Nintendo, but perfected to an exacting level of detail by the Seattle-based game designer Eric Barone. He spent five years doing the work of a full game development studio all by himself in a Capitol Hill apartment.

Farming, foraging, fishing, working the mines, swinging a sword at aggressive slimes, and romance *mwah* are the cogs powering this endless, addictive loop of tiny serotonin brain bursts, and these projects will devour a productive afternoon if you aren’t careful. The super popular, religiously streamed game has sold well over 20 million copies and it is still amazing 7 years later. 

As you’d think, food is central to a farming sim like Stardew Valley. Not only what bounty you pluck from the ground, but the recipes you cook up using the different ingredients, from algae soup to salmon dinner to tom kha soup.

It occurred to me, while munching on a maple bar a few weeks ago, that I hadn’t eaten one until I moved to the PNW. It’s another one of the game’s 80 recipes and I wondered if Barone—who grew up in Auburn—consciously put Thai food, salmonberries, and recipes with foraged mushrooms into the game as tribute to the city and region. In a recent phone interview, he said it wasn’t intentional. What millions of players cook and bake is a reflection of the big and small impressions food made on his life.

Like everything in Stardew Valley, you paid special attention to recipes. Where does your appreciation for food come from?

I think it probably starts with my mom. My mom's from Germany. She was born there. So growing up, she just cooked a lot at home. And it was kind of, I guess, a little bit odd food for an American. But there were all the Pacific Northwest ingredients that were available. I had a lot of good food as a kid—that all just kind of influenced me. It wasn't actually like a really deliberate, conscious thing when I made the food for Stardew Valley. It was just foods that I was familiar with. 

Are you a good cook, too?

Me? Not so much [laughs]. I would like to get better at it. I'm okay. Like, I don't know a lot about cooking and I haven't done a ton of cooking. But I think I have a good intuition for flavors, like, “Oh, like this could use a little bit more seasoning of a certain kind.”

I think anybody who grows up with a mom who was a really good cook gets that kind of intuition. The first in-game food I wanted to ask you about was the Survival Burger. That sounds super game dev to me. Is that a struggle meal that you actually made while making this game?

When I made Stardew Valley, I was vegetarian at the time. My girlfriend and I would make vegetarian burger patties made out of beans and stuff like that. But there was never a specific dish [we] called a survival burger. Part of [why I called it] a Survival Burger is that you learn [the recipe] through the foraging skill. I kind of envisioned foraging as skills that you would have if you were out living in nature and gathering stuff like in the woods. I'll admit, it's kind of a weird name. I kind of just made that up because I thought it sounded cool and it kind of fit the theme I was going for.

Fishing for tacos. Courtesy of Stardew Valley

You can sell the Fish Taco for more than almost any foodin the game [500 gold, nerds]. Is there a good fish taco in town?

That was something that my mom would make. When I was really working on Stardew Valley, I was actually living in Capitol Hill. There's a taco place on Broadway, and you go into this kind of weird building and go up these stairs [Tacos Chukis].

Yeah, I've been there. Do they have fish?

I feel like maybe I got a fish taco there. I definitely went there while I was making Stardew Valley so yeah, you know, who knows? I think that that might have been part of why I put like cactus fruit in the game. I know they have nopales tacos.

Did you frequent a lot of Capitol Hill restaurants while making the game? What were your go-to’s?

I lived right near the Seattle U campus. There was a place called Café Presse, which is right across the street from where I lived. I went there quite often with some friends. Have you been to Omega? The Greek place?

Yeah, I have!

That place is good. Like, often when I eat restaurant food, it tastes like restaurant food. But for some reason, Omega tastes like home-cooked food, which I feel like is extremely rare when you're going out to restaurants.

It does have that sort of home-cooked warmness to it.

I mean, I went to a lot of restaurants on Capitol Hill [laughs]. I worked at the Paramount Theater. And so sometimes, on the way back, I’d get like a slice of Hot Mama’s. I don't know if they're still in business. I haven't been to Capitol Hill in a while.

They’re still in business, but I'm kind of a Mario's person.

Yeah, I think Mario's is better. Hot Mama’s is more like a drunk slice at 2 am [laughs].

Mario edges everything out because it's got the scoop pepperonis. It’s hard to beat. You've also got a lot of Thai food in the game, like curry and tom kha soup.

There's a lot of good Asian cuisine in this region. My family would go to those places for dinner sometimes and that was one dish that really just stood out to me, because it was just delicious. I love tom kha soup. Have you had it?

I never have.

You should. It's a very special flavor. It's unique. It's delicious. It's very, very flavorful.

Do you remember when you first had it?

When I was a kid, we would sometimes go to the Woodland Park Zoo. And there was some Thai place around there we would often visit. I just don't I don't remember what it was—I was a little kid. [Readers, can you tell me so I can try some tom kha soup?]

Coffee at Stardew Valley's night market. COURTESY OF STARDEW VALLEY

I think this is kind of Seattle obvious, but there’s espresso.

I like espresso. I like everything. You know, what I say about coffee is like I'm not super particular about it, even though I live in Seattle. If it's hot and brown and it has caffeine, I'm gonna be happy [laughs]. My main order is just like a drip coffee.

The Dish O’ the Sea really stands out because … I've never seen sardines and hashbrowns. Is that a real thing?

Ah, that one [laughs]? I don't know about that. Some of the stuff in Stardew Valley [comes from wanting] every ingredient to kind of have a cooking recipe associated with it—ideally—there might be some that I missed. So sometimes, I was kind of thinking, “What am I gonna do with sardines? I gotta figure out something.” And there's also certain target cooking recipes that I needed to hit. Every profession, or every skill [in Stardew], has a couple recipes associated with it. It probably came from needing to fit in these ingredients that I’m not really sure what to do with and just throwing something weird together. 

Would you eat it? 

I would eat it. I would try anything [laughs].

Is that kind of like the Fiddlehead Risotto, too? 

So the Fiddlehead Risotto actually has a little bit of a story to it. I went out to a restaurant with some friends and one of them ordered a fiddlehead risotto. We just thought it was funny because she was saying, “Yeah, it's bland. It's bland.” It kind of stuck in my head. And so I put [the recipe] into the game, because I had fiddleheads in the game. The description of the dish in the game is, “It's kind of bland.” [We agreed not to put the restaurant on blast.]

I don’t know if it’s their fault. I've never seen a fern and been like, “Fuck, I want to eat that.”

Yeah, true.

Pretty though. I like them.

I love ferns.

Salmonberries are something I didn’t know about until I moved here. Did you grow up picking salmonberries?

Yeah, I would eat them, [but] I would say salmonberries typically aren't very good [laughs]. They barely have any flavor. Whenever I’m on a hike and I find them, they just taste sour. But I think it kind of fits [in Stardew]. They’re one of the first four foragables that you find [and] they're not worth that much money. I kind of wanted to put some stuff in the game that was kind of unique, or a little bit weird, just to make it interesting. 

It's one of the signifiers of this region, because if you've never been to the Pacific Northwest, you're not gonna know what a salmonberry is at all.

I never knew Stardew Valley would be very popular. So when it blew up, suddenly, people are messaging me, “What the heck is a salmonberry?” If I had known it would be this big, global phenomenon, maybe I would have done things differently, just to make it more familiar to people. But, I don’t know, I'm kind of glad that I put in this weird stuff. A lot of people probably learned what a salmonberry is. It makes the Pacific Northwest a bit interesting—people might come here and try a salmonberry. I just feel kind of bad that they're going to try and be like, this is not very good.

I feel that there's probably a fair number of people who think it isn't real. It sounds like it's not real.

I saw posts on the Stardew subreddit, where people are like, “Today I learned—salmonberry is a real thing.” It had like 10,000 upvotes.

Foraging is a big part of Stardew. Have you foraged mushrooms before?

Yes! Yes. That's another thing that kind of goes back to my mom's German upbringing. She grew up in the Black Forest region in Germany. When she was a kid she would just go into the woods and pick all kinds of mushrooms. When she met my dad and then came here to the United States, she brought that with her. We would often go out near Mount Rainier into the old-growth forest and pick chanterelles and other kinds of mushrooms. That was a special experience for me.

You drew so much inspiration from the world around you in this game. There's the trees. The food. But I’m curious about Linus, a homeless man who is shown as a full person. He's always at the town festival and he's part of the community and as much a neighbor as anybody else. Did living in Seattle inspire that character?

It did somewhat. One of my ideas for this character was to give people [the opportunity] to have an open mind. Like you shouldn't just make assumptions about someone because of superficial characteristics. There might be all kinds of different reasons that he has the lifestyle he does. Actually, Linus, in the game, he wants to live the way he does. He says, “I'm happy with my life.” And basically “Don't don't judge me.” That’s kind of the thing with Linus. I kind of assumed that players would have their preconceived idea about a person based on these kinds of characteristics and that maybe, you know, maybe things aren't always as they seem.

He's my favorite character.

A lot of people like him.

He's not someone you designed to pity.

Exactly. A lot of people, they kept saying, like, “I want to bring him on to the farm and have him live on the farm with me.” I was always, like “No!” That's not like the idea of Linus. He's an independent person. He's his own man! This idea that everyone who's living a lifestyle that you might think they need your help. Sometimes people don't want other people's help. Maybe they're happy. You should listen to them and see what they say.

Was there any one person who influenced Linus?

Most of the characters in Stardew are a bunch of different experiences that I've had kind of fusing together. Living on Capitol Hill, I interacted with people of all kinds. A lot of people who were homeless would ask me, “Can you buy me some tacos at this place?” And I go get tacos with them and talk to them for a little bit. He was certainly influenced by my experiences there.

I have to ask, is there a real Queen of Sauce? [For non-players, this is Stardew’s TV chef. You learn recipes from watching her show, “The Queen of Sauce.”]

I used to watch the Food Network a lot when I still lived with my parents. My mom really liked watching it and I'd watch it with her. There's all these personalities on there with a certain demeanor. I took a lot of that and it morphed into the Queen of Sauce. Like a TV cooking host, but with a slight Zen-like yoga element to her.