When Liz Crain moved to Portland, Ore., in 2002, the food scene there was just starting to foment. In 2004, after meeting illustrator Brian Froud at a Powell’s Books event, she decided to see where her own passion took her. Crain quit her day job and committed to food writing. She began amassing bylines in the Portland Tribune, Willamette Week, Northwest Palate and the AOL City Guide.
A decade later, Crain is the author of the second edition of the “Food Lover’s Guide to Portland,” the seminal guide on Portland food culture out this month from Hawthorne Books. Known for her aversion to being wined and dined by PR folks, she also co-authored “Toro Bravo: Stories. Recipes. No Bull.”
Crain spoke to Zester Daily contributor Emily Grosvenor about the new “Food Lover’s Guide,” now in its updated second edition, and the constantly evolving food scene in one of America’s most exciting food cities.
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By Liz Crain
This food guide is really different in how it is structured. Why did you take this approach?
Portland food culture is so unique. A book about it should be as well. I like all sorts of food writing, but my favorite focuses on the people and processes behind food and drink. I want to learn the how-to and get an eye into the culture of it. “Food Lover’s Guide to Portland” celebrates local producers and purveyors — butchers, distillers, coffee roasters etc. — with a lot of details about how their fine foods are cultivated and/or crafted. Throughout the book you’ll find Q&As with folks in the Portland food scene that I admire, behind-the-scenes stories about their businesses and essays on everything from making your own local fruit wine and crabbing on the coast to harvesting eel-like lamprey at Willamette Falls.
The first edition of your “Food Lover’s Guide to Portland” came out in 2010. What has changed on the Portland food scene in the years in between?
So much. There’s more of just about everything. Sure, there have been closures but many, many more openings. There were a few years when I lived in Portland, from roughly 2005 to 2008, when I felt like I really had a handle on the food scene and that I’d been to most places worth their salt. These days, pretty much on a weekly basis I’ll hear about a food/drink spot that someone loves that I’ve never been to or maybe even heard of that’s been open for months.
Alcohol production is going crazy here. There are so many new distilleries, breweries, hard cideries, urban wineries. There are also a lot more urban homesteading businesses or businesses catering more to that: chicken keeping, beekeeping, goat keeping, canning, pickling and preserving. I dig it. I have a large vegetable garden, make my own wine, cider, miso and more. I don’t have chickens, but I’m really glad that my neighbors do.
Tell me about a classic day in the life of a Portland foodie.
I’ll tell you about a summer weekend this past June. My friends’ daughter, Elise, was about to graduate from Portland State University and her folks visiting from out-of-town made a reservation at Pok Pok to celebrate. The 12 of us sat upstairs at the private outdoor balcony table as the sun set. It was a magical night of passing plates of Pok Pok’s crazy tasty wings, clay pot prawns, spicy flank steak salad, and sharing sips of the house drinking vinegars (Thai basil, pineapple, raspberry) and cocktails and listening to Elise talk sweetly about her post-graduation plans.
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The next night I got together with friends for our third “cook the Toro Bravo book” dinner. I made plum wine sangria with plum wine that I make every year, based on Toro’s white wine sangria recipe, and grilled corn with cilantro pesto. Others made Toro’s sautéed halibut cheeks, sautéed spinach with pine nuts and golden raisins, hazelnut ice cream and much more. We cooked, ate, laughed, listened to the cookbook soundtrack and had an all-around great time as we do.
On Sunday my friend Erin and I hacked away at my Little Shop of Horrors backyard — a vine in a neighboring yard takes over my backyard every spring/summer. Afterward we cleaned up and made salame rolls with preserved lemon, Castelvetrano olives and pickled peppers folded into the cream cheese to take to The Last Hoot — a huge potlucky music-filled day and night with all kinds of tasty homemade food and drink. All of that in one weekend. Portland life is so very sweet.
Food carts have made such a big impact on Portland’s contribution to the national food conversation. But media coverage seems to have peaked on the subject. Can you reflect for a moment on what the food cart scene looks like at this moment?
Food carts are a much talked about part of the Portland food scene, but I honestly don’t eat at them all that often. When I worked downtown for a few years I did because I was really close to the Southwest 10th and Alder pod. There’s so much to choose from there. I go to them now and again and have some favorites (for example, I love Himalayan Food!), but I’m a bit of a crab when it comes to carts. I want street food to be very specific/honed, cheap and fast. Nine dollars for a mediocre sandwich that takes 10 minutes to make? No thank you. That said, there are some very tasty carts and I think that they’re a great incubator. A lot of Portland brick-and-mortar businesses have spawned from them. Brett Burmeister has championed Portland’s food carts for years and he was generous enough to write the food cart chapter in the second edition of my book. Check out his site if you’re hungry to learn more about Portland food cart culture.
What do you see as the most exciting new developments in the Portland food culture this year?
Every year I co-organize the Portland Fermentation Festival, which Ecotrust hosts, with my friends David and George. In 2009, the inaugural fest, a fellow named Nat West, whom my ex-boyfriend tattooed, came up to our table where we were sampling hard cider that we’d made from the Gravensteins in the backyard. He tried it, liked it and then gave us a couple bottles of his hard cider that he’d made in his basement from apples gleaned from around the state and in Washington. It was super yummy, and Nat and I became friends. Fast forward to the present and Nat is now owner of Reverend Nat’s Hard Cider.
Nat has put Portland on the map for super tasty and creative hard ciders. We now have an Oregon Cider Week in Portland, Portland Cider Summit, all kinds of other cider appreciation events and goings-on and many new professional cider makers that Nat has paved the way for.
Do you think there is a Portland ethos in how the makers approach food?
I think that most successful Portland food and drink businesses are driven more by passion and curiosity than the bottom line. Of course, you need to turn a dime but profit isn’t the primary drive. I also think that the culinary cross-pollination in this town is outstanding. There are all kinds of events that celebrate food in a wider cultural context that are super unique and fun. Some of my favorites: Disjecta’s Culinaria dinner series, Pickathon, Live Wire + Toro + Tobolowsky dinner, My Voice Music + Toro dinner. Great food and drink doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and I think it should be celebrated and coupled as much as possible with other meaningful art and culture.
And who do you see as the standout people in town who you think are accomplishing this feat with gusto?
There are just so many, but I’ll choose one: Earnest Migaki of Jorinji Miso, who, in honor of full disclosure, is a good friend of mine, and makes the most delicious local miso. Well, he makes the only local miso and it’s crazy good. He makes traditional misos as well as more unusual ones, such as chickpea and lima bean, all of which are organic and GMO-free, which is not the norm in this country.
I started making miso for myself because of Earnest and I now have 4- and 5-year-old misos that have been getting better/richer/darker every year. Miso is like whiskey — it takes a loooong time to ferment and age so you have to have patience.
Main photo: Liz Crain is author of the “Food Lover’s Guide to Portland,” now in its second edition. Credit: Faulkner Short