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Eating Big In A Small Oregon Town

Community Plate features seasonal ingredients and is the place to be for families, the laptop brigade and local business owners breakfasting before work. Credit: Emily Grosvenor

Community Plate features seasonal ingredients and is the place to be for families, the laptop brigade and local business owners breakfasting before work. Credit: Emily Grosvenor

News travels faster in small towns than on social media, so when Parade Magazine announced last week that my hometown of McMinnville, Ore., was a finalist in a race for the Best Main Street in America, the town’s good gossip suddenly took on a national flavor. Parade praised McMinnville’s Third Street for its picturesque main drag, its homegrown festivals and its award-winning restaurants and tasting rooms.

I hope when people come to town they discover that what sets McMinnville apart is the food —  not just the restaurants we love, but how differently people eat here. After all, Third Street is not just a quaint strolling village for wine-country tourists — though its antique storefronts, friendly people and the way every person crossing the street  stops traffic might suggest otherwise. Third Street, our Main Street, is the backbone for the food system, and all tendrils reach out from it.

Third Street

Third Street
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Third Street draws residents with its picturesque main drag, its homegrown festivals and its award-winning restaurants and tasting rooms. Credit: Chuck Hillestad

Pride in food

Our restaurants use local food as a source of pride and a matter of fact. For Thistle, a farm-to-table restaurant of the highest caliber, sourcing local is its calling card, the ethos that drives its turn-of-the-century (as in, last century) menu. Thistle has received a lot of deserved attention for the almost holy way its chefs approach food, but the truth is nearly all of the great restaurants on Third Street source from home. Bistro Maison, where diners can relax in the most gracious service in wine country, uses local produce because there is simply no better way to coax out exceptional flavors using French techniques. Nick’s Italian Café has long used seasonal eating to give real Italian specialties a wine country kick, topping Neapolitan-style pizza with nettles from near the river or lacing sultry Dungeness crab through its lasagna. When you eat a patty melt at Crescent Cafe, you are tasting the owners’ own cattle. What we’re discovering as each year passes is a small-town food scene rising to the demands of an international wine public but still keeping the flavors, ingredients and traditions of this place alive.

The restaurant scene is easy for tourists to experience. It is not uncommon for us to meet visitors from Texas who flew in just to eat here. But McMinnville is also the first place I have lived where shopping at the grocery store seems to be an afterthought. If you want honey, you’re not buying it in little bear jars from the shelf, you’re probably getting it in two-gallon jugs from your honey guy. If you eat eggs, they are probably from your own chickens or from your best friend’s. Other places may make a fetish out of vegetable growing, but you don’t get points here for growing a garden. If you have the space, you are feeding your family from your backyard. Half of my friends are part of a full community supported agriculture (CSA) diet and eat according to the seasons. When my friend Jasper orders his Stumptown latte at Community Plate, a breakfast and lunch hotspot, he brings the milk from his own cow.

A culture of sharing

People here live truly hyphenated lives, with eggs in many, many baskets, and for most of them, their hyphens connect in some way to the food system. A chiropractor might run a sideline salsa business, a freelance tech guy might have his hand in kimchi, winery owners might share their homemade peppermint bark at a local food swap. Everyone has access to something special and everyone shares.

Usually, you don’t have a way to get at the fabric of a place until you’ve lived it over time, but for my family, McMinnville was a quick lesson. When we arrived here in December of 2011, I was two months pregnant. When our second child was born, complete strangers walked food into our kitchen every day for three full weeks. Not casseroles, mind you. Full roasted chickens. Lovingly tended sage and rosemary potatoes. Salad greens dotted with edible flowers. What McMinnville understands more than anything else is how to feed people.

People in McMinnville know how good they have it. Not all of Oregon’s small towns have the infrastructure or the climate to eat like this. A few hours south and far to the east, in other small towns, food scarcity is a real issue. In Brownsville, the last grocery store closed shop a few years ago and the town decided to cover over its baseball diamond with a community garden to help people have better access to food. Far to the east, some towns have to drive more than an hour to find a grocery store.

I haven’t decided whether I really want McMinnville to be the Best Main Street in America. The journalist in me gets starry-eyed at the prospect of having our ordinary lives valued on such a national stage. But the budding small-town girl in me keeps thinking about what it really feels like to come in second. In the moment, you feel so close to the prize that it feels like heartbreak, but afterward, all you feel is the drive for improvement, the room for growth.

Win or lose, as every small-town denizen knows, it feels good to be part of the parade. I’ve been in three small-town parades since I moved here and know now that it is like being invited to the table. The joy comes from feeling the energy of the crowd.

Main photo: Community Plate features seasonal ingredients and is the place to be for families, the laptop brigade and local business owners breakfasting before work. Credit: Emily Grosvenor

Zester Daily contributor Emily Grosvenor, based in Oregon wine country, is an award-winning reporter, travel writer and essayist who has written about octogenarian farmers who mow labyrinths in the grass, the secrets of the Oregon State Hospital, a runway model-turned salumi stuffer, a toddler with an Oedipus complex, and what it is like to be a super sniffer living in the fragrant American West. Her passion for capturing place, for sketching scenes, for discovering people, and for always finding the meaning of being a stranger in a strange land has led her to frequent work for publications like The Atlantic, Sunset, AAA Via, Portland Monthly, and Publishers Weekly. An evangelist for the power of the sense of smell, she lives in McMinnville, Oregon, where she is writing a funny memoir about connecting to place through scent.

  • Arlen Pounds 7·25·14

    Just wait ’til you try Valley Commissary!!

  • HAHA 7·25·14

    False front: perfect word to describe McMinnville’s downtown. Are these people being led downtown with blindfolds on? Yes, there is access to fantastic food. But only a slim few can afford $10 jars of honey, especially since there’s no work out here with Evergreen letting everyone go. Most of McMinnville’s population of 35,000 shops at Win-co and Wal-mart and Shari’s serves far more patrons than even McMennamins. “Not all of Oregon’s small towns have the infrastructure or the climate to eat like this.” You forgot, “And only .5% of the town’s population can afford it!” The line to get into the food stamp office is longer than the wait time at CP. This is a broke, white trash, drug filled, crime ridden, hole of a town, and the downtown is a beautiful oasis in it. The McMinnville Downtown Association tries desperately to make this place look like Portland – the itty bitty city where people actually do have chickens and gardens in their front yard, where people actually support the arts, where there are local markets every few blocks….and Stumptown is actually local to Portland, not McMinnville. The people that couldn’t make it in Portland tucked tail and ran home with the ideas they saw, and are TRYING to make the Portland model work, and it’s noble, but this whole idea that ALL OF THE MCMINNVILLE IS LIKE THIS 4 BLOCK STRIP is a lie. If you want a place that actually supports these ideas, head north. This town isn’t it, it just pats itself on the back more about it.

  • Madeline Bishop 7·26·14

    Many years ago, McMinnville decided to keep its historic buildings on 3rd street, and to keep them in good repair. I have lived here for 30 years and have seen many gradual improvements, including beautiful trees lining the street. I love to go downtown. I love to eat downtown. There are a few restaurants I don’t go to often, because they are too expensive for a retired person. But once in a while, on a special occasion, I like to go to one of the better restaurants and I’m glad they are there.

    Just like any town, there are some neighborhoods characterized by drug problems, but there are many that are just ordinary neighborhoods with great parks, kids on bikes, neighbors talking over the fences.

    Thanks, Emily, for your insightful and true article.

  • Neyssa Hays 7·27·14

    When I was 10-years-old, my family moved to Carlton, a small town just north of McMinnville. For fifteen years, until his untimely death, my dad owned and operated Hays’ Shoe Repair where Crescent Cafe is now. My sister, Linda, owns Hopscotch Toys. We were there when Walmart moved in and when the bottom fell out of the timber industry, which destroyed many downtowns in the area. Third Street was hit hard as well, but the Downtown Association has worked hard to keep tourist dollars flowing in. This has kept McMinnville vibrant and alive.
    Does McMinnville struggle with meth and poverty? Yes, it does, just like every other small town in America. But most of McMinnville is populated with proud, hard-working people. Is the downtown area affordable to most people? No, but it’s not intended to be. It employs hundreds of people by bringing dollars in from outside of McMinnville, from outside of Oregon, and often from outside of the U.S. Disparaging remarks are not helpful to this cause and only serve to increase the struggle.
    Emily, as a person who grew up in McMinnville and who has watched her family grow up there as well, I greatly appreciate your perspective on the little oasis. Keep it up!