“Portland has a very pioneering spirit.” In conversation with Liz Crain.
Portland author Liz Crain’s Food Lover’s Guide to Portland is a foodie staple for locals and visitors alike. Maintaining its focus on locally-sourced menus and locally-owned businesses, from food carts and restaurants to specialty vendors and farmers markets, the second edition of Food Lover’s Guide to Portland (Hawthorne Books) offers updated and expanded listings. Liz sat down for an interview with Late Night Interview contributor Melanie Figueroa to share some thoughts about a few of her favorite food destinations, the writing process, and the pleasures of getting to know the people and ingredients behind Portland’s vibrant and unique culinary scene.
MELANIE FIGUEROA: In the introduction to the second edition of Food Lover’s Guide to Portland, you write, “In the name of full disclosure, during the research and writing of this book I met with no PR or marketing people.” Why did you make that decision?
LIZ CRAIN: I like to go straight to the source. I like to meet with the distillers, the butchers, the coffee roasters themselves. Often times, when you get wined and dined by PR, you are with a group of other media folk, who are people with big pocket books. You’re sort of being bought and sold in a way. It’s a good way to get exposure to new food and drink for some people. I’m not knocking it. It’s just something that I’ve never felt comfortable doing.
I’m friends with too many people who are in the food and drink world, and I just really want to tell their stories—and not through the lens of a PR engine. It’s always been important to me, and I think that there’s always some sort of social contract that you sign when you’re taking something for free. It’s always expected that they’ll get some sort of return, and I don’t like that—that feeling. Just go straight to the source and talk with people. I mean, that’s what this book is all about—these people who make Portland’s food scene so vibrant. Typically restaurant reviews, food stories, and a lot of publications you’re getting that writer’s take on the décor, the food on the plate, and the vibe of the place, and I want to cut through all of that and go right into the chef’s perspective or the farmer’s perspective.
MF: The first edition of Food Lover’s Guide to Portland was published in 2010. In the second edition, you’ve eliminated listings that have closed and added over 150 new businesses. How did you find all of these places?
LC: Really it’s just being a part of the community. I’ve been here since 2002, and I’m a social being. I go out a lot. It’s my passion. Just being in that food and culture world, I—in the four years between the first and second edition—have visited hundred of places that I would have liked to include so I just had to narrow it down.
MF: Many people associate places like New York or San Francisco as being foodie destinations, not necessarily somewhere like Portland. But what do you think sets Portland apart? Has anything changed about the local food scene since the first edition?
LC: I think that Portland has a very pioneering spirit. It’s a very creative, do-it-yourself town. Most of my friends have gardens at home, and they’re cultivating the food that they eat. A lot of them raise their own chickens. A lot of them weld or are woodworkers. Just hands-on, tactile, is very strong here. And so I think that translates into the food. It doesn’t hurt that it’s such a fertile growing region. You have access to really great seafood and a whole array of delicious mushrooms that you can’t get other places. Delicious berries. Forageable, tasty ingredients. It’s a temperate region, and it’s very lush and fertile. I just judged The Portland Outsider’s inaugural Made in Portland awards. I think there were maybe thirty or forty submissions for food, and I judged that category. It was just really surprising in a good way—it made me really happy to see these products people submitted. People are really inspired to follow their labor of love.
In terms of differences in the food, there’s just a lot more of everything. Population has gone up. Areas that have witnessed more extreme growth are farmers’ markets. There are some that are year-round. Chocolate, spirits, breweries, those are all areas that have been significantly improved and had a lot of growth. A lot more hard cider. I really appreciate that. I love that.
MF: Outside of Portland, what’s your favorite food destination?
LC: Really, it would be camping. I could say some cities. San Francisco. Vancouver B.C. There’s so much great Asian food in Vancouver and just really great chef-driven restaurants in San Francisco. Lots of great seafood markets. But really, in terms of traveling for food, I love to go into the woods—to go backpacking. I have a group of friends that every spring we go on a morel trip. It’s called Morel Madness. It’s a group from Washington and Oregon. We all kind of meet in the middle, and we’re all super into being creative and making these big meals together. There are children and adults. All ages. All different types of people. We go out and forage mushrooms during the day and come back and cook together. We have a big fire and a lot of homemade things that people bring. I’ll bring my plum wine. Someone else brings this, that—I have a good time camping. It’s not planned. We all just bring great ingredients. A really good goat cheese. I’ll bring Edelweiss sausage. Someone else brings some bacon that they cured or eggs that their chicken laid. And then, it’s just fun to take turns with the meals. Someone’s the chef. Someone else is the sous chef. We’re having fun in all realms. We’re not taking it seriously. We all just love to eat and drink so much.
MF: Why food writing? Do you have a culinary background? Clearly you love to cook.
LC: Most of my jobs since I was sixteen have involved food in one way or the other. So my first job—I grew up in Cincinnati—and I worked in the mall food court. I worked at Hot Sam’s Pretzel Company and then I moved up to Original Cookie Company. That’s just sort of packaged and thawed and fried or baked, but we also had fresh lemonade. I really liked working in the food court because of the community and sort of the autonomy that I had. I would come in for the second shift. I would be there after school let out. I was a sophomore, and I’d be there till ten o’clock at night. From that, I waited tables at the oldest diner in Cincinnati, the Echo Diner. I worked there for a few years. Then I moved up to more fine dining establishments in Cincinnati. I did a little cooking, some catering, and just loved food. Writing and reading have always been a passion of mine. I went to Vassar College and got an English degree—working and cooking in food service while I was there—and then when I moved out to the West Coast, the two just kind of came together in Portland.
MF: On the surface level, food and writing may seem like two completely separate things. But do you think there’s a connection there?
LC: In terms of the craft of it, both writing and cooking, you just have to do it. So you can’t—I mean, people certainly do go to culinary school and spend heaps and heaps of money, and sometimes that’s good for them and sometimes it’s not. The same with writing. There are plenty of really esteemed workshops and master’s programs for writing. But I just think when it comes right down to it the most important thing with both writing and cooking is just to dive in and start putting words on paper, chopping vegetables. You just have to accrue that experience, get to understand the language, your voice, the way that certain ingredients react to heat.
MF: Does this edition of Food Lover’s Guide to Portland diverge from the first at all? What would you like readers to get out of this book?
LC: It’s the same. Sort of the big arc of it and what it’s including in terms of straight-from-the-source voices. It’s just more of that. There are new profiles of people. Portland Farmers Market’s director changed from 2010 to 2014. And then just adding new business. The tried-and-true businesses are the ones that I kind of care about the most—the ones that have been in both editions. Like Clear Creek Distillery. That’s a special local distiller to me because Steven McCarthy is the owner of that, and he started Clear Creek in the ‘80s. He was one of two eaux de vie distillers in the country making—eau de vie is sort of, it’s like a brandy that’s clear and is the essence of whatever fruit it’s made of. So he has raspberry, pear, all these different types. And I got to go, in 2006, with some of his employees, and we drove in this big ol’ truck up to his cabin in Parkdale, which is in the Mt. Hood area, and we collected the tips of the Doug Fir trees on his property and then that was made into his Doug Fir eau de vie. So businesses like that, that take that much care, and will make such a unique product, I love featuring them in this book because I think a lot of people don’t know that you can get a tree spirit in this city. This guy is using a lot of French techniques for distilling that no one else is really doing in the city, and he’s the opposite of new. He started distillation in this city. I like that as much—or more—I appreciate the older businesses in the book because the new places get a ton of press with the alt weeklies and the magazines. The buzz is always about new, new, new. I think it’s nice to have the background and foundation—the people who have paved the way in this city.
MF: Out of the hundreds of new businesses added to the book, name one that you are excited about.
LC: Bee Thinking is a really cool shop that’s in Sellwood. They are specializing in neighborhood honeys and beekeeping. A lot more Portlanders now are having hives in their backyards. They can pollinate and then have their own honey. So these guys have all of the equipment that you need to do that and be safe about it, and then also they themselves have hives on top of New Seasons Markets and different hotels around town. And then they are collecting the honey themselves and selling it, making mead from it. I just love the idea of neighborhood-specific honey. I think it’s really special that we can take a spoonful of Mt. Tabor honey and how different the Mt. Tabor honey tastes from the Overlook honey.
MF: Name one of your favorite cookbooks from the past year.
LC: Sandor Ellix Katz’s The Art of Fermentation. He is one of my food heroes. His first book was Wild Fermentation, and that’s what got me started into experimenting with making my own wine, miso, kimchi, dandelion wine, and sauerkraut. I’m the co-founder of the Portland Fermentation Festival, and now we’re in the fifth year of that. Sandor was the inaugural speaker at the first fermentation festival, and then he came back last year for our fourth festival. The Art of Fermentation is big—maybe 400-500 pages. A big, dense book, but very readable. It’s all about various ferments from around the world. In a couple of weeks, I’m going to the coast to my friend’s house—that same group of friends from the morel trip—they’re all coming out to Garibaldi. My friend has a house out there called Doctor Huckleberries. He’s really into food, and we are going to have a big tuna-canning party. In the process of that, we’re going to have a lot of guts and tails. We’re going to make it into a fish sauce. The recipe for that is in Sandor’s The Art of Fermentation. That book is not just recipes—and the recipes are in more of a narrative, paragraph form than a straight-up ingredient list and steps—which I love because that’s sort of how fermentation recipes should be. You want to learn about what it should smell like, and feel like, and look like, and get a little bit of the history of it.
Find a copy of Food Lover’s Guide to Portland on IndieBound
Liz Crain is the author of Food Lover’s Guide to Portland and Toro Bravo: Stories. Recipes. No Bull. A longtime writer on Pacific Northwest food and drink, her writing has appeared in Cooking Light, Budget Travel, VIA Magazine, The Sun Magazine, The Progressive, The Guardian and The Oregonian. She is also an editor and publicity director at Hawthorne Books as well as co-organizer of the annual Portland Fermentation Festival.
Melanie Figueroa is the editor of The Rookie Report for Late Night Library. She is studying book publishing at PSU and blogs at The Poetics Project. Favorite books include The Bell Jar and Lucky.