My old friend Leigh Vickery, who writes a food column in Tyler Texas interviewed me recently about all things food, including restaurants in Portland, something I don’t often get asked about, so I thought it would be fun to repost it on the blog. Thanks so much, Leigh! Bon Appetit!
I don’t cook for myself very often but I cook for others on occasion. It’s a crime I don’t cook more because I have a terrific kitchen. I bought a condo from a former chef who had a restaurant architect design the layout around the kitchen. Cooking shows have been filmed in my house. But they’ve never filmed me making a peanut-butter and Jelly sandwich. Not sure why.
Did your mom cook when you were growing up? Any childhood memories of dinners, cooking, holidays, etc that would be fun to share here.
I grew up there in Texas and one of our great traditions, I think, is family meals. My favorite “meal tradition” took place on Christmas Eve, where the various families that make up our clan would have a progressive dinner, starting at one persons home and going deep into the night, traveling to all the others, where at each house we would enjoy a part of the meal. This also involved opening presents, which might have added to my love for that tradition.
When you have friends over, what’s the usual menu/plan?
I have a smoker, actually, and I smoke chicken or ribs out on the balcony. I smell up the whole neighborhood. That, mixed with the coffee roaster across the street makes the place smell like heaven. So I usually cook some sort of meat on the grill and then roast potatoes and vegetables. I also have a wood-burning pizza oven in the kitchen and so on special occasions I will fire it up and people come bearing ingredients for pizzas. We make a huge buffet and I cook them in the oven. A couple Superbowl’s ago, I ended up making seventy-five pizzas. I nearly missed the entire game.
I’ve got a few, a classical playlist, an upbeat playlist and then just background music, and they each evolve. Depending on who is coming over and what our plans are, I select the list. But some of the latest music includes: Matthew Perryman Jones, Katie Herzig, Trent Dabbs, Gillian Welch, Woody Guthrie and so on and so on. You could play the new Trent Dabbs record in the background and save yourself from creating a playlist at all. That record is called “Your Side Now.”
I know you just lunched with Anne Lamott recently at Chez Panisse. I cannot imagine a better locale for the two of you to talk. Talk to me a bit about that day, the conversation, food, etc.
I’ll talk about the food first. It was, of course, incredible. Chez Panisse is all it’s cracked up to be. I ordered a beef stew that was cooked in a wood-fire oven and when I blew on the bowl the beef parted. It was that tender. It was Annie’s suggestion, actually. And she was wonderful. We’d met a few times but hadn’t had the chance to talk extensively. She hadn’t taken a lunch with anybody all year until we got together in Berkley, so it was an honor. We talked about her new grandchild, about literature and about the church she has been attending for years. She’s beautiful and winsome and I didn’t want the lunch to end.
I have found in my work that people can connect over good food when so many other factors seem to divide us. Sharing a table seems to unify different races, cultures, political beliefs, religious beliefs, etc. Why do you think this is so?
Eating is one of the only socially acceptable ways we can share vulnerabilities. We would never get together with strangers and use the bathroom together, but it might have the same affect. No sense putting on airs, we’re just human. So here we are, a group of people putting foods in our mouths because if we don’t eat, we die, because we are not superhuman, we are beholden to our bodies, and our bodies need food and so much more. So I think there’s a humbling aspect to eating together. And then, seated there at the table, we are even. Nobody is taller, nobody is dominating, we are eye to eye. And we have to take our time, because we are also eating, and we have to listen, less we spit soup out of our mouths for talking all the time. And it’s such a pleasurable experience too, that feeling of comfort that we are going to stay alive another few days, that we are secure. It’s a great set up for good, honest conversation.
Bon Appétit named Portland “America’s Foodiest Town.” Why do you think Portland is such the mecca of growing fresh food, committing to local producers and great restaurants?
I can’t say, exactly, but I can testify that it’s true. Portland is committed to community. We are committed to small, thin streets with bike lanes, city blocks that are half the size, and using open lots to plant gardens. And for some reason it’s a town that looks out for the little guy, which when it comes to food means independent farmers. As for restaurants, I know we have a good culinary school, and many graduates start their own shops. There is a strong, anti-chain undercurrent in Portland which makes it possible for independent restaurants to get started. And then, of course, there is the competition. These small restaurants are competing and so the food just gets better and better. It’s all working terrific, as far as I can tell. It’s the kind of city where I can walk out of my house, cross the street and order a meatball sub from a food cart that has been written up in The Oregonian. Terrific.
Favorite Portland restaurants
Lauro, on Division. Their goat-cheese stuffed chicken could be sacrificed by the Inca to spare a virgin. The Gods would have been fine with it.
I’ve traveled all over America, in a car and on a bike. Right now I am on a 65-city book tour on a bus. But if you want the best food, I’d take you right back to Portland. I’d get us a morning table at Mothers Bistro, and I’d have them bring out the French toast. Then I’d watch you fall in love.
Three things always in your fridge
Ketchup, Tortillas and Skinny Cow Ice Cream Sandwiches. Don’t judge, I travel a lot.
Best Meal Ever
The last meal I have with friends before I leave Portland on one of these many trips I’ve taken. It doesn’t matter what or where we eat. There’s something bitter sweet about leaving Portland. It’s sad, cause I’m leaving, but in that last meal I’m acutely aware of how good life can be. And for that matter, how good food can be!
Any Texas foods you miss up in Portland?
I miss the Mexican food. We have a couple good mission shops in Portland, but not the Tex Mex you can get there in the Promised Land. You people take it for granted. It should honestly be taken away from you for a season. It probably would be if all of you weren’t carrying guns.
Do you have a recipe you could share with us?
My buddy Mike Tucker taught me to marinate a chicken breast in beer and pineapple juice overnight. It seems to work great as a simple marinade. Especially if you cook the chicken on a wood-pellet grill.