Portland’s ‘Slumdog Millionaires’

There’s something about Portland, Ore., that is reminiscent of Sally Field’s famous Oscar speech: “You like me … you like me!”

Except in Portland’s case, the city is exulting in its national recognition for chicken wings. Plus foie gras ice cream and khao man gai and bacon-inspired everything (not including the world-class coffee that Portland also lays claim to, although there may be a bacon latte out there waiting to be discovered).

“The food-show cameras, New York Times reporters, James Beard judges, glossy magazine critics, and food-loving tourists are regular guests… . Portland is the envy of the country,” writes Karen Brooks in her new book “The Mighty Gastropolis: Portland.”

It’s the latest self-congratulatory gloat about the city’s farm-to-table, snout-to-tail food ethos that could make even a vegan go whole hog.

Portland Public Schools District doesn’t graduate roughly a third of its students, but at least the city has decent pork belly.

Brooks, restaurant critic and dining editor at Portland Monthly magazine, concedes that Portland still falls short when it comes to “fine dining.”

But she says the city is at the forefront of evangelical sourcing. She writes like a true believer and speaks with affection and awe of the stars in Portland’s indie food scene. She quotes generously from the praise heaped on Portland restaurants in publications like USA Today, New York Times, Food & Wine, Bon Appetit, Saveur and Sunset.

A typical quote, this one from Saveur editor James Oseland: “Portland, Ore., has some of the best food not only in this country, but anywhere in the world. … Gastronomically speaking, the city completely rocks.”

Brooks brags that she has been there from the beginning, “chronicling and dissecting every bite.”

I understand she wants to sell the book, but there were plenty of others before her.

Here is Oregon Times’ Gloria Russakov in her 1974 Guide to Eating Out in Portland: “Portland is emerging from the lumberjack era. … If you can’t dine superbly, you can at least dine very well.”

Russakov searches the Portland area for an O.T. (Orgasm of the Tongue). She doesn’t find one but discovers dishes worth a rave.

At a Mexican place called Poor Shoes “wedged between City Hall and the railroad tracks” in downtown Tigard, she gives an A++ to an enchilada made of pinenuts and olives.

No, there is nothing new about an obsessive devotion to food. It’s one of the luxuries of having plenty – or being desperately hungry.

Food writer/philosopher M.F.K. Fisher would have likely embraced the spirit of Portland’s homegrown epicureans, but she might have cautioned that lusting after a $6 cup of coffee is tempting the Fates to up-end your priorities.

Fisher wrote about food as both a necessity and a simple joy. She connected the pleasure of food with all of the senses, which Brooks also does.

In Portland style, though, Brooks abandons common sense. In the section on Bunk Sandwiches, she refers to “The Bunk Method” that includes adding “something unexpected to the marinades or condiments … even bacon fat, which hides inside Bunk’s Russian Dressing like a roadside IED.”

Had Muhamed O. Muhamud succeeding in blowing up Portland’s living room, would Brooks have so casually compared a salad dressing to an improvised explosive device? Probably not.

Brooks writes exuberantly about diners asking for seconds of a Shepherd’s Pie made of lamb brains, tongues and cheeks, and how dishes like stuffed duck necks – head on – routinely sell out. She quotes Kurt Huffman, financier behind such places as ChefStable and St. Jack: “We can’t make stuff weird enough.” (I’m guessing Portland’s limits would be tested with dog meat.)

One too many times, Brooks writes about how non-corporate and “affordable” everything is, and how Portland’s indie food scene has nothing to do with making money. So how come I paid $3.48 for one medium-sized yam at People’s Co-op, which she includes on her list of The Mighty 100?

The stories about the men and women who have bet everything they own on a food cart are sobering.

“In money-strapped times, Portland has evolved the country’s most talked-about food cart scene, where, in dedicated block-long clusters, next-generation food entrepreneurs band together in personalized shacks,” Brooks writes, describing the scene as the “Slumdog Millionaire blocks of downtown Portland.”

Among the successful food cart proprietors is Nong Poonsukwattna, whose specialty is khao man gai, a Thai chicken dish. Even Ruth Reichl has paid her respects to Nong’s. Meanwhile, Nong dreams of opening a brick-and-mortar so she won’t have to use the bathroom at the nearby Nordstrom’s. (She still has her downtown cart but now also has a small place in the Industrial District on the city’s east side.)

How is it that Portland has attracted what financier Huffman calls fighters, scrappers and crazy idealists who have elevated the city’s food standards, while the public schools have settled into mediocrity?

Portland Public Schools’ administrators might learn a lesson from the city’s culinary success stories.

Several weeks ago, a friend of mine was part of a group who took a tour of Franklin High School. The principal showed them around and talked about what a  recently approved half-billion dollar school bond might buy the school. At one point she showed some slides, including one of about eight girls in a dance class. My friend described what came next:

“She then did a whiney bit about how ‘We really don’t have the right floor for them, so their feet are taking a beating. A new floor for dance would be really a good investment.’”

The group then visited a computer lab. The teacher in the lab told them that many of the new computers didn’t work, and there wasn’t enough IT staff to fix them.

Suppose John Taboada, the chef at Navarre restaurant, were running that lab. If he received an order of new computers that didn’t work, he might turn it into a class project. He’d find a way to make them work just as he has had to find a way to make do with whatever his community farm delivers, depending on the weather and season. In one two-year period, he created 2,730 recipes – 45 just for broccoli rabe.

If the chefs in Portland ran their kitchens like the city’s public schools, always lamenting what they don’t have, there would be no mighty gastropolis.

– Pamela Fitzsimmons


Helplessness and the Status Quo

No Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email is never shared.Required fields are marked *