Hello and welcome back to Kitchen Catastrophes Quick Tips’ ongoing series, Meandering America’s Menus, wherein I, your Host and Gustatory guide Jon O’Guin, try to discuss and explain the varying food cultures of this great nation of ours in around 1,000 words a state. Today we’re going to be dealing with the second-most familiar food culture to me: That of Oregon. So let’s talk shop, and cart up some grub, as we tackle the Beaver state’s bites and beverages.
Birds of a Feather
There’s going to be a major theme to this post, because of geopolitical realities: Oregon and Washington act and eat in very similar ways. They’re often discussed as the ‘sister states’, having both entered the union at roughly the same time (Though Oregon did do it first, in 1859, with Washington lagging behind until 1889) and the two are very free with sharing each other’s toys. Unlike California, who can’t even agree with itself half the time, Washington and Oregon are typically in fairly close agreement on most topics, and especially when it comes to food.
Perhaps my favorite example of this is with Marionberries and Dungeness crab. Marionberries have been listed on several websites as one of the ‘iconic’ foods of Washington. Which is fine, they’re quite good, and used frequently. Except, well, Marion county, where they get their name from, because it’s where they were first grown and continue to be grown, is in Oregon. Similarly, several websites list Dungeness crab as an iconic food of Oregon, despite Dungeness itself being 4 hours north of the Oregon state line.
This is actually just 30 miles from Canada. Those 30 miles are all ocean, but still.
Does this diminish these foods’ relative importance to each region? No. Dungeness crabs live all along the coast between Alaska and Southern California. Marionberries grow in Washington almost as well as Oregon. Though, to be fair, Oregon does grow 90% of them. An even more impressive figure when you learn they’re the predominant blackberry for processed-foods sources. If you’ve eaten blackberry jam from a big-brand jar, you likely ate Marionberry. To be more precise, that 90% is grown around Salem, OR, which, coincidentally, is where I used to spend August of every year. And July-August is the harvesting season for Marionberries. So, if you ate blackberry jam from a supermarket during the 90’s or early 2000’s, there’s a…roughly 15% chance I was within 5 miles of the berries as they were picked.
But, weird details of how close I came to the food inside you-
-aside, this actually speaks again to a point I made in the early Culinary compendium, and the Washington edition of Meandering America’s Menus: Washington and Oregon both love the concept of fresh, and ‘local/localized’. I joked earlier that Dungeness is 4 hours north of Oregon. But really think about that. I could catch a dozen Dungeness crab from Dungeness Spit, and have them in a Portland restaurant kitchen by NOON. (Well, I couldn’t. I sure as hell am not going crab fishing before 8 in the morning. I don’t like to be out of BED before 8 in the morning.) By the same token, in mid-July, the Marionberries on your Seattle dessert COULD have been picked that very afternoon. And it’s not just food trends the two share, but drinks as well.
Just a Drop to Drink
Before I really get into this topic, I want to talk about the ‘hipster’ phenomenon. Well, hold on. No, I don’t, because that is a multi-headed hydra of meaning, intent, style, and irony that is just too deep to plumb in the middle of talking about food. So let me instead put it this way: The twin metropolises of Washington and Oregon, Seattle and Portland, have long been understood as “hipster cities”. Places where independent business, craft beverages, and thin men with thick beards roam the streets unjudged. Whether you see this as a good or bad thing, it has lead to an interesting dichotomous (Holy shit, that’s actually a word? Nice.) trend between the two: the coffee/cocktail trade.
See, back in 1971, in the kitschy Farmer’s Market style area of Pike Place Market, a coffee roaster opened its doors: Starbucks Coffee. In 1984, this chain began an international push for expansion. Within 10 years, at least 4 other Coffee companies had opened with the intent of presenting alternate views on Coffee. Seattle is knee-deep in coffee shops, each arguing a different aesthetic of Coffee. Which is a word that has just now become nonsense letters to me.
Coffee. Coffee. Cof.Fee. CofFee.
Meanwhile, in 1985, just a year after Starbucks started expanding, Oregon passed a law that let you sell alcohol on the premises where it was produced. This began the growth of the Oregon Brewpub, a Brewery/Pub, where you could walk into a building, have a meal, and drink pints of beer made on-site. This was, in many ways, the beginning of the Craft Beer Revolution. While now the biggest craft beer companies are in Colorado and California, it’s not for nothing that Portland alone has 58 breweries in it. Oregon makes both the top 5 ‘Breweries per Million residents’ list, and ‘total craft beer output’ lists.
And both states saw the other’s success, and started working on doing the same thing in their state. Seattle now has over 45 breweries, and Portland created Stumptown Coffee in 1999. Washington has roughly 250 breweries across the state, putting them just behind Oregon’s 263.
Here’s one in Spokane that’s very nice. And I don’t just say that because my brother works here. (That is definitely why I’m saying that.)
And that’s really the difficult part of discussing Oregon food culture, having already discussed Washington’s: in terms of general trends, the two are basically copying each other, with any innovation one provides being quickly snapped up by the other. Of course, if we get down to the nitty-gritty, we’ll find some differences. Seattle’s Asian food and influences are more tied to Japan, while Portland leans more toward Thai, for instance. But both are still making Asian Fusion cuisine more frequently than say, Indiana. Portland is more Food-Cart friendly, but THAT came from San Fransisco, so I have to wait until California to talk about that!
This is the crux of the “regional cuisine” summaries you’ll find online. Of course, if you dig, you’ll find distinctions, but broadly, Oregon eats like Washington eats. Whether it’s a Seattle-based Korean Street-food restaurant opening its second location in Portland, or Portland breweries opening Satellite stores in Tacoma, the two share like good siblings. And fight like them too.
“I’M THE BIGGER NERD.” “NUH-UH. I LIKED CHANCE THE RAPPER WAY BEFORE YOU DID.” “YOU AREN’T EVEN WOKE.”
NEXT TIME: WE MESSED UP THE ORDER SO KITCHEN CATASTROPHE #41 WILL BE HERE LATER THIS WEEK!