Portland's famous food culture is under threat (OPINION) – OregonLive.com
By David Sarasohn
Portland’s Christmas present got delivered a few days early this year.
In fact, you could say we got served.
Last week, The Washington Post, after a year-long, cross-country, multi-million-calorie survey, pronounced Portland the top food city in the country. In the eat-off, we topped runners-up San Francisco and New Orleans, which is like outdoing Los Angeles in movie stars or Beijing in pollution.
We’d make an acceptance speech, but you shouldn’t talk with your mouth full.
The Post was impressed by how seriously Portland takes breakfast — although everyone knows it’s the most important meal of the day — and, since its critic visited in summer, our spectacular ingredients. His visit to the Saturday farmer’s market at Portland State seemed almost a life-changing moment.
And, of course, he was struck by the local attitude, noting “Few American cities do quirk as deliciously as this one,” which is probably a better municipal slogan than “Keep Portland Weird.”
Over the past 30 years — and there was a time when Portland, despite being located at the intersection of Dungeness crab and fresh berries, was not a particularly interesting place to eat — there has indeed been an explosion of both imagination and diner responsiveness, changing our food scene as dramatically as the invention of the food cart pod. But the dazzling Portland food scene has also been driven by other elements, aspects that people might not think of when they’re walking the streets waiting for their device to vibrate to say their brunch table is ready: Our restaurant renaissance has been driven not only by our attitudes but by our atmosphere, and some of that atmosphere might be changing right beneath our tables.
Portland’s great advantage has always been not only its ingredients and its ingenuity, but its affordability. Chefs have come here from New York, San Francisco and Seattle not just for the hazelnuts, but because it was possible to open a restaurant here without being a hedge fund manager’s hobby. (It was even possible to be a chef here and own a house, something difficult to imagine within 50 miles of downtown San Francisco.) Around here, a restaurant could pay its rent without charging $35 an entrée, a flexibility unimaginable in more tech-startup-ridden zip codes.
And somehow, Portland concepts like Pok Pok, Stumptown and Little Big Burger are now expanding to those other places, if sometimes with a change of ownership.
Portland’s affordability, of course, is now eroding, along with the chances of finding an available apartment. Even with our emerging alternative restaurant development plan — food cart to storefront — there might be fewer opportunities for national-level innovation. (On the other hand, the impossibility zone of home ownership around San Francisco has now widened to 100 miles.)
We’ve also held to a policy maintaining the quality and availability of ingredients: the urban growth boundary. Unlike many places, Oregon has insisted on preserving its farmland; you can’t rely on climate for everything, especially these days. Portland has indeed drawn all kinds of people to all parts of the food process, giving us farmer’s markets where you can buy kale grown by a liberal arts major. But it’s an intentional policy decision that causes hillsides south and west of Portland to grow pinot noir grapes instead of condominiums, and it’s a policy that needs to be constantly reaffirmed.
Our ingredients can be threatened in other ways. What should be the peak season of Dungeness crab — the landmark Northwestern seafood, the favorite of James Beard, the landmark Northwestern food monument — is currently postponed all along the West Coast, due to a toxic condition caused by unduly warm ocean waters. Unless someone turns down the heat in the ocean, this could happen some more. Even for the top food city in the country, ingredients and opportunities need to be protected and encouraged. And, even if our food scene is currently awash in national media love, our bounty needs to be showcased, for the world and for us.
Ron Paul, the prominent Portland food figure who died last week, spent the last decade and more promoting the James Beard Public Market, now taking exciting imaginative shape as a downtown riverside space and statement displaying the richness of our food world. It’s a complicated project, with a multi-ingredient financial recipe, but it would not only enrich our eating experience, it would be a world-class showcase for everything we treasure about Oregon’s menu.
And as Ron Paul told us for years, and The Washington Post reminded us last week, we have a lot to showcase.
David Sarasohn’s column appears on Wednesdays and Sundays. He blogs at davidsarasohn.com.