A Place Is a Gift: An Introduction
Gleanercore, not locavore
Last June, when I was slicing up green walnuts I had scavenged from a tree some stranger on Facebook allowed me to raid, I decided that if there was any larger sense of purpose I could glean from moving to a new state and buying shelves to hold all my little culinary experiments, it was to learn how to eat my neighborhood.
Or rather: to learn about this new place I had settled in by eating from it. Figuring out how to consume it. Skimming off its excesses. I began telling my friends that I wanted to get to know Arbor Lodge (aka North Portland, the Willamette Valley, Oregon, the Pacific Northwest) as an edible landscape. Not to live off it, like some twee micro-homesteader. But to enter into an exchange with this place, learn to see the gifts it was presenting if only I knew how to accept them—and then to pass them on.
Effusing over Oregon's bounty is hardly original. Western Oregon's four-season growing climate, its oceans and forests, play a big part in the mythos of today's Portland. Even people who hate the idea of multi-course tasting menus featuring wild seafoods and foraged mushrooms crow about what they gather, garden, and fish. Colonial settlers moving to the Northwest have rhapsodized about the region's rich resources for the past 250 years, even as they slaughtered and displaced the people who had lived in intimacy with this place for millennia. Today, descendants of the Multnomah, Wasco, Cowlitz, Kathlamet, Clackamas, Chinook, Tualatin, Kalapuya, and Molalla who lived—still live—in my neighborhood are piecing that culinary heritage back together through collective memory and scientific research.
There's a particular way of showing friendship here that I wanted to join in on, an exchange I never encountered in San Francisco, where I spent half my life. The first time I left SF—when I moved to Seattle from 2006 to 2010—I had a hard time settling into the Northwest. People who had no interest in talking to strangers. Long gray winters. A restaurant critic job that kept me hidden from the people I was writing about. The longer I lived in Seattle, though, the more I started making friends and exchanging food with them. Acquaintances would present me with dried morels or fresh salmon. I harvested Italian plums from the abandoned lot behind my sister's house to make jam and liqueur to give away. I joined an organization that sent me around town with a ladder, gleaning backyard fruit to deliver to food pantries. Once I moved back to San Francisco, I missed that expression of friendship keenly.
When my longtime-Portlander husband and I decided to leave San Francisco to buy a house in the city he loved—something we never even thought we’d be able to do in our early 40s—one of the things I looked forward to was planting a garden and making friends, starting those rituals of exchange anew.
In the eight-month window before the pandemic hit, we filled backyard barrels with thyme, savory, and rau ram. We planted unfamiliar berry bushes from Portland Nursery and a greengage plum sapling from a neighborhood fruit-tree giveaway. (Still waiting on both of those to fruit, by the way.) I visited farmers' markets and grocery stores around the region. I made a new friend or two as we rekindled Christian's friendships of many decades. And then, well, fucking COVID.
Even as the isolation of the past two years has ebbed and crested, I've made tiny advances in getting to know this edible landscape. Our daily walks around the neighborhood, masks clutched in our fists, brought us past untended hazelnut trees, thickets of herbs, and neglected apple trees that deposited rotting fruit all over. For two years now, I have made walnut rakija (aka Serbian nocino) from foraged green nuts and locally distilled brandy, and still haven't gotten the recipe down. These days, I have friends who show up to backyard gatherings with jars that they hand over, and in return I offer tiny boxes or loaves of bread.
Last month, I dove into Winifred Bird's wonderful book, Eating Wild Japan, in which she recounts her travels along the length of the country, charming old men and women into bringing her out to the forests to gather sansai — wild foods — and then prepare feasts of tiny, sometimes strong-tasting dishes.
That was the final push to start this project.
Its goal: To inhabit an edible neighborhood. To learn about how it once sustained the humans who knew it best, as well as the plants that waves of immigration have introduced. To grow, and glean, and cook, and bake, and preserve. And to give it away, because it was never mine to begin with.
Even in a time of economic peril and so much suffering, this is not a project about remedying hunger or eliminating food waste—I have some strong thoughts about those topics, which I will probably save for other venues. I have no interest in extracting Great Truths about how America Should Eat from my experiments. As much as I support the efforts to build local food economies, I have a chip on my shoulder about the locavorism of the mid-2000s, with its smug naiveté and its masked privileges.
This project is not about cooking and nutrition. It is about another essential: story. Walking around San Francisco, I sometimes felt as if I were wading through ghosts—houses I'd visited 20 years before, memories of friendships long faded, shops closed. I would always dismiss the thought as cheap nostalgia, but after I moved to a place that held no ghosts, I realized they were only telling me how woven together my sense of self and place were.
To eat a place is to become it.
To give it away is to tell its story.
Six practical matters and disclaimers:
1. This newsletter will come out every week for the first month, then probably every two weeks.
2. This should be the longest post you'll read.
3. I take shitty photos.
5. If a newsletter is published and no one reads it, is it worth it? Please don't help me find out—tell a friend.
6. If you live in Portland and want to share any of your knowledge about native plants and foodways, hit me up: email@example.com. Same if you have an overproducing fruit tree. I promise not to show up empty-handed.