Portland's Food Rules
Ten lessons America can learn about what it takes for a midsize city to become one of the most exciting food towns in the country.
And, yes, you have to begin by agreeing that Portland is now so hip, or perhaps so post-hip, that it has a TV show—Portlandia—devoted to its hipness, a show involving much hilarity about food in episode one. And that a Portlander famously addressed hipness-sniffing New York writers this way on a blog: "STOP stalking us. Love, Portland." Portland, like Austin, prides itself on being weird, which in the end is a bit of Vegas-style branding. But when you get down to it, PDX, as it's sometimes called, walks the walk concerning chow. If the American food revolution sometimes starts to feel like a lecture, well, there's a lot of giddy class participation in Portland. It has a few things to teach the rest of us.
1: IT'S GOOD TO ELECT A FOODIE MAYOR
If you want to see Portland Mayor Sam Adams fired up, get him talking about his backyard bees. Or his laying hens and vegetable garden. Or the City Hall courtyard, where a manicured lawn gave way to 700 square feet of vegetable beds full of tomatoes, kale, and strawberries. On the policy-wonk side, Adams will detail his work with the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability to convert vacant lots into community gardens or efforts to bring more farmers to the city's many farmers' markets.
In Portland, food policy gets the juices running, and food policy can make streets messy. Sooner or later, a talk with the mayor arrives at the subject of the 600-odd food carts and trucks camped all over town. Under Adams' watch, first as a city council member and then as mayor starting in 2009, licensing fees have been kept low and streetscape regulations have been tweaked to make Portland more cart-and truck-friendly. Stroll any street, and you see the result: an Airstream trailer doing Northern Thai curry next to a Cajun joint with a patio draped in Spanish moss; a renovated caboose serving vegan barbecue; and a silver trailer offering Scandinavian meatball-stuffed lefse. Sounds charming, but the improvised jumble has created a hint of Bangkok via Burning Man, a rough muddle that would horrify prissier, more tightly zoned American cities. To Adams, it's all part of the democratic process.
"Portlanders eat their values," Adams says, "so they embrace the carts." An added benefit, he believes, is a healthy serving of social justice: Food carts have relatively low overhead, so business ownership has become possible for many who couldn't afford to start a conventional restaurant.
There are naysayers. Some restaurateurs grouse that the carts steal their business—a low-overhead cart lunch costs about the same as a fast-food value meal. Others linger over the grunge factor and food safety. The mayor persists, "We've had to work hard to convince people that even though they look a little hodgepodge, carts add an informal charm to the cityscape. And as for food safety, the carts are held to the same high standards as restaurants." —Ivy Manning
2: HANDS-ON COOKING CLASSES DIVE INTO THE HEART & GUTS OF THINGS
Ten home cooks gather around a halved Red Wattle heritage pig and watch Camas Davis flick a boning knife around the rear leg joint of the animal. A camera overhead captures the procedure on a flat-screen TV so no one misses a deft cut. One more turn of the wrist and the leg comes free from the carcass.
Davis holds it up by the hoof and says, "Now that will be a prosciutto...."
Sunday school for the squeamish this is not, but these students—20-something locavores, thrifty moms, die-hard bacon lovers—are eager to work at carcass level.
And Camas Davis knows from whence she cuts. A food editor turned butcher, her interest in meat led to an internship in Southwest France with a family that raises and butchers pigs for a fresh-meat and charcuterie business. After returning in 2009, Davis and Tray Satterfield started the Portland Meat Collective, which, in addition to butchery classes, acts as a resource for buying and sharing whole animals direct from local ranchers. It was, in the PDX food scene, a well-timed move.
"As soon as we started, the response was incredible. It's like people were just waiting for this to happen."
The Sunday class breaks into smaller groups, working on their own pigs, cutting roasts, ribs, and trotters. Later, everyone communes over local charcuterie and red wine to discuss cookbooks, home-cured bacon formulas, and the wisdom or risk of nitrates.
The appetite for neo-homesteader kitchen skills runs deep in Portland. An hour from downtown, Kookoolan Farms offers wildly popular BYOC slaughtering/dressing courses—as in Bring Your Own Chicken. Salt, Fire, and Time runs weekly classes like "Bone Broth" and "Potted Meats and Cheeses." Across town at Lost Arts Kitchen, you can learn all about lacto-fermentation (not only cheese: Think probiotic-rich kimchi and fermented ketchup). Even the city's Bureau of Planning and Sustainability is in on the act, offering beekeeping, cheesemaking, and organic vegetable gardening classes.
Davis rejects the notion that this is all the hobby-work of locavore obsessives and fat-wallet foodies: "There's plenty of those in Portland. But it's surprisingly diverse: Farmers, bike messengers, low-income single moms, as well as rich executives are into this. Provide a model for people in which they can eat well, spend less money, and own a part of the process, and a wide gamut of people will find that appealing. It's a shift in thinking, not just a trend." —I.M.
3: FARM ANIMALS ARE AT HOME HERE
There's a funny-looking chicken named Lil' Tibby, with a tuft of floppy feathers atop her head, sitting on the back of a rescued white Boer goat named Moonshark. By easy anthropomorphic reasoning, they appear to be friends. There's another chicken that likes to sleep in a bucket. The rest of the birds at Naomi's Organic Farm Supply in Southeast Portland sleep more conventionally on the coop bars.
If urban chicken keeping is in vogue across America, Portland is a few clucks ahead of the flock. Naomi's co-owner, Naomi Montacre, describes Portland as "this fabulously chicken-filled city."
But the real action now is with multiple species. In Portland, anyone can own three small livestock animals, though more than three of an combination of chickens, ducks, doves, pigeons, pygmy goats, and rabbits requires a paid permit from the county. According to Dave Thomson, the code-enforcement officer for Multnomah County Health Department, Portland currently has more than 600 such permits—a number that has more than doubled since 2005.
"We teach chicken-keeping workshops," says Naomi, "but we really focus on multi-animal workshops. A lot of these animals coexist nicely, but there are little tricks that involve who gets free run of everything, who gets locked up at night, who should stay out of whose food, and all that."
It's not all lovey-dovey. Although most Portlanders keep livestock for eggs or dairy, some do so for meat. It is not inconceivable that you could watch your neighbor terminate a goat in his backyard—legally.
Thomson says Portlanders can slaughter their meat animals for personal use with the caveat that, "It must be done in a humane manner. If it is not, it can become an animal cruelty issue, which is an Animal Control matter. As the livestock permitting authority, we are neutral, but we recommend that it be done outside of view and in a discreet fashion." —Liz Crain
4: SPECIALIZE, SPECIALIZE
All great food cities become home to hyper-focused restaurants and shops—run by people who find their greatest satisfaction in one thing done very well. Think of the macaroon-makers of Paris, the barbecue fanatics of the South, the old-school pickle briners who have tiny nooks in New York City. These are the punctuation marks on the long menu that makes up a city's cuisine.
In Portland, Mark and Jennifer Turner Bitterman of The Meadow probably know more about salt than anyone in the nation. Aaron Silverman and Morgan Brownlow's business, Tails & Trotters, specializes in astonishingly delicious pork from pigs who are "finished" with local hazelnuts.
One of the more exuberant and curious of these specialists is Pine State Biscuits, whose co-owners, Kevin Atchley, Brian Snyder, and Walt Alexander, came to Portland a few years ago after graduating from North Carolina State University. In a nutshell: Southeast went Northwest and flourished.
According to Atchley, "Coming up with our biscuit recipe probably took longer than the building of our first restaurant." They would experiment with recipes and styles, then throw biscuit parties for friends and chefs to vet the goods. What won out in the end was a hands-on, cut-no-corners recipe in which frozen blocks of local butter are hand-cut into local flour. The flour comes from the 33-member alliance of Pacific Northwest wheat growers called Shepherd's Grain, the butter from Larsen's Creamery in Clackamas, Oregon.
It did not occur to these transplanted biscuit-heads, apparently, that building a business on a single food not exactly native to the soggy west might not be a great idea.
It was a great idea. Pine State now involves two line-around-the-block biscuit restaurants and an often absurdly crowded farmers' market booth. Some 1,000 biscuits a day are drenched with peppery gravy, piled with buttermilk-fried chicken, slathered with apple butter, layered with bacon, and served to knowing Portlanders who tuck in with joy in their eyes. —L.C.