Tourists and Portlandia fans may have certain ideas about Portland’s food scene. Visions of food carts, hippie vegan restaurants, grilled cheese buses, blue cheese ice cream shops, and mile-long brunch lines dance in their heads. Yes, those are all a part of Portland’s bustling and dynamic culinary culture today–but how did it all begin?
In Portland: A Food Biography, Breakfast A History author and Portland native Heather Arndt Anderson starts from our fair city’s not-so-humble beginnings, when the land was wild and teeming with native plants and animals. The book shows how the first Portlanders (from the Chinook and Kalapuya tribes) fished, hunted, and gathered Camas and wapato for sustenance.
Later, immigrants from around the world settled in Stumptown, bringing with them their own varied culinary traditions. What will be especially interesting to Portland residents today is seeing the remnants of this history in the corners of our current neighborhoods. Those fig trees dropping their fruit on the sidewalks of Southeast Portland? Those were planted by Italian families around the turn of the twentieth century. Commonly referred to as the whitest city in America, Portland–as revealed in this book–has a richer, more diverse culinary history than I would have imagined.
Portland was also home to its share of lovable oddballs, and Arndt Anderson found them all. Farmers, feminists, prohibitionists, teetotalers, vegetarians, barkeeps, restaurant owners, and canning factory managers populate these pages, often spouting off amazing quips about their love for Portland. Take this one, for example:
American publisher and early game law reformer Charles Hallock wrote effusively in 1891 of the variety of waterfowl that the Northwest has to offer, of “the exquisite preparation nature has made for their accommodation and the long season for hunting them, with which we sportsmen are blessed,” and insisted that the tales of Oregon’s duck-hunting affluence bore repeating until they “resolve themselves into blood-curdling, hair raising traditions similar to the Icelandic sagas and the mythical legends of the dark ages.”
Hallock’s rhapsodizing was not unique to him. Dozens of other newcomers found themselves similarly enthusiastic about the possibilities and abundance in this fertile land.
The journey from the past to the food cart and artisanal ice cream shops of twenty-first century Portland is a delicious, captivating one. Portlanders, especially, will find themselves swept up in this mouth-watering history. Outsiders are advised to read this book with caution, as they may feel the desire to pack up and move to Portland immediately. I have a feeling our mile-long brunch lines are about to get even longer.