Sunday, November 20, 2016
The Future of Our Food: New York Times Looks West
The New York Times panel described below was held on October 5, 2016, a month before the recent election, but brought out some key insights that I hope to explore in future posts in this series. Installments over the next few months will include interviews with farmers, food activists, plant breeders and policy wonks to try to get a handle on the seismic shift in our local food landscape due to the change of administrations in Washington.
The New York Times has been fascinated with Portland for years now, featuring it as a travel destination, for sure, but mostly focused on watching its food and restaurant scene evolve from a backwater of middle class meh to a powerhouse of groundbreaking local, seasonal, chef-driven cuisine. In its own transition from a national newspaper to a national media corporation, the Times has been expanding its New York-centric, issues-based series called Times Talks to a more national platform.
Recently it brought this form of live journalism to Portland, sending out Times national food correspondent Kim Severson to moderate a panel titled "The Future of Food in Portland.” The panel featured local food notables Piper Davis of Grand Central Bakery; Kanth Gopalpur of the Business Oregon Commission; chef Joshua McFadden of Ava Gene’s and Tusk; and Amanda Oborne, Vice President of Food and Farms at Ecotrust.
In an interview before the event I asked Severson why the Times chose to come to Portland.
"I’m just fascinated with where Portland is going to go now," she said. "Because [the city] got really cute and we all fell in love with it. Portland was like a really attractive 20-year-old college sophomore with a great life. But now what?"
Echoing that question after introducing her panelists, she opened the discussion asking if it wasn't time for Portland to mature a little bit.
"It all goes back to Colin the chicken," Piper Davis answered, referring to a much-joked-about sketch on the TV series "Portlandia" where two foodies pester their server with questions about their entrée. "Those of us who care where our food comes from can no longer ask that question." Instead, she said, the concern has shifted in her mind: Did this food leave the soil in better condition than it started?
"Major problems still need to be solved," she continued, saying that the national perception is that most of the work is done, when in reality people aren't talking about the gaps in the food system when it comes to the environment, sustainability and universal access to good food regardless of income or where a person lives.
Severson then turned to Josh McFadden and asked him about the city's "cheffy culture," asking how its Olympic-level chef game will affect Portland's producer-driven reputation.
Answering that he initially moved back to Portland from stints in San Francisco, Chicago and New York because of the people more than the food scene here, he said he found that "the product is as good or better than anyplace else," and that local farmers like Anthony and Carol Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm and John Eveland and Sally Brewer of Gathering Together Farm are producing innovative crops at the highest level.
Severson herself is no stranger to the Northwest, having lived in the region and worked for newspapers in Seattle, Anchorage and right here in Portland during a short stint at the Oregonian.
In our interview I asked what differentiates the Northwest and its food from that found in the rest of the country. She paused.
"There’s just something about the mix of the ruggedness of the place and the purity of the raw ingredients here," she said. "The most memorable things I’ve eaten come from the Northwest."
She added that when she was working in Alaska she got sick of salmon, referring to it as "the zucchini of Alaska." But having been away for decades now, and with wild-caught salmon a rare thing to find on the East Coast, she had an epiphany.
"Last night [at a Portland restaurant] I had a beautiful, perfectly seared piece of wild salmon," she said. "It was like heaven to me and, especially on the East Coast, the beauty of wild salmon—I know it sounds so cliché and terrible even as I’m saying it—but it’s spectacular."
"I think your baseline of deliciousness is very high here," Severson said. "Your baseline, how good food that grows around here tastes, I think that’s exceptional. Exceptional."
In the South, where Severson is now based, she said, "There’s some really great produce, but it’s so crazy hot it’s tricky to grow stuff there. But there’s something very clean about it here that other places don’t have. There’s a freshness here that makes it super special to me."
Any Portland cook can tell you that freshness also has a lot to do with the proximity of local farms to the city's core, a point that was brought up by Grand Central's Piper Davis.
"No one talks about the urban growth boundary and food, but it's critically connected," Davis said of the line drawn around the city in 1980 as a land use planning boundary to control urban expansion onto farm and forest lands.
Amanda Oborne of Ecotrust, tasked with developing The Redd, an effort in inner Southeast Portland's former produce district designed to support local food enterprises, said that Portland is a city of innovators and, as with the urban growth boundary in the '80s, is still experimenting with ideas to provide services to make food more accessible and sustainable.
"The Redd is not about the food scene, it's about the food system," she said of what is envisioned as a working hub for the regional food system.
It's an idea that Severson echoed in our interview as a distinguishing characteristic of the city.
"The ability to make things happen in this city, foodwise, the potential [that] if you have an idea you can probably make it happen, is exciting," she said, attributing it to both the city's size and its culture.
"There’s not a lot of people who say no here," Severson mused. "It’s a function of size, of culture and people who are, like, 'Huh, you wanna like have a chicken-powered ancient grain mill and coffee shop? That could be cool.'"
One thing that surprised her, in a city so well known for its food culture, is that there is no food council here to direct, support and develop food policy for Portland, Multnomah County or the metro region. [The now-defunct Portland/Multnomah Food Policy Council served as a citizen-based advisory board to the City of Portland and Multnomah County from 2002-2012 and was dissolved in 2012 due to "lacking relevancy."]
As to the future, Severson seemed of two minds about where the Northwest is headed. "You certainly saw Berkeley get very popular, [but] San Francisco and Northern California cuisine is very hidebound," she said of larger West Coast cities known for innovation in the past but hampered by stagnation and the cost of doing business there. "Maybe Portland can do it differently."
Read the first installment in this series: Post-Election Pondering.
Top photo from The New York Times: (l to r) Josh McFadden, Kanth Gopalpur, Kim Severson, Amanda Oborne, Piper Davis.