A tightly run, highly organized press trip is many things: fun, entertaining, and broadening. If you're lucky, you'll get to experience the very best a particular region has to offer.
And that’s great. But it’s only part of the story. Oregon is an entire state, where there are kind people and jerks, sunny days and rainy ones, up-and-coming artists and those who can't make ends meet no matter how hard they try. To pretend otherwise, to pretend that this place is somehow uniquely devoid of the crime, poverty, hunger, and unemployment present in every other state of the U.S. would be silly.
A colleague of mine who has lived in Oregon for a decade and a half referred me to this article published just last week. Titled "Why are Oregon's children so hungry?," the piece notes that twenty percent of the state's population is on food stamps, and Oregon has the highest rate of food insecurity among children in the U.S.
And yet, she notes, the mayor of Portland is actually quite proactive in trying to combat these trends. "He's doing amazing work in making sure people at risk, in Portland anyway, have access to fresh local food. He's building orchards, taking the city's fallow land and turning it into gardens, getting funding for food stamp matches at farmer's markets, and even grows vegetables in his yard to give to the neighborhood." Pro.
There's also a high rate of homelessness: con. And yet, "Most of them,” she says, “come here because the assistance for the homeless is better here than elsewhere." OK, so, pro. Meth is a big problem in the state: con. And yet, treatment programs are available: so, pro.
I'm writing all this simply to provide some context -- a bit of a reality check, if you will -- for the wonderful food, wine, and genuinely impressive culinary artistry I encountered. It’s great, but let’s keep our feet on the ground while we enjoy it.
On to the food. As before, the descriptions below correspond to the slideshow above.
Father-daughter team Erica and Bruce Reininger of Arrowhead Chocolates represents the merger of two generations into a single, family-owned company. Bruce was a fish biologist, then a logger, then a web designer, and then he decided he wanted to learn how to make chocolate. So he studied like mad to master his craft. Erica is his apprentice. A graphic designer by trade, she helps her father create beautiful chocolates in the family's 1,500 square foot shop in Joseph, a small town in Eastern Oregon. Erica and Bruce taught us to make the dipped salted caramels pictured in last week’s slide show.
Jenn Louis of Lincoln Restaurant and Sunshine Tavern appears next. A former caterer, she operates two successful restaurants (her early efforts a few years ago tanked with the rough economy). In 2010, she was named a semifinalist by the James Beard Foundation for Best Chef Northwest. Her grilled octopus with mizuna, cucumber, and pimenton was outstanding.
Cousins Kim and Tyler Malek operate Salt & Straw, a “farm to cone” ice cream company that has enjoyed a sharp uptick in local and national interest in an extremely short time. The pair started with a cart on May 26, 2011, and upgraded to a brick-and-mortar “scoop shop” less than 3 months later. We tasted a flight of ice creams, among them lemon-basil sorbet, strawberry ice cream with coriander, and melon ice cream with coppa, an Italian-style dry-cured pork. Fatty, creamy, unique, and very, very tasty.
Stephen McCarthy is a distiller, and we got to visit the orchard where he sources the pears for his liqueurs and eau-de-vies. Because pears grow on the end of long branches, McCarthy and his staff affix bottles to the trees -- so that the pears actually grow inside the bottles. Walking the property is both amusing and surreal, with bottles hanging upside down everywhere you turn. Among several other fruit-based spirits, McCarthy’s Clear Creek Distillery also makes a Douglas Fir eau-de-vie, which is bright green, and very boozy. It tastes like a tree.
Another chocolatier brings up the rear of the show. David Briggs founded Xocolatl de David 2½ years ago with $50 from his paycheck as a savory chef at Park Kitchen. He grew his business and acknowledges the enormous amount of support he has received from other local chefs and artisans. His “savory-forward” chocolate-making style means he’ll incorporate ingredients like chiccharrones, which he makes himself, into his chocolates, many of which skate on the less sweet side. I’m not much of a pork-in-my-chocolate kind of girl, but I’m crazy for his two-bite Raleigh Bars. These blocks of pecans, nougat, caramel, and chocolate, with a hint of fleur de sel, are ridiculous, and I’ve been hiding them from my family.
The trip ended late Saturday night, September 10th. This meant I would be flying home the next morning, on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, a fact that gave me tremendous anxiety and pause. I got to the airport early, bought a cup of tea, and heard a woman playing guitar. I wandered towards the music, unchaperoned for the first time in days. A sign said her name was Gayle Ritt.
She sang Home on the Range, and it was slow, and beautiful, and haunting. My shoulders relaxed. Then she sang America, The Beautiful, sweetly, and softly. I breathed in. I breathed out. When I boarded my flight 30 minutes later, my stress was gone.
When I got home, I emailed her. I told her how much her music meant to me on that particular day.
She emailed me back.
I asked if I could use her music behind my slideshow.
And she said yes.
And that part – that part was totally unscripted. That part was pure Portland.