Portland Farmers Market in 1992

Considered one of the best farmers market in the country, Portland’s started back in 1992 in a parking lot alongside the Willamette River. This was originally published in Willamette Week during the market’s first season.

Portland’s New Farmers Market

The city dweller may feel uncertain when it comes to supporting sustainable agriculture. It seems like the organic produce in the natural foods store always costs so much more, making it a “politically correct” purchase available only to the well-heeled. And don’t those same stores carry imported produce in the winter?

While it’s often true that “natural foods” marketing includes some contradictory messages, outlets such as Nature’s, Food Front, People’s, and Happy Harvest are often the only source for locally produced food. Going to the country, whether to shop the roadside stands or pick it yourself, isn’t an option for everyone. Farmers markets fill the gap.

Getting up in the wee hours, hauling the produce into town, and setting up shop is an old tradition for farmers around the world. Nearly every American city once had a thriving farmers’ market, typically a warren of noisy stalls offering everything from fresh-picked vegetables to live chickens. The industrialization of agriculture began with the dust bowl. After WWII, interstate highways, supermarkets, and the quest for “convenience” doomed the farmers’ market as hopelessly quaint and in the way of progress.

In the past, Portlanders have had to settle for markets in the outlaying ‘burbs. That changed this summer with the premiere of the Portland Farmer’s Market at Alber’s Mill. Craig Mosback says he started the market because “I like the market atmosphere, meeting and talking with the farmers, and I like getting people down here to see where the food is from.”

Occupying a corner of the old mill’s new parking lot, the bright blue and yellow plastic tarps strung up by the vendors as cover from the rain and sun make it look as though a low-budget circus has come to town. Even the mood is festive, as shoppers eye the produce and cut flowers that spill from tailgates onto makeshift counters. The growers hawk samples of cucumbers and blueberries like carnival touts and offer advice on preparing fresh corn.

Lindsay Bradshaw represents the Oerther Family Farm, an all-organic farm near Clackamas that he describes as “a loose family operation.” He’s selling summer squash, garlic, cucumbers, and fresh herbs. The Peruvian purple potatoes, gnarled, thumb-sized tubers the color of grape jam, come from rootstock obtained, says Bradshaw, “from an old hippy named Johnny Lovewisdom who started a farm commune in Ecuador in 1947.” It’s information like this that you won’t get at Safeway.

Down the way, a table is covered with bright green moss so that it resembles the floor of an old-growth forest deep in the Coast Range. Piled on top of the moss sit creamy white oyster mushrooms, darkly-mottled matsutake fungus as big as your fist, and dusky orange chantarelles, their inverted gills looking like umbrellas caught in the wind. Bags of dried morels resemble miniature coral, and dried boletus—the Italian’s porcini—exude an enticing aroma. Lars Norgren’s Peak Forest Fruit offers wild mushrooms as well as red and blue beach huckleberries. Norgen himself is full of information and willing to share it.

Among the 20 or so other stands you’ll find long, Kentucky Wonder beans mottled with green and purple; red and yellow, round and pear-shaped tomatoes; strangely bulbous Kohlrabi, looking like tiny, tentacled alien beings; bouquets of multi-colored statice and long gladiola stems; potatoes—Yukon gold, Norwegian blue and plain red besides the Peruvian purple; tart tomatilloes with papery husks; muskmelon, yellow-bellied watermelon, and cantaloupe; resh local rabbit, cut into hindquarters and tenderloins and made into Italian, curry, and cranberry-nut sausage; garlic, by the single head or in long braids, alone or with tiny red peppers; shinseiki and hosui pears, crisp, mild, and looking more like apples; white and yellow corn picked just a few hours ago; sweet green bell peppers, hot green and red jalapenos, incendiary pencil-thin yatsafusa chilis, montegas, cubanelles, anaheims, and anchos.

While some of the shoppers are clearly curious as to what’s going on here along the river, others come with a clear purpose. “I wouldn’t make it out their farms to buy produce in the small quantities that I want, but I can do it here,” said Jean Rystron, loaded down with tomatoes and cucumbers. And some do understand the notion of sustainable agriculture. Sara Packer, explaining that all three generations of her family enjoyed the experience of shopping at the Farmers’ Market, added that she also comes “to support small farmers rather than agribusiness.”

Ken's Artisan Bakery

Originally published in January 2003, this story was nominated for a Beard Journalism Award. The Willamette Week headline:

Yeast of Burden

At 4 am, normally bustling Northwest 21st Avenue sleeps quietly. I wish I were, too. But I need to see a guy about some bread.

A pool of light spills onto the sidewalk, and behind the steamy windows I see Ken Forkish moving purposefully between a massive oven and an oversize mixer, measuring flour, checking temperatures and shaping loaves.

Some of Portland’s best chefs think the bread from Ken’s Artisan Bakery is more than just good.

Greg Higgins likes Ken’s levain breads, the naturally leavened rustic loaves. “They’ve got just enough tang and a complexity of flavors,” he says, “and nobody else in town makes anything like them.”

“Our customers,” says Vitaly Paley, “tell us it’s the best bread they’ve ever tasted.”

“I’ve eaten bread all around the world,” says Bluehour chef Kenny Giambalvo, “and his is up there with the best.”

Good bread is everywhere in Portland these days. Most supermarkets offer a selection of rustic loaves, several bake their own, and even industrial bakeries crank out misshapen loaves they call “artisanal.” With so much good bread around, what makes Ken’s special?

He uses organic flours and French sea salt. His bakery is equipped with the same nine-ton, steam-injecting Italian oven that Thomas Keller of French Laundry fame is putting in his new Napa bakery, a French mixer that costs more than most small cars, and a sort of cooler on steroids called a retarder that slows the fermentation process.

But the real secret to Ken’s bread is Ken himself. He’s a total bread freak. “I treat bread,” he says, “as fermentation craft.”

“I’m not shy about saying that our goal is to make the best damn bread out there,” he says. He refuses to make trade-offs that might reduce the labor-intensive, time-consuming process of transforming flour, water, and salt into bread that is “on par with the best artisan bakers in the world.”

Forkish came to baking the long way. He was part of the high-tech explosion that brought us the Internet. “I had some stock options,” he says, “I could’ve retired.” But he’d always enjoyed good food and wine. Inspired by an article about French baker Lionel Poilane, he traded bytes for bread in the mid-1990s. (Poilane, largely responsible for the rebirth of traditional bread in France, died in a helicopter crash last year.)

He sought out the world’s best bakers, took classes, baked loaf after loaf until he was satisfied that he was making good bread. On Thanksgiving 2001, he opened Ken’s Artisan Bakery in a renovated carpet warehouse at Northwest 21st Avenue and Flanders Street. Forkish says his business “had as good a first year as I could’ve expected,” but concedes that retail bread sales at the bakery were a “disappointment.”

With a daily production of between 300 and 400 loaves, Forkish can’t compete on volume with Grand Central, the region’s powerhouse of traditional bread. With bakeries in Seattle and Portland, Grand Central bakes thousands of loaves every day.

Even with his top-of-the-line kitchen and the added cost of high-quality organic ingredients, he can sell a loaf of his levain-based country blond bread for $3.50, only a few dimes more than Grand Central’s signature Como loaf. He’s expanded his retail reach to a few outlets, but he’d like to add more. “I’d love to see my bread for sale at New Seasons,” he says.

But to make sure that bread is the best it can be, Forkish is up not long after most of the rest of us have dozed off watching Conan. While he wheels a rack of unbaked bread out of the retarder, I’m fighting to stay awake to record his running commentary on what he’s doing and why.

The retarder, Forkish explains, stretches the cycle that begins with mixing the dough and ends with baking it to nearly 24 hours for some of his breads. To make an exceptional loaf, slow fermentation is critical, but he must bake the bread at the moment when it is completely proofed–when the stretchy gluten in the dough has reached its gas-holding limit. Bake too soon, and the bread expands too quickly; too late, and it collapses.

The beating heart of the bakery is the funky-looking, sour-smelling, living-and-breathing mixture of flour and water called the levain. Levain is French for leaven, and both come from the same Latin root, levare, to rise. Most Americans would call it sourdough, but Forkish avoids using the term. “In France,” he says, “if your bread tasted sour it would be considered a fermentation mistake.”

For the past hour and a half, Forkish hasn’t stopped moving. His pastry chefs showed up at 6 am, and they all dance around the tight space in the rush to get ready for the first customers. The smells of orange zest, raisins soaked in Earl Grey tea, and smoky Niman Ranch ham distract me, but not Forkish. My questions have already slowed him down, and he’s running a few minutes late.

“The Marriage of Figaro” blares from the speakers as Ken lifts a heavy plastic bin onto a flour-dusted table, pops off the lid, and inhales deeply the scent that fuels his obsession. The wheaty, clean freshness of raw flour is mingled with a sharp tang of alcohol and a slightly acidic bite from the levain. It’s a familiar smell reminiscent of a brewery or winery or your grandmother’s kitchen. He flips the wet dough out of the bin, divides it and starts shaping loaves.

Across the room a timer chirps, and he scurries back to the oven. With the doors open, Ken shines a flashlight into the heat to check the color, then extracts the morning’s first bread. The crust is a caramel brown, not the tawny gold of most other rustic breads. “The contrast between crust and crumb,” says Ken, “is the difference between good bread and great bread.”

Slicing into a loaf, you feel the crust crackle, but it’s not tough or too chewy. The crumb is soft, moist and riddled with the holes created by expanding fermentation gases. It has that yeasty, nutlike wheat taste typical of good rustic bread, but there’s another, deeper level of complex flavor that’s hard to pin down. It makes you want to keep eating.

Ken watches me chew the bread, and he can tell that I like it. His eyes crinkle up, and he grins. He starts to tell me about the balance of acidic flavors that come from the levain, the way hand-forming preserves the gluten structure, how even the scoring across the top of the loaves affects the outcome, but another timer goes off and he’s gone. Back to making great bread.

Verboort Sausage Festival

My first trip to Verboort for sausage was back in the 1970s. I wrote this sometime in the 1990s. It still happens the first Saturday in November (more info)

About this time of year, when leaves choke the gutters, the days shorten to a few brief hours of gray, and the cold wet wind reminds me that winter really is coming, I think of Verboort. Not the tiny Dutch-Catholic farming community itself, but its annual sausage feed, which always takes place the first Saturday in November. I can’t think of any better way to brace against the impending gloom than an afternoon of gluttony, and there’s no better place for that than Verboort.

Imagine a low-ceiling basement lined with long tables, every one filled with a cross-section of the Northwest population. You’re seated between Goretex and Polartec-clad singles from Beaverton and a grizzled logger from Cornelius, decked out in a clean but worn zip-front hickory shirt, jeans ‘staubbed’ off short, and slip-on Romeos. Despite the cultural disparity, you’re all focused on the same thing: a steaming platter of smoky sausages, part of the endless stream of food that issues from the noisy cafeteria kitchen. [Dinners are served in a newer dining hall these days. JD]

Along with the sausage there are bowls of sauerkraut like you never tasted, fluffy mashed potatoes with gravy, soft dinner rolls right from the oven, green beans grown a stone’s throw from where you sit, and applesauce made from this year’s crop of Gravensteins. This is comfort food for the long night of winter, food for hibernating. Just when you thik you can’t eat another bite, you’ll have to choose between lemon and apple pie.

The festival is the annual fund-raiser for the parish school, and every bit of food has been grown, donated, put up, or, in the case of the sausage, ground right here in Verboort. It all started in 1934, when church members made about 200 pounds of sausage and 10 gallons of sauerkraut for about 150 hungry neighbors. This year as many as 10,000 people will participate in the all-you-can-eat dinner, and for one Saturday in November this little community is packed as tight as the Sunset Highway at rush hour. You can expect to wait a bit, but there’s plenty to do.

Here’s how it works. Buy a numbered ticket, and check the tote board to see how far out you are. The ticket sellers can tell you about how long you’ll be waiting. Then choose an activity to pass the time. There’s a bingo game if you’re feeling lucky, or you can just buy a raffle ticket to win the product of the local quilting bee. The bake sale is tempting, but if you buy something save it for the next day (it may actually be several days before you’re ready to eat again). There are also homemade candies, Christmas ornaments, and house plants for sale, and school-carnival type games for the kids. Or you can wander through the old church and check out the stained glass and icons.

When your number’s up, hit the dining room. You’ll be seated with strangers, but most are friendly and anyway, there’s not much small talk because everyone’s eating. Sample everything but focus on the sausage and kraut. Forget about calories—you can do penance later, and besides, this food is only available one night out of the whole year.

Directions:

Drive out Highway 26 west toward Hillsboro. Take the North Plains exit, turn left (south), follow signs toward Forest Grove, and take a right on Zion Church Road (the first traffic light). When it ends, turn right again, and you’ll see the stand of big Sequoia trees that marks Verboort straight ahead. A farm boy will direct you to parking. For more information visit the Verboort homepage or call 503-357-3860.

If you can’t make the dinner, get up early and get some to go. Bulk sausage sales ($4/lb) begin at 9:00 am, but the line starts to form about 6:00 and the stuff’s usually gone by 11:00. Load up, it freezes well, and be sure to pick up a few quarts of kraut.