Oregon’s Real Food Revolutionaries – Just Don’t Call Them Foodies!

By Kathleen Bauer

Rarely a week goes by when someone in the national media, whether it’s the New York Times, CNN, even The Tonight Show’s Jimmy Fallon, mentions the amazing food to be found in Portland, Oregon. Chefs, restaurants, doughnut shops, vegan delis, food carts, gluten-free bakeries and the growth of what’s being called a “food culture” have found fertile soil in the Northwest corner of Oregon. Just a decade ago it would have been an oxymoron to put the words “Portland” and “food scene” in the same sentence. No longer.

But what’s been missed by the national spotlight and gushing reviews is the true food revolution that’s been building in the Northwest, one that will outlast the tourists and the hype. It’s one waged by grassroots folks who would laugh at being called “foodies” but who are leading the way in changing the foundation of our local food system from one dependent on big box stores, national chains and agricultural conglomerates to one that is developing pathways for the small farmer and artisan producer to make a connection with the consumer, one that focuses on accessible, sustainable and affordable local food.

We’ve asked a few of these “real food” revolutionaries to talk about why they do what they do and what they hope to accomplish.

Eamon Molloy
Manager since 2004 of the Hillsdale Farmers’ Market

Every Sunday a small army of the best farmers and food purveyors in the area pull their trucks, vans and even, in one case, a wood burning oven into a high school parking lot in the aptly named Hillsdale neighborhood of southwest Portland. At ten o’clock the man responsible for curating what he calls “a cook’s market” strides down the center aisle ringing a large bell to start the market day.

Asked how this market is helping to build a more vibrant local food system, Molloy said that for local farmers, farm-direct sales at markets provide farmers with an additional income stream.

“In a global economy, small farmers like those in the Willamette Valley need multiple income streams,” he said. “Markets provide farmers with the best possible market research. Their customers are educated consumers seeking high quality food at a fair price and they’ll tell farmers what they do and don’t like about an item.

For consumers, he said, short of growing their own food, markets are a place where they can find the freshest produce possible. Buying tender products like lettuce just hours after it’s picked makes an enormous difference in flavor. Plus markets are an outlet for items that consumers won’t find in a store that is solely dependent on what’s available from wholesalers.

The bottom line? “In an anonymous global marketplace,” he said, “people want to know who is making, growing and creating their food.”

Piper Davis
Co-owner and cuisine director of Grand Central Bakery and the author with Ellen Jackson of The Grand Central Baking Book.

A self-described “4-H kid,” Davis was in sixth grade when her parents packed up the family and moved to a farm in central Washington. Those agricultural roots, along with the homemade bread and pastries that her mother baked—and that subsequently formed the foundation of Grand Central Bakery’s original shop in Seattle—were what drew her into the professional food world.

“It started by being driven by deliciousness,” she said, describing her evolution as a chef. “Food and flavor have always been at the forefront of what we’re chasing.”

For Davis, that pursuit led to connecting the dots between great flavor and quality ingredients, which led to learning how those ingredients were grown, the place of soil in the process, the effects of agricultural practices on the environment and how social justice fits into the puzzle.

One example of moving to a more sustainable business model has meant working to provide a market for producers of local grain, like Tom Hunton of Camas Country Mill in Junction City. A third-generation farm, Camas Country is currently providing all of the whole wheat for Grand Central’s breads and pastries.

“Prior to about three or four years ago there was no westside wheat available on the market,” Davis said, but when she heard that there was a hard red wheat coming from Camas Country’s stone grist mill, she knew it might be the local source she’d been looking for. “As soon as it was available we enthusiastically started experimenting with it and seeing if it would work for us,” she said. “And we were thrilled to find that it did.”

Her vision for the future goes beyond simply finding one supplier, though.

“In my dream we would have mid-scale, diverse production of a variety of food products throughout the Willamette Valley,” she said. “That would be a change to the food system for me, to get rid of monoculture. I’m no soil scientist, but I understand that diversity, growing a variety of crops and providing a variety of foodstuffs is what’s healthy for the ground, for the farmer and for the consumer.”

Ben Meyer
Chef and owner of Grain & Gristle and Old Salt Marketplace restaurants

The lightbulb moment for Ben Meyer came when he moved from his hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana, to an organic farm on Vashon Island in Washington’s Puget Sound.
“They had a beautiful, integrated little system there,” he said of the combination of vegetables and livestock on the farm. “I grew up surrounded by hog and soy and corn in the Midwest and basically saw nothing but factory farms, never thought there was anything different.”

Up to that point he’d been a vegan for ten years, but with his preconceived notion of what a healthy food system looked like now blown out of the water, he decided it was time to re-engage his inner carnivore. Starting at a tiny breakfast place in Southeast Portland, he taught himself to butcher: first chickens, then working his way up to larger cuts of meat. That led to a stint as a butcher for New Seasons markets, where he learned to break down whole animals and process them into various cuts as well as sausages and other products.

Wanting to make a more personal connection with his suppliers, he opened a series of restaurants, working with pioneers of Oregon’s nascent grass-fed meat industry like Cory Carman of Carman Ranch, Mark Payne of Payne Family Farms and Bill Hoyt of Hawley Ranch. His tavern, Grain & Gristle, located on a once-moribund corner of Northeast Portland, was his effort to prove that a restaurant that bought whole animals and where everything came directly from farms didn’t mean that it had to have a high price point.

The success of Grain & Gristle allowed Meyer and his team to take the next step in his mission to prove that a truly sustainable whole animal, pasture-to-plate operation was not just possible but could also be profitable. Old Salt Marketplace was designed to be a restaurant and bar as well as a retail space where he could showcase the whole range of products he was making, from bacon and cured American hams to bologna, hot dogs and sausages.

“I don’t want to be a destination place that’s drawing the once-a-month diners from all over,” he said. “I would much rather see my neighbors come in here and feel like they’re getting the best product cheaper than they can get mediocre product elsewhere. Because, ultimately, accessibility is part of our main goal here, [to] make these animals accessible to regular people.”

And the small family ranchers and farmers he works with? As Mark Payne said, “He’s willing to pay us a very fair price for our hard work. He’s one of the best people I know. Very honest. It’s a win-win for both of us.”

Linda Colwell
Chef and food educator

A native Oregonian, Linda picked Oregon strawberries for 10 cents a pint in Hillsboro, fished commercially for Chinook in a wooden dory off the North Oregon coast and eventually traveled to Paris to hone her cooking skills. It was there she found the connection between production and quality, and after working as the executive chef for Merrill Lynch in Boston she moved back to Portland to found two pioneering school garden programs.

Colwell’s ground-breaking work on school gardens and reviving scratch cooking in schools got her an invitation from Michelle Obama to visit the White House for the unveiling of the First Lady’s Chefs Move to Schools initiative.

The impact of these kinds of programs on children are lifelong, according to Colwell.

“School garden education, culinary education and place-based curriculum all support a stronger understanding of where we live, of the foods that grow here and that are part of our rich natural and cultural resources,” she said of her work with Eat Think Grow, which provides support for school garden education and farm-to-school programs in the Pacific Northwest. “By developing an understanding of these assets, our palate is influenced, our standards and expectations around good production and harvest methods shifts, and consequently our commitment to the farmers, ranchers and fishers is enriched.

In short, she said, “I like to find the good, support its growth and spread it.”

Colwell’s experience with school garden initiatives has shown her that even in large school districts that operate under significant constraints such as pricing and other requirements, there is tremendous opportunity for integrating local foods in the breakfast and lunch program while serving standard educational goals in the garden. She said that while these institutional systems are large, small changes can have a significant impact.

Her goal in her work?

“I’d like to tell my version of the Pacific Northwest and nurture an understanding that certain principles can be translated and transferred into other environments,” she said. “So, while I may be in the South Pacific eating Opah [an ocean fish native to the area], I’d apply the same principles to Opah as I would Chinook and Coho, creating a foundation of good practices rather than a billfold reference guide.”

Kendra Kimbirauskas
Co-owner with her husband, Ivan Maluski, of Goat Mountain Pastured Meats and CEO of the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project (SRAP)

Growing up on a small farm in the Midwest, as a little girl Kendra loved nothing more than wandering over to the neighbors’ farm to play with their pigs. At dinnertime her parents would drive over to pick her up and, rather than letting her ride inside the car, they’d make her ride on the hood of the car for the short drive home.

With an intimate knowledge of the day-to-day struggles farmers face, after college she became an activist, working on factory farm issues in Iowa. A project working with Niman Ranch raising pigs outdoors on pasture convinced her that it was time to “walk her talk,” and she and her husband started Goat Mountain Pastured Meat on six acres in Colton, Oregon.

“I felt like I couldn’t be a part of the food movement promoting local food and sustainable farming unless I was actively involved in raising animals for meat myself,” she said.

Raising hogs, meat chickens and turkeys, they soon outgrew their small acreage and on New Year’s Eve 2014 they moved to a former vegetable farm on 70 acres in Scio. Since their hogs are raised on pasture, having animals out front where people can see them turned out to be a good way to meet the neighbors.

“It was a great way to start a conversation around the humane and ethical way to raise meat and doing it in a way that is responsible for our local environment and our local ecology,” she said. “But it was also a way to talk about the need to buy from your neighbor, to build our local food system and strengthen our local economy.”

Kimbirauskas has strong opinions about eating meat and consuming it responsibly.

“A lot of people ask, ‘How is it that you can raise an animal and get the animal to trust you and then slaughter it for food?’ My response is, ‘How can you eat meat without knowing the animal?’ As a meat-eater if you can’t look an animal in the eye and thank it and respect it, then you probably shouldn’t eat meat.”

Putting it into context, she said, if you eat a ham sandwich, you’re eating an animal, and you as a consumer are making a choice as to whether it lived a good, happy, healthy life or if that animal spent its entire short life in fear in unhealthy surroundings.

“Something I realized was if you’ve raised the animal in a system that is humane and healthy for the animal, then all of your other issues go away,” she said. “Sure, we do it because it’s ethical to raise animals in this way, but the value —added here is that it’s also ecologically responsible, it’s also a just system for people who are interacting with the animals and on the whole it’s better for our planet.”

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