Portland: Foodie Happenstance

Though we had planned to vacation in Portland during the fall, it was simply a happy coincidence that our trip happened to coincide with some great food-related events.

An Evening with Mark Bittman

Feast Portland: A Celebration of Oregon Bounty, was a four day festival in September highlighting the chefs, producers and food artisans in the state. We weren’t able to take in all that many events (it would have busted our food budget for the entire trip), but we prioritized and made it to three.

The first was an Evening with Mark Bittman, where he would be delivering a talk titled “The Future of Food”. I’ve been following Bittman’s writing and cooking his recipes for a few years now, so it was neat to be able to hear him speak in person.

Portland September 2012

Waiting for Mark Bittman

The Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall was packed, everyone eager to hear the New York Times columnist take on the current state of food in America. Without question, Bittman was preaching to the choir (and really, if you’ve read Food Matters, there wasn’t anything groundbreaking to add), but I still appreciated his passion on the subject. The one stat that stuck with me was that only 1/4 meals eaten in the US contains a fruit or vegetable (shockingly, that stat would be 1/5, but the perfunctory piece of lettuce on a burger counts). He also talked about the importance of the upcoming soda tax vote in Richmond, California, as it had the possibility, if passed, of rippling outward (unfortunately, the measure wasn’t passed – you can congratulate the soft drink lobby for their victory there).

Oregon Grand Bounty Tasting

I was a little heartbroken that tickets for the Feast Night Market were sold out by the time I got around to the website, so the Oregon Grand Bounty Tasting was a bit of a consolation prize. The $60 tickets set a level of expectation, but we were in the dark as to how the event would unfold, given there wasn’t much information available. We should have known better – though this was the first Feast festival in Portland, it followed a successful template replicated in other cities like New York, so there was little chance of anything but an amazing event to anticipate.

The organizers had fenced off Pioneer Courthouse Square for a few days in preparation, so we were eager to see what was behind the blacked-out walls. Turns out, the event was true to its name – it really did showcase the bounty offered by the state.

Feast Portland

How do you like ‘dem onions?

We initially didn’t think the Square would be big enough to hold the hundreds of people streaming in, but the organizers did an excellent job of using all built-in tiers to their advantage. Higher-end wine tastings were offered on the terrace, while the majority of food and libations samples were distributed in a massive tent on the ground level. Best of all, a cooking stage had been set up facing the outdoor amphitheatre.

Feast Portland

Inside the tasting tent

Feast Portland

Cooking stage

We learned about some great locally-produced products, from cheeses and baked goods to seafood. Notably, we were introduced to Jacobsen Salt (the first locally-mined Oregon salt), Olympic Provisions (mind-blowing salami), and Salt & Straw ice cream. With the overwhelming number of producers present, it would have been helpful to have a comprehensive list of all of the vendors – instead, we had to rely on memory and pictures to remember which products we wanted to source out after the event.

Feast Portland

Olympic Provisions

Feast Portland

Cheese

Feast Portland

Baked treats

Feast Portland

Crab

Feast Portland

Hot Lips soda

Feast Portland

Even Stumptown Coffee was represented!

In between tastes, we made sure to check out Chris Consentino’s demonstration. We had stopped by his Boccalone outlet in the Ferry Market while in San Francisco, though he is probably more well-known for his restaurant Incanto, and appearances on a variety of Food Network shows. Charismatic and funny, he put together a very interesting dish featuring foie gras and pine branches.

Feast Portland

Chef Consentino on stage with Bon Appetit Editor in Chief Adam Rapoport

Though I don’t think we were able to sample $60 worth of product, we were more than satisfied with the variety of food and drink, and the overall experience of the Bounty. Bravo to the organizers!

Feast Speaker Series

Our final Feast event was a Speaker Series entitled “The Global Local: Re-imaging Food Cultures” at the Gerdling Theatre. Many of the speakers had come from out of state, which provided us with the opportunity to hear from some of the current movers and shakers in the American culinary world.

Portland September 2012

Music

The event as a whole was impressively well thought out and organized. A folk band in the lobby set the tone as we walked in, while at intermission, identical food stations spread throughout the two levels were ready and waiting to dish out samples to the hungry audience (it helps when Whole Foods is a sponsor, but they alone couldn’t account for the incredible efficiency of the set-up).

Portland September 2012

Theatre lobby

The lecture portion itself was also nicely done. The ten speakers were interspersed with brief video “field dispatches” that helped provide the audience with a visual context of the Oregon agricultural layout. Even the time keeper was thoughtfully chosen – a lone guitarist sitting just off the stage would start lightly strumming to gently remind speakers that their time was up.

In terms of content, because of our tourist status, we would have loved to hear more about Portland’s food scene specifically (one of the questions in the promotional material that got us hooked was, “How has Portland become the talk of the American food scene?”), but I’m sure locals thirsted for more national stories.

Highlights for me included Portland restaurant critic Karen Brooks. She distributed three small tastes (a piece of chocolate and a coffee bean among them), wrapped up in a small canvas bag for each audience member. She then crafted a wonderful communal experience as she described what each of the foodstuffs meant to her, and invited all of us to enjoy each item together. It was an effective way of driving home her core idea that “food is trust” – each of us was intimately connected to the artisan producer that crafted the product.

Chef Sean Brock’s discussion about the Charleston pantry seemed a little out of place, but it was interesting to hear his take on a popular rice-based Southern dish, hoppin’ john, that he serves at his restaurant. It was especially interesting because South Carolina has only recently started to grow rice again. Brock shared, “story tastes good.”

Portland September 2012

Francis Lam interviews Chef Brock

Chef Gabrielle Hamilton, of the famed NYC restaurant Prune, was charmingly blunt about locavorism. Eating local, she said, was unremarkable because it was simply how she grew up.

Lucky Peach Editor in Chief Chris Ying also brought down the house with his tongue-in-cheek takedown of Yelp reviews.

Portland September 2012

Chris Ying deduces the true identity of a Yelp poster

Reflection about how, what and why we eat what we do in the context of the landscape and culture is fascinating to me, so I thought it was a valuable learning experience. I hope Edmonton can replicate this (on a smaller scale, of course) someday!

Meeting The Wednesday Chef

I’ve been reading Luisa Weiss’s blog, The Wednesday Chef, for a few years now. While some of the recipes she captured caught my eye, it was the window into her life that kept me coming back. When it was announced that Luisa would be releasing a memoir, I knew I would pick it up – I wanted to learn more about her story, and of course, glean a few more of her recipes.

My Berlin Kitchen maybe didn’t flow as well as I wanted it to (many of the chapters seemed to be built around specific recipes, which works as individual blog entries, but not as well in a novel format), but Luisa’s elegant prose and ability to connect with the reader still made it an enjoyable read. So when I found out Luisa would happen to be in Portland conducting a reading and book signing at Powell’s the week we were in town, I knew I had to be there!

Portland September 2012

Reading from My Berlin Kitchen

She was as sweet and articulate in person as you would expect, and seemed very genuine. The Q & A with the audience surprisingly focused more on her life and thoughts about Berlin; I really thought there would be more blog-related questions. I asked her how she feels her blog has changed over the years – she responded that it has become more personal, with people relating to her experiences.

Portland September 2012

With Luisa!

You never know what food-related events will crop up in Portland!

Roberta Brandes Gratz on Urban Development

In celebration of Edmonton’s designation as the Cultural Capital of Canada for 2007, the city has been holding a number of special events, including a speakers series inviting experts from a wide variety of areas to offer their opinions on municipal life, arts, and culture.

Roberta Brandes Gratz, an urban critic, journalist, and consultant based out of New York City, spoke to a crowd of over 200 gathered in the Maclab Theatre at the Citadel on Thursday night. My knowledge of urban planning is murky at best, and while it took me a while to really get into her speech, by the end, she had me convinced of her philosophy of growing for the local as opposed to the transient, and optimistic, based on some of her cited examples of cities reborn, for what is possible.

She clarified the difference between density and overcrowding, and alongside the well-worn idea of building up and not out, emphasized the need for areas that are not only walkable (i.e., services available within a reasonable parameter), but that also incubate local economies. I really responded to her example of a visit to a new Home Depot in what must be mid-town Manhattan. Constructed like the department stores of old (utilizing several floors in a confined space), she mentioned passing by a small boutique on her way back to the subway, and ended up buying something from the store. If not for Home Depot, she said, she likely would not have “found” the store at all. Ms. Gratz did cite Whyte Avenue, which she visited that afternoon, as Edmonton’s own successful application of this concept – where larger retail enterprises can coexist with smaller businesses.

On the topic of affordable housing, all of her observations seemed very much to be common sense – it is up to the city (and ultimately, the people who will be living in the area) to force developers include more units of affordable housing (within mixed income buildings) and create spaces with a diversity of uses (e.g. parks). Too much is at stake – the sustainability, growth, and with time, rebirth of neighbourhoods – to be left at the charitable whim of developers.

Ms. Gratz also touched on the idea of marketing and nurturing for the local as opposed to tourists. In her research on Edmonton, she came across an article about the controversial renovations to the Art Gallery of Alberta and its $88 million dollar price tag. Had the consultation process been done right, she said, residents would not have had to choose between the lesser of several designs, but would have been asked whether or not this was a worthwhile project at all. Similarly, she questioned the need for the proposed welcome gates to greet drivers coming into the city – the money is better spent for people who already live in the city; visitors are drawn to vibrant, thriving municipalities.

Ms. Gratz was gracious enough to field questions from the audience for forty-five minutes, and likely could have continued if the host did not pull her off stage. She was asked at one point about the idea of building a new hockey arena downtown. Earlier in her talk, she had mentioned that stadiums and entertainment centres were black holes of sorts for locals, and really only stood to attract visitors. To answer this question, she drew laughs by first insisting that she knew enough not to mess with the Canadian love of hockey. But that said, she indicated that it was possible to develop a harmonious arena, as long as it was right for the community and visitors were not of the ‘get in, get out’ variety. We’ll see what the newly (re)elected city councillors do with this proposal in the coming months…

All in all, it was a stimulating evening of thoughts, ideas, and precedent that left me with a sense of optimism, and a desire to learn more about urban (re)development.

Maher Arar: Civil Liberties & National Security

On Wednesday, May and I attended a lecture by Maher Arar at the Winspear Centre sponsored by the University of Alberta Political Science Department. I know it’s a formality at such events to have people of high academic ranking precede the main speaker to, in a sense, soften up the topical ground with grand introductions of the subject at hand, but to me it unnecessarily lengthens the event.

Julian Faulker, Mr. Arar’s counsel during his civil suit against the Canadian government, provided his insight into what needs to change in the system in order for rights to be fully protected, not simply paid lip service to.

Mr. Arar followed, and essentially recounted the highlights of his experience, both the good and the bad. In all honesty, I had scanned the headlines and articles earlier this year when he had received his $2 million dollar settlement from the government, but I didn’t know all of the details surrounding his deportation, torture, and subsequent return to Canada in 2003. He told of a time in Syria as a boy when a Canadian recognized the maple leaf on his shirt; this friendly recognition was the moment he decided he wanted to immigrate to Canada. Hearing him speak of his ordeal really personified it, and was much more powerful than reading the account in the papers. Still, I found it interesting that Mr. Arar chose to repeat the fact that he was found to be innocent three times. I’m sure some in the audience may have been suspicious of his alleged involvement, but the aural reminder almost worked against his rhetoric of ultimate exoneration. That said, I would like to echo Dr. Trimble’s comment that Mr. Arar was very brave in his quest to educate the public by retelling his painful story.

(A brief aside – the Department of Political Science indicated that it wanted to make the event accessible to everyone, so had sign language interpreters as well as a screen transcribing what was being said set up on stage. I’m not sure if it was just me, but these fixtures actually made it difficult for me to focus on the speeches. I think I need to learn how to block out what’s visually unnecessary and irrelevant.)

On my way home, it wasn’t an epiphany per se, but the enveloping thought that the problems in the world are so vast that disillusionment really becomes the easy way out. On the heels of attending speaking engagements by Stephen Lewis and Maher Arar tonight, and my current reading of Romeo Dallaire’s Shake Hands with the Devil, I’m feeling overwhelmed, even though the HIV/AIDS pandemic, the obstruction of civil liberties, and genocide are only three of the many multi-lateral issues plaguing society today. I know a general awareness of these challenges is vital, and I’m doing what I can to learn more, but most days, it doesn’t seem like enough. At the same time, where does one start, besides the civilian duty of “rocking the vote?” There is no easy answer, but this will be something I will be grappling with as I continue to educate myself as a global citizen.

Stephen Lewis: “Canada’s Status in the World: How Does It Measure Up?”

At a recent HIV/AIDS session I attended, each participant was asked who their inspiration was that brought them there that day. I can’t remember what my ultimate response was, but had I answered honestly, I would have said Stephen Lewis. At the time though, his name seemed much too cliché and pedestrian for that particular forum. It was a personal travesty for me to have missed his 2006 International Week address, so when I found out he was coming back to Edmonton to deliver another lecture, I jumped at the opportunity.

So after dinner, Dickson and I headed down to the Timms Centre at the University for his lecture titled “Canada’s Status in the World: How Does it Measure Up?” It was nearly a packed house, and after quite the score of introductions, Mr. Lewis was welcomed on stage.

He framed his speech with a list of five provocations – nuclear proliferation, genocide (in particular, the current Darfur crisis), the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, climate change, and of course, the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Although I respect him as a knowledgable man with perspective on a wide variety of issues because of his travels, experience, and obvious appreciation for big-picture implications if inaction remains, Mr. Lewis’s lack of personal connection really weakened his discussion on the first four issues. He really did sound like he was posturing to the crowd.

By the time he reached his final topic, however, the rest of the address fell away immediately, and I was reminded of the fact that I was in awe of being in the same room with him, breathing the same air (I am not worthy!). His passion, intensity, and humanity resonated from the stage as he talked, among other things, about orphans, grandmother-headed families, the potential for a viable microbicide, the need for gender equality and sexual negotiation, and Canada’s own failed legislation allowing for a warehouse of ARVs to sit idle. Though many of the stories were included in Race Against Time, it was better hearing them from him in person.

Like Art Spiegeleman, Mr. Lewis possesses a vocabulary that puts me to shame. He was expectedly long-winded, but I don’t think anyone seemed to mind – the audience was clearly rapt throughout surreal pin-drop hour and a half (though really, all in attendance were likely already holding him in a state of public reverence, even before he ever had to open his mouth). I really liked how he managed to pull current media headlines and made them relevant to his topics (e.g. the War Crimes trial in Montreal, a UN negotiation with Turkey over the semantics of their Armenian genocide). He also had a genuine sense of humor (with regards to his time with the NDP, and I’m paraphrasing, but “the only difference between a cactus and a caucus is that with a cactus, the pricks are on the outside”).

Since most of the talk was decidedly apocalyptic, I was surprised that he was able to bring about an optimistic ending of hope. He even recommended a book, Stephanie Nolen’s upcoming 28, a collection of narratives centering on persons living with HIV/AIDS, that he believes is good enough to increase mainstream consciousness about the subject.

Perhaps I should have taken the reception as an opportunity to meet Mr. Lewis, but it’s more my style to admire from a distance, so we left almost immediately after the conclusion of the event. He’s a wonderful speaker, and I would not hesitate to attend another one of his lectures in the future.

Revolutionary Speakers’ Series: Art Spiegelman

Sometimes an event is witnessed that shouldn’t be reduced to text because it deserves the sensory justice of an in-the-moment experience. This was one of those nights.

My APT English professor first exposed me to the work of Art Spiegelman, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus. It was my first brush with graphic novels, and it amazed me how the visuals collided with the text to produce a piece more poignant than simply using either or. In the classroom, I found that students in both streams of English responded exceptionally well to it, as comix supplied a non-threatening base for discussion. Moreover, it allowed for a seamless transition to the more widely-recognized Eli Wiesel’s Night. Needless to say, when I heard Spiegelman was coming to town as a part of the Students’ Union’s Revolutionary Speakers’ Series, I marked my calendar straightaway.

I was simply awestruck – Spiegelman was eloquent, witty, humble (he only ever wanted to write a “long comic book that needed a bookmark”) and exemplified the perfect balance between gravitas and humor, of which the latter enhanced the former by way of personable credence. Though he spoke much faster than I could process, he had the endearing quality of a brilliant-but-rambling professor who embraced what teachable tangents arose.

While his main focus was on the theme of “forbidden images” (in particular the Muhammad cartoons printed in the Danish papers), the talk in part became a “brief history of comics.” He has a phenomenal knowledge base, and with names sprinkled throughout, I had to strain back to the recesses of my brain to resurrect what threadlike remembrance I had of Francisco Goya, the Chapman Brothers, and Roy Lichtenstein (and those were the only artists I recognized). Spiegelman effectively made use of slides during his “performance” (as “performers are allowed to smoke”), with pictorial representations of everything he addressed. The New Yorker had always been in the periphery of politico-cool to me, but I never really paid attention to the satiric punchlines delivered by their pot-stirring cover art.

In addition to discussing the importance of trusting the artist, a split between what’s forbidden being grotesque versus sensational, and the media’s confusion of symptoms and causes, I liked that he addressed that the artist cannot control the interpretation of images where meaning could be warped by the brain’s almost primal, knee-jerk response to visual stimuli.

I also appreciated the insight he provided into his creative process (how both Maus and In the Shadow of No Towers came about), and the snitches of personal anecdotes he shared (how a Neo-Nazi documentary showed a young German with a Maus poster on his wall, citing that that was the only image of a Swastika he could obtain, and how second only to cocaine how his series of “Garbage Pail Kids” trading cards have been illegally shipped to Mexico).

I guess I didn’t expect a comix genius to be such a great speaker as well, so though I highly respected Art Spiegelman before tonight, after listening to his presentation, I am now hold him in wondrous regard. I look forward to his next engagement, or at the very least, his next great work.

Poverty in Malawi

I ventured out late this afternoon for another International Week session titled, “Gender, Education and the HIV/AID Pandemic in Rural Malawi.” Presenting were Dr. Anne Fanning, a retired physician, and Rachel Maser, who just recently returned from a ten-month volunteer stint in Malawi with Engineers Without Borders.

Dr. Fanning began the session with a whirlwind twenty minute PowerPoint presentation meant to provide a framework and overview of the factors involved in poverty, including the necessity of infrastructure, good governance and access to education. While the content was there, I wish there had been more time for depth – her spiel can best be likened to a Blender Blaster of statistics, charts, graphs, maps and fact lists. I think she may have made some assumptions that the audience was more familiar with the material than we actually were (or, it may have just been me), and breezed through it without a pause. It’s evident she’s extremely knowledgeable (she is one of the leading experts on TB), so I can only hope to be able to hear her speak again on a future occasion (an exasperating fact – though condom use is not as prevalent in Africa as it should be, Dr. Fanning noted a statistic that an able-bodied, sexually-active man in Africa only has access to an average of fourteen condoms a year).

Rachel also referred to PowerPoint slides, and on them included many pictures she took while in Malawi. Working through EWB, but with an organization called ActionAid, her objective focused on girls’ education. One of her projects while there involved organizing a day where young girls were able to listen to positive role models working in professional jobs, and then job shadow some of those women on the following day. She came away with the sense that more had to be done to change the perception that the domain of the female was in the home. One interesting point – Malawi, at least in the southern part of the country where she was stationed, is quite well connected by cell phone. She talked about how the technology was revolutionizing the way people did business. For instance, a farmer could receive a text message with the current market price for grain, and then decide whether or not a trip to town would be worth it.

In all, it was great to be able to hear perspectives of those who have worked and lived in the field.

Ronald Wright: “The Traps of Progress”

After months of self-flogging as punishment for missing Stephen Lewis’s keynote address in 2006, I made sure to take time out of my regularly scheduled workday this afternoon to attend Ronald Wright’s opening lecture for the University of Alberta’s annual International Week.

Wright’s address was excerpted from his award winning Massey Lecture, A Short History of Progress. Drawing extensively from history and in particular, literary references, he provided an overview of the human population explosion, with the dire warning that the earth cannot sustain growth at such exponential levels.

In all honesty, a forty-five minute talk can only be expected to skim the surface, and Wright didn’t have the time to go much further than the exposition of facts and quotes spanning two millennia. Because of this, I ended up paying more attention to his oratorical style.

No doubt, Wright has an ear for language and cadence (for example, a clever insertion of the descriptor “softened” following a sentence on Viagra), and as expected of a novelist, had many quotable phrases (e.g. “the new religion of the bottom line”). Still, I was a little disappointed that he mainly read from the page, and hardly wavered from his written word.

Following his speech, there was a brief Q & A session. He had an interesting response to the question probing for his opinion on how many people the earth could reasonably sustain. He harked back to the days before the steam age, and estimated that only up to two million people could live comfortably, without the great variations in wealth and poverty that we have today, and utilizing only environmentally pure technologies. This connects back to an article I read in the Globe & Mail recently about reducing our “ecological footprint.” According to a model created by William Rees, an ecological economist, Canadians are living and consuming resources as if the planet were 20-25% larger than it actually is.

At any rate, I am glad I had the opportunity to be exposed to Wright’s perspective on the global issue of sustainability.