Food & Drink in Portland, Oregon
Buying Locally Produced Food is a Big Thing in Portland
It’s a perfect place for growing (and catching) food! An ocean within a couple hours of the metro area for seafood. Grazing land in the eastern part of the state for growing cattle and sheep. In between the fertile Willamette Valley for growing vegetables, berries, and wine. You want fruit? Head for the Hood River Valley, just an hour outside of Portland, famous for apples, pears, and now wine.
In 1994, two restaurants − Higgins and Wildwood − turns the Oregon bounty savored 30 years before by Oregon native James Beard into a culinary movement and spurring a local restaurant renaissance. The menus at Higgins and Wildwood featured almost exclusively Oregon grown (and caught) food. Wildwood closed in early 2014.
Greg Higgins, the owner of Higgins Restaurant and Bar, explains sustainability in his business in the below video.
Local restaurants are engaged in something of a local-produce arms race to see who can trumpet the most eccentric, specific Oregon-grown specimens. You have pizza places making a point of buying all their produce locally. And a local fast food chain called Burgerville switched over to Oregon Country Natural for their burgers after the beef problems a few years ago. But much to Burgerville credit, it doesn’t stop with beef. They are committed to buying local food for their stores. On their Web site, local growers can apply to supply Burgerville with their products.
The Oregon food movement has a monthly television series called Living Culture that showcases cuisine and culture in Oregon’s Mid-Willamette Valley. Their mission is to spark interest in local foods through inspiring and positive media.
Washington Post Food Critic Names Portland Best Food City in America
Food critic Tom Sietsema of the Washington Post spent more than 60 days on the road in 2015, visiting more than a dozen destinations, then measuring them against a set of standards — for creativity, community and tradition, among other criteria — to come up with a Top 10 list of America’s Best Food Cities. Portland took the No. 1 spot. Here’s what Tom had to say about the Portland food scene:
I relish the abundant quirks: lines for (stellar) breakfasts, even midweek, and strip clubs inclusive enough to offer vegan fare. And I applaud the sense of pride demonstrated even by fast-food operators, foremost Burgerville, which rolls out raspberry milkshakes and Walla Walla onion rings in the summer. But most of all, I love the ingredients here – 300 kinds of truffles, berries so delicate they don’t leave the state – and what a small contingent of talented chefs does with them. One of the scene’s few missing ingredients: fine-dining establishments. “Portlanders prefer places where they feel comfortable in their hiking boots and fleece,” says Michael Russell, the restaurant critic for the Oregonian. Personally, I’d pick first-class farmers markets or some of the country’s trailblazing Asian retreats (hello, Pok Pok!) over a place that charges triple digits for dinner. Admittedly, I picked summer to visit, when Portland’s flavors are peaking. But superb coffee, wine and bread – crucial building blocks of any gastronomic destination – know no season. And it doesn’t hurt that everyone, fellow customers and servers alike, is Minnesota Nice. In one week, I never once heard a car horn.
Farmers in Oregon Increasing
If there’s one thing a bright young American of the 21st century is not supposed to want to be, it’s a farmer. Proof of this is that a farmer’s national average age hovers around 60.
Buried in U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics lies a dramatic tale: At a time when small farmers are dying out across America, the number of farmers in Oregon is on the rise. The latest USDA “agriculture census” showed the number of full-time farmers in Oregon increasing more than 55 percent from 13,884 in 1974 to 21,580 in 2002, the last year the USDA surveyed. Part-time farming, where many growers who specialize in farmers markets and other buy-local niches begin, is up, too.
Growers and industry analysts ascribe the increase in Oregon farmers to a growing number of small- and medium-sized operations designed to meet increasing demand for local grub.
Eat Locally Grown Food
Right now, seeking out and shelling out for micro-grown Oregon produce is very much a boutique affair. But for consumers who are passionate about eating local, the price gap that separates local produce from big agribusiness’ products is a leap worth making. Despite the cheaper transportation costs, small farms that provide food to niche venues can’t take advantage of the economies of scale available to corporate farms. Their prices don’t fluctuate according to the whim of centralized commodity markets. Nor are they usually connected to the federal government’s massive ag-subsidy gravy train; in 2003 alone, the USDA gave $11.4 billion to farmers of commodities like beef, pork, soybeans, corn and wheat. If every single one of the nation’s roughly 2.1 million farms shared equally in that handout (just one of many federal farm subsidies), each would get about $5,400.
Will this local-food thing ever change the lives of any of the many Oregonians who actually need more and better food? Or, failing that, can it ever become a full-fledged economic force, rather than a marginal phenomenon enjoyed by a committed few?
The mini-farms, niche products and lifestyle marketing that characterize Portland’s affair with homegrown eats could lead down the same path. Even if not, the emerging ethic that insists you should know where your food comes from seems to be gathering speed.
But the growing appeal of “local” is a little more complicated. Some local-food proponents speak of a “foodshed” of about 150 miles in any direction. New Seasons Market, a local owned food market chain that pushes “homegrown” foods, counts anything produced in the Northwest and Northern California.
To be sure, the “local” food industry represents just a spit in the ocean of Oregon’s $3.8 billion agricultural economy. Most food grown in Oregon gets shipped elsewhere and the majority of food consumed in the state gets trucked in, just as in the rest of the country. According to a 2001 Iowa State University study, the average dinner travels 1,500 miles from farm to plate. But some Portlanders’ finicky insistence on eating local is changing things: luring a new generation of savvy sodbusters-many of them women-onto the land, keeping old farm families in business, even forging new bonds between ultra-liberal urbanites and the Republican hinterland beyond.
When it comes to cost, the Oregon farmer faces trouble on more than one front, and it’s getting worse. Why? Because of China and to a lesser extent, Mexico. Thanks to cheap labor, land, packing and shipping, it often costs Chinese producers less to sell a frozen or preserved strawberry thousands of miles away in Portland than it costs to get an Oregon berry to market.
This “local” economy is hard to quantify, but the annual revenue of farmers markets in Oregon is estimated to total $22 million. And the growing interest in local farms and products has saved some old-line Oregon farmers. They used to rely entirely on the mass market. The problem is that wholesale is commodity-driven with only a limited number of buyers and they beat down farmers on price.
To diversify or exit the wholesale market, farmers have retooled. Some have opened farm store, planted new crops, taken their goods to farmers market, and started hosting gourmet dinners on the farm. Another outlet is to provides food on a subscription basis to Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) accounts where families and individuals pay a fixed amount per growing season for weekly “shares” of whatever produce is ripe. All to build local business.
The map of organic farms in the United States is clustered into a few geographic centers, a strikingly different pattern than a map showing all the farms in the USA, which spreads densely over many regions, breaking only for the Rockies and Western deserts.
Areas in the Northeast and Northwest have many small organic farms that sell produce directly to consumers. Large organic farms, which some critics call organic agribusiness, have flourished in California.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, organic vegetables now account for five (5) percent of all vegetable sales; organic dairies, which are the fastest-growing sector, now produce one (1) percent of the nation’s milk. And what of the wide swaths of the country with a handful of organic farms? They’ll be waiting a few more years for local organic produce. Even if demand, which has lagged in the South and other Sun Belt states, picks up, the Agriculture Department requires a three-year waiting period for farms to win organic certification.
In the U.S. federal organic legislation defines three levels of organics:
- Products made entirely with certified organic ingredients and methods can be labeled “100% organic”.
- Products with at least 95% organic ingredients can use the word “organic”.
- A third category, containing a minimum of 70% organic ingredients, can be labeled “made with organic ingredients”.
In addition, products may also display the logo of the certification body that approved them. Products made with less than 70% organic ingredients can not advertise this information to consumers and can only mention this fact in the product’s ingredient statement.
In the US, the National Organic Program (NOP), was enacted as federal legislation in Oct. 2002. It restricts the use of the term “organic” to certified organic producers (excepting growers selling under $5,000 a year, who must still comply and submit to a records audit if requested, but do not have to formally apply). Certification is handled by state, non-profit and private agencies that have been approved by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Founded in 1974, Oregon Tilth is a nonprofit membership organization dedicated to supporting and advocating organic food and farming, based in Salem, Oregon. Oregon Tilth provides independent certification of organic food producers and suppliers. The Oregon Tilth Certified Organic label (OTCO) was established in 1982 and is renowned as one of the most rigorous and stringent in the United States. Oregon Tilth is an Accredited Certifying Agent (ACA) for the USDA’s National Organic Program.
Organic Food in Portland
Who would pay $3.99 for a pint of blueberries at a locally owned market when the same Safeway sells it for a buck less? The answer has nothing to do with the way the American consumer is supposed to behave in the globalized, big-box, Chinese-made 21st century. Instead, it has everything to do with where those blueberries came from: Oregon. And they are certified “organic” by local organizations such as Oregon Tilth which has credibility instead of the U.S. Department of Agriculture where corporate farms are engaged in an endless campaign to lower the standards for organic.
At the height of summer’s bounty, signs of the trend are not hard to find. New Seasons employs full-time people to scout for local food and they even invite local farmers to set up their stands at some of their stores during the summer growing season. They have over 1,000 employees and most are covered by the company with healthcare insurance and a retirement plan. That is reason enough to shop New Seasons instead of the big-box chains where many employees qualify for food stamps.
Once, the “organic” label appealed only to the crunchiest of the crunchy: the co-op member, the carob-chip eater, the composting zealot. Thanks to increasingly mainstream worries about pesticides, the environment and genetic engineering, Fred Meyer and Safeway now feature all-organic sections in their produce department.
Portland’s farmers markets, confined to a single obscure location in 1992 when Craig Mosbaek, Ted Snider and Rick Hagan gather 13 vendors at Albers Mill, are everywhere-at least two dozen in the metro area. The largest, the Portland Farmers Market, is held Saturdays on Portland State’s campus, boasts 140 vendors and a two-year waiting list for stalls. Come early if you want the best selection and to avoid the crowds.
“Farmers markets are growing by 10 percent a year,” says Larry Lev, a marketing economist with Oregon State University agriculture extension service. “The rest of agriculture isn’t growing like that. The niche is serving a lot of good ends, and one of them is bringing bright, energetic people into agriculture who never would have dreamed of it otherwise.”
Check out one of Portland’s bustling farmers markets, jammed with baby strollers, and it’s clear that social cachet and class have something to do with the trend. But there’s also green consciousness, a desire to cut fossil-fuel consumption by shortening supply lines. And social activism. And an interest in freshness, quality and uniqueness that ranges from the casual to fanatic. Farmers markets, in particular, attract growers whose crops are too small, too strange or too fragile for mass shipping. For example, a Oregon-grown irregularly shaped heirloom tomato, probably couldn’t survive a long trip.
“We’ve seen people gross hundreds of thousands a year at farmers markets,” says Rich Hines, a marketing specialist at Washington State University’s small-farms program. “You need to have a sense of branding and marketing, because with the rise of specialty local foods, farming is becoming a storytellers’ business.”
And Hines, who keeps an eye on local-foods marketing throughout the Northwest, thinks Portland is the ideal market to crack. “Seattle is a bigger market in terms of numbers,” he says. “But Portland seems to have more consciousness about local food, more opportunities.”
Oregon Country Natural Beef
Two decades ago, many Eastern Oregon ranchers were in deep trouble. Ranchers sold their calves, took whatever the price was that day, and drove away complaining about it. Their solution: get out of the mainstream cattle game, and start their own. So a bunch of ranchers got together in 1986 and persuaded a handful of other ranchers to start a co-op that would emphasize meat’s Oregon origins and purist, hormone-free upbringing.
Country Natural Beef started out selling a few head of cattle a week; now the group sells close to a 1,000. At grocers like New Seasons and Whole Foods, Country Natural products like the $14-a-pound steak cited at the beginning of this story command prices far higher than conventional beef.
That system has created an amazing success story. More than 70 ranch families now belong to Country Natural, taking part in the co-op’s all-consensus decision-making and sharing in its $40 million in annual wholesale gross revenues. Those sales fund more than just barbed wire-the group’s administrative headquarters provides much-needed jobs in tiny Antelope, a town once known only as the epicenter of the ’80s Rajneesh cult.
Eastern Oregon cowpunchers have created a surprising cultural byproduct: a bridge across the political chasm between deep-blue Portland and the red state that surrounds it. Most of your ranchers are rural, conservative, heterosexual Christians and most of their customers are urban Democrat liberals.
Is Country Nature Beef grass fed? Their website states that, “. . . for approximately the last three months, the diet is a ration of cooked potatoes, hay, corn and a vitamin mineral supplement. To ensure a consistent year around supply of quality cattle, all of our cattle go through the Beef Northwest feedlot, (owned by a member ranch) on their way to AB Foods.”
Oregon Grasslands Beef
Cattle raised on a primarily forage (grass, legumes, or silage) diet are termed grass-fed or pasture-raised. The term “pasture-raised” can lead to confusion with the term “free range”, which does not describe exactly what the animals eat. The important distinction is that a grass fed cow is not fed grain during the last few months of their life before they are slaughtered.
A grass-fed cow does emit more methane, a potent greenhouse gas, than a feedlot cow, and that’s troubling. But healthy grasslands, which Wallowa ranchers Dave and Cory Carman maintains on their spread, sequester large amounts of carbon dioxide. The Carmans said there’s nascent research coming out of Australia that grasslands might also sequester large amounts of methane. Cory does research for The Organic Center in Colorado on a sustainable agriculture project funded by the Packard Foundation. She’s researching the greenhouse-gas emission levels of various methods of raising dairy cows − from pastureland to confinement.
The American Grassfed Association has a list of producers by state or species on their Web site.
Oregon Cheese Wins Best of Show
Rogue River Blue, made by Rogue Creamery in Central Point north of Medford, swept past 1,326 cheeses from Wisconsin to Vermont to Oregon to take the prestigious Best of Show award at the American Cheese Society’s annual conference in 2009.
Oregon emerged as a big contender on the national stage of artisan cheesemaking, with Oregonians winning a total of 22 awards at the conference, held in Austin, Texas in August, 2009. In 2003, it became the first U.S. cheese to win a top prize at the World Cheese Awards in London.
Oregon Wine, Beer, and Distilleries
In 1966, David Lett is the first person to plant pinot noir grapes in the Willamette Valley. Thirteen years later, the wine garners top honors at the Gault-Miltau French Wine Olymplades, an international competition, putting Oregon on the world’s viticulture map. Portland has six micro-distilleries making any kind of spirits you can name and more breweries than any other city on earth.
The Willamette Valley appellation is Oregon’s largest wine region, stretching from Portland in northern Oregon to Eugene, more than 100 miles. Most of the region’s wineries are located west of Interstate 5 and in the northern part. The Willamette Valley includes six sub-appellations; Chehalem Mountains, Dundee Hills, Eola-Amity Hills, McMinnville, Ribbon Ridge, and Yamhill Carlton. Wine is also produced in the Hood River area along the Columbia River and also in the southern part of the state.
Oregon’s northern latitude brings long hours of summer sunshine to its vineyards, usually adequate to fully ripen grapes for Oregon wines. Occasional marine breezes breach the Coastal range, and help moderate the climate, causing the ripening process for wine grapes to be gradual. The combination of these conditions encourages complex fruit flavors, aromatics and nuances in these northern-Oregon-grown wines, complexities that allow Oregon wineries to compete well with other world-class wineries.
International Pinot Noir Celebration In late 1985, an informal group of Oregon wine-lovers, winemakers, restaurateurs, and retailers envisioned a premier wine event, to be held in the heart of Oregon wine country. Each year since the first annual event was held in 1987, the event has evolved and matured. Over 60 of the world’s premier Pinot noir producers, 40 guest chefs from around the Northwest, esteemed wine journalists, and fellow wine buffs enjoy a weekend of tasting, learning, and unwinding together in Oregon’s vine-covered Willamette Valley. At the end of the day, everyone celebrates together at tables topped with a collection of Pinot noir from around the world and the finest in the Northwest cuisine.
An artist and wine maker’s walking tour through the vineyards of Dundee Oregon, with visits to tasting rooms and wineries.
Twenty years ago, the Oregon microbrew industry didn’t exist. The idea that anyone would voluntarily pay $8 for a six-pack instead of grabbing the Budweiser half-rack next to it seemed faintly ridiculous to some, repulsively pretentious to others. And yet today, the state’s microbreweries churn out 600,000 barrels of beer a year, to the tune of $375 million in wholesale revenues.
Walk into a typical pub anywhere in the country and they brag about having a dozen or so brews on tap. In Portland, that won’t cut it. For example, Horse Brass Pub in Southeast Portland has over 50 micro-brews on tap.
Portland has a couple of nicknames, “Beervana” and “Brewtopia,” to mark its thriving microbrewery industry.
Today, Oregonians are once again leading the newest trend in booze as products from 20 or so small-batch distilleries gain national attention and recognition. According to Bill Owens, founder and president of the American Distilling Institute, about 100 microdistillers are operating in the U.S. Twenty of those are in Oregon. Oregon Distillers Guild − the first such in the country − is strong evidence that the state is becoming a leader in artisan spirits, too. The guild, comprising 16 Oregon craft distillers, operates as a nonprofit corporation to promote the common interests of the state’s licensed distilling businesses.
Why the sudden interest in microdistillers? In April, 2009, Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) had a story about distillers in Oregon and Washington and they reported that in spite of the recession, the microdistillers in the two states were during a booming business. They interviewed one of the distillers and he gave as the reason that small-batch distilleries were doing well was that people wanted to buy (one again, the magical word) “local.”
While most of Oregon’s microdistilleries have only been in operation for a few years, Steve McCarthy of Clear Creek Distillery has been in the game for more than two decades. Other Oregon distillers refer to him as the grandfather or the Yoda of small-batch distilling in the state. He founded Clear Creek back in 1985 as a way to make money from the pear orchards he owns in Hood River. But he also had other objectives, including putting Oregon on the map for its high quality local products and finding a better, more profitable use for the land; to lead the way in alternative land use and prove to farmers it’s possible to make money without selling out to developers. Plus he wanted some pear brandy, which, at the time, was extremely rare.
Gluten Free in Portland
Most cities consider themselves fortunate to have one dedicated retail gluten-free bakery; Portland has many. Each of these bakeries is different, and you’ll likely discover a new favorite treat at every stop, whether you’re searching for something vegan (Petunia’s Pies and Pastries), comforting treats (Gluten Free Gem), or award-winning cupcakes (Crave Bake Shop). Or maybe you’d enjoy a leisurely gluten-free lunch or a cup of coffee with your goodies? New Cascadia and Tula cafes offer both savory and sweet with atmosphere to boot.
We’re also home to Bob’s Red Mill, a big fish in the gluten-free pond, as well as smaller but increasingly significant local gems such as Harvester Brewing, Bridge City Baking, Oregon Cracker Company, Brazi Bites, Queen of Hearts Baking Co., Jensen’s Breads, Sina Baking, Eena Kadeena and many more. This is truly the place to be if you’re gluten-free.
The Oregonian‘s “Gluten Freedom” column was started by food writer Laura Russell in 1998, arguably the first column focused exclusively on gluten-free food in a mainstream metropolitan newspaper.
Here is a list of gluten free restaurants in the metro area: GF Restaurants.
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)
Call it shopping off the grid, where urbanites do business directly with producers, set a time and a place to receive the goods, then fill their fridge and freezer with all kinds of edibles. The buy-direct habit often starts with a CSA, where a household gets a weekly share of a farm’s vegetable harvest. What’s different now is that you can get a lot more from the source than just fresh produce.
Here are a handful of farms offering add-ons to traditional CSA shares and bulk buying of meat, chicken, dairy and more.
- Afton Field Farm, Corvallis
Grass-fed beef and lamb, layer and broiler chickens, hogs, turkeys, honey. Buying clubs with delivery to Portland. Telephone and website: 541-231-6144, aftonfieldfarm.com
- Azure Standard
Based in Dufur, bulk supplier of organic, earth-friendly foods and products delivers to Portland. Join a buying group to order beans, grains, household goods and more. Telephone and website: 541-467-2230, azurestandard.com
- Dancing Roots Farm, Troutdale
Assorted vegetables, herbs, fruit and flowers, plus farm-fresh eggs, free-range meat and poultry, Alaskan salmon. Telephone and website: 503-695-3445; dancingrootsfarm.com
- Deck Family Farm, Junction City
Pastured meats. Farm sells individual cuts, meat by the side and CSA shares (assorted cuts of beef, pork, lamb and a whole chicken). Telephone and website: 541-998-4697, deckfamilyfarm.com
- Dee Creek Farm, Woodland, Washington
Mixed vegetable CSA and/or shares of goat feta and hard cheeses, eggs, poultry, pork, honey; seasonal add-ons include mushrooms, berries, artisan bread, kombucha, canned and dried items and more. Weekly delivery to Vancouver. Telephone and website: 360-225-9711, deecreekfarm.com
- Bell Buoy of Seaside
Access to buying group with Portland/Vancouver deliveries on completion of “Introduction to Sustainable Living on a Budget” course. Website sustainablebudget.com
- Iliamna Fish Co., Portland/Alaska
Wild Alaskan sockeye salmon from the Lake Iliamna watershed, filleted and flash frozen. With buying group of 10 or more, may be pre-ordered in late spring for delivery by third week of August. Telephone and website: 503-929-9635, redsalmon.com
- Kookoolan Farms, Yamhill
Chickens, eggs, beef and lamb shares, turkey for sale at farm store, group discounts for buying clubs. Coming in 2010: specialty fruits, mead, kombucha. Telephone and website: 503-730-7535, kookoolanfarms.com
- Noris Dairy, Crabtree
Milk and other dairy products, cheese, eggs, beef; $18 minimum charge per delivery (group orders welcome). Telephone and website: 503-394-3273, norisdairy.com
- Salt, Fire & Time, Portland
Community Supported Kitchen sells prepared foods made from local, seasonal products, offers classes and holds “community feasts. Address: 609 S.E. Ankeny. Telephone and website: 503-208-2758, saltfireandtime.com
This above list of CSAs are from The Oregonian. For a complete list of Portland area CSAs, visit the Portland Area CSA Coalition website.
Source: New York Times, “In Portland, A Golden Age of Drinking and Dining,” September 26, 2007