Portland: Americas Best Food Town?
In 2015, Tom Sietsema, a journalist from the Washington Post, took a multi-city food tour of the United States, stopping in Portland in June. At the end of the year, he selected Portland as the best food city in the United States. I knew Tom during his tenure as a food journalist for the Seattle Times, in the 1990's. He knows the Pacific Northwest and has followed the food movement here for years.
I grew up 3 blocks from the now famous White Stage sign (pictured) in Portland's Old Town. My family's restaurant, Dan & Louis Oyster Bar, was founded by my great grandfather, Louis Charles Wachsmuth, in 1907, and it is still located on what's known as the Bickle Block of Old Town.
Having witnessed and participated in Portland's culinary growth, I was pleased and proud that my hometown would receive such acclaim. I always suspected that my great grandfather believed in Portland's potential when he was running Dan & Louis. Portland did not attract influential or decorated chefs in the middle of the 20th century, and I sometimes wonder if that generation wanted to keep Portland's secret, much like my great grandfather.
Still, I was relieved to move on from Portland, which I did in 1982, just two days after completing my culinary apprenticeship. I was headed to Mr. Sietsema's second favorite food city, San Francisco. The food scene in Portland, if it could be called that, had become static and uninspired during my upbringing. As an aspiring young chef, I understood the importance of traveling in order to work in and experience as many kitchens and cities as possible.
These days, Portland offers young cooks the opportunity to work with any number of talented chefs in order to advance their training without ever leaving the city. Ingredients of the highest quality are abundant and readily available in our region, but it must be supported by its dwellers and those who frequent its restaurants. The city's tremendous expansion has assisted unquestionably in supporting Portland's vibrant food economy.
In my opinion, the idea of a" best" food city can and should be debated. As the country moves beyond the "food is fashion" stage, the realization that best food begins with the finest and freshest raw ingredients is becoming more widespread. The onus is on the cook, whether professional or home cook, to treat ingredients with the utmost care, preparing them using techniques that emphasize simplicity and an understanding of place from which it came, a version of the idea of terroir.
The piece in the Washington Post took special notice of Oregon's food culture; we who live and cook here care about preserving edible products as natural resources, and care a great deal about where a product comes from. Portlanders can often identify several different strawberry varieties, and ask where, exactly, in the Columbia River the salmon swam before ending up on their plate. We know enough to ask if those chanterelles grew in the coastal or Cascade mountain range, and we count ourselves lucky that we have so many choices and the ability to ask the people who grow and gathered our food about it.
Oregon's food culture will continue to evolve, and as it does, others will recognize that each corner of the state makes a unique contribution to its overall bounty. What was my Great Grandfather was really thinking? He only used local products in his restaurant, in part because the option to purchase further afield didn't exist. Was he being trendy, or just practical?