hang on, baby, 2015 is going to be a wild ride

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Happy New Year 2015!

What a wonderful gift the new year brings.  It kicks 2014, by most accounts a most miserable, stingy, and violent abuser of a year, out the door.  Let’s celebrate!

There are big things in store for me in 2015, and I’m thrilled to announce I’m making plans to become a better writer and photographer.

As you may know, I’ve been struggling with personal loss and injury for the past few years, and my life hasn’t been terrific.  My divorce and shift in teaching position at the university and the realities of this small town have made it so I can no longer live the life I had.  Nor do I really want it any more.

What I do want, I realized, is to live more fully and richly in the skin I feel most comfortable in, as a food and travel writer, so I can continue to bring stories of the north to all of you and discover more friends and colleagues in an even wider audience.

So I’m off to do it.  I’ll be leaving Eugene this summer and relocating closer to the city life that can feed my need to tell these stories. This means I’m losing my home, which is almost unspeakably difficult as one deeply in love with this place.

It also makes the continuation of my cherished issue, Culinaria Eugenius, an impossibility in its current form.  Culinaria Eugenius is the story of a place, and Eugene is the small hearth upon which I will no longer be able to warm my stories.   It’s rather scary, but I am confident that all my years with you have provided me a strong and everlasting flame that will fuel me wherever I go.  I’ve been writing this award-winning local food blog for almost seven years, nearly 1000 posts.  In its virtual pages, I have documented the dramatic change in the Eugene food scene and offered countless original recipes and stories about our local food shed.  It’s been a transformative experience, and I’m deeply thankful to all my readers who have joined me.

There’s still plenty of time before I make the final transition, so I hope you’ll continue to read my work.  You may know I maintain a Facebook feed for CE, which is far more active than the blog, and that I write a quarterly column for Eugene Magazine called “Eat, Drink, Think” (featuring local farmers and my favorite recipes using seasonal produce) and some features that appear there.  I’ve written in the past for other places, including NPR’s The Salt, Acres USA, and Gastronomica, as well as our two local newspapers.   I’ll still be teaching as an adjunct professor at the University of Oregon and other places, and will keep you informed about cooking classes and demos.

I’ve been writing more and more travel stories, interviews with cool Oregonians, and the latest in Northwest tastes for AAA’s Via magazine, work I really love and want to undertake in greater quantity.  I am working on a cookbook for single people, a food history book, and a number of articles that will be announced as soon as they find a home.  I’m also proud to say I’ll be interviewing Novella Carpenter and moderating a panel on Diana Abu-Jaber’s food writing at the CSWS Northwest Women Writers Symposium this spring.

To raise funds for the move and upcoming travel research, I’d love to hear from you if you have paid freelance needs for food features (writing or photography) or book reviews or judging gigs, and I’d be deeply appreciative if you could pass my name along to folks who might be interested in someone with this experience.  I am not only a writer and budding photographer, I’m an accomplished public speaker for both academic events and cooking demos, and an event organizer.  I have served as a panelist, panel moderator, interviewer, and judge at myriad venues, including for international book awards, our local Iron Chef competition, and academic panels in the U.S. and abroad. I’ve interviewed some of our brightest culinary lights on an NPR-affiliated food radio show (as a co-host for the late, much lamented Food for Thought on KLCC) and at live events, and have curatorial experience working with 600 years of rare books related to food history. The best email address is wellsuited at gmail dot com, and I’m happy to provide a full CV upon request.

May 2015 treat all of you, of us!, with the dignity and respect it should, and grant you the gift of good eating and great companionship.  Happy adventuring!

 

restaurants open for christmas in eugene 2014

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Looking for a roundup of restaurants open on Christmas?  I’m so thankful that Eugene Cascades and Coast continues to gather up a partial list of some eateries open Christmas and Christmas Eve 2014.  This year, I noticed more Florence and Junction City places on the list, and fewer places listed for Christmas.  Please note that these restaurants are also open on Christmas, among others:

  • Kung Fu Bistro
  • Sizzle Pie
  • Izakaya Meiji
  • SweetWaters on the River
  • House of Chen
  • Sixth Street Grill
  • Empire Buffet
  • Rennie’s
  • Centennial Steak House (Springfield)

If you’re looking to volunteer or have a low-cost meal, see this useful handout from 2012. Some info will have changed, but it’s a good start.

 

cider pressing in da hood

IMG_8915 The Friendly neighborhood was the recipient of a Eugene neighborhood grant for fruit tree gleaning, processing, and educating this year, thanks to Matt Lutter and his partner, Jessica Jackowski, who also organizes work days for the exemplary Common Ground Garden, a neighborhood community garden staffed by volunteers. The Friendly Fruit Tree Project has spent the last month harvesting neighborhood trees and plants like crazy: blackberries, plums, apples, pears, etc., etc.

IMG_8912Last week, it was apples.  Amber gold.  Oregon T.  They managed to source an unused cider press in someone’s shed, and we all pitched in and took home some great cider to share! Using the press was much easier than I had expected; it’s a relatively simple operation, with a motorized rotor on one end to grind the apples and a hand-powered press to crank down the juice.  Apple bits got composted.  No waste, very little muss, very little fuss.

And of course, it was a brilliant way to connect with likeminded urban homesteading folks in the ‘hood: we shared cider recipes, taste-tested beet kvasses and hippie cookies, grumbled about grapes (ok, that was me), and watched apple-cheeked kids running around like monkeys.  What a wonderful paradise we live in.

See the full album here, and if you’re interested in taking part or spreading the word about the project, comment and I’ll make sure Matt gets your info.  It would be wonderful if other Eugene neighborhoods could get in on the gleaning action, since it’s such a service to those with unused fruit and to those who want to do the labor to share in the harvest.

The project was also the source of my prune plums for my recent lekvar undertaking, coming soon to a blog post near you.

on being unreasonable in food critiques: a tale of two hamburgers

IMG_8828I occasionally check in on a big online local food group’s discussion threads.  As they are wont to do, the discussions flare up and people get offended at others’ opinions, especially if they are seen as damaging to local establishments or exhibiting socioeconomic privilege or unacceptable politics or perceived “snobbery.”  These places provide local jobs, the outcry goes, we should support them no matter what!  Keep any negative opinions to yourself or go whisper it personally to the manager!  Not all of us eat caviar and champagne every day!

No.

As consumers who vote with our dollars in a local economy that is still heavily dependent on word-of-mouth and habit, we should be actively and publicly and vociferously supporting the good restaurants, and actively and loudly calling out the bad ones on their badness. But to do so without namecalling or resorting to empty cheerleading for your “team” (as we do in this one-team town) is crucial.

So here’s my advice.  Be reasonable in your food critiques.

1)  Use the skills you should have learned in your college or high school English composition class: explain how and why you believe what you do, and provide evidence that supports your case.*

Without exception, the good places are places with chefs who are intimately involved with a dynamic menu and have great palates, creative and innovative spirits, and a need to be in the kitchen and serve the unwashed masses.  In almost every single case I can think of, that means supporting a local restaurant in Eugene that relies on local products, local distribution, and sustainable ethics insofar as the price point can maintain it.  And there are plenty of good ones to support.

There are also plenty of bad ones.  Yes, there are the ones meant to be lower cost, and there’s a place for that.  The portions may be huge for so-called “value,” and the food isn’t seasoned well, if it is even what you ordered.  To take one example, I ordered a burger at a mom-n-pop place the other night, and they still messed up the order after I heard no less than FIVE repetitions of what I wanted (from me twice, the server once, and the cooks on the line twice, plus it was written on the ticket).

But I was hungry and the kitchen was slammed and it was getting dark and I was on my bike, so I just said fine, I’ll scrape off the barbecue sauce and ignore the cheese and just eat this mountain of breaded-and-too-salty french fries from a freezer bag. I’m also not going to go on Yelp and whine about it, since I wasn’t expecting much and I got less but it turns out the ticket was written poorly and I chose not to have the order re-fired.  There was no safety issue and no one was out of line.  If I go again (and that’s a big if), I’ll just make sure the order is right.  I ain’t fussed.

But I am (is?) fussed when a restaurant whose soul is like the burger joint tries to pass itself off as an expensive locavore joint.  Using industrial frozen crap in a bag, not getting orders right, sacrificing local produce and quality ingredients to increase the slim profit margin, and struggling along with an absentee owner or executive chef and cooks who don’t taste the food or know what combinations work and little training for the front of the house, but still calling the menu locally sourced and fresh and the restaurant high-end.  I’ll pay $9 to suffer all that plus a high school server who is busier making eyes at the bartender than writing down an order properly, but I won’t pay $39.

And neither should you.

2)  The key for a good review is a customer who knows the difference.  Learn how to cook.  Yeah, I know you’re busy.  But education is always a sacrifice, and your body/family/farmers/planet will thank you for it.  You can choose to eat most of your meals out at cheap places if you aren’t rich.  I’d argue it’s better to save your money and use it on better places less frequently, but clearly I don’t take my own advice, as you see from the anecdote above. Nevertheless, it’s important to know the difference with your eyes and mouth between cheap, mass-produced food and good food.

Don’t patronize the places that serve you cheap food and provide cheap service for expensive prices AND, contrariwise, don’t expect places that serve you high quality food and provide good service to give you massive, gluttonous portions and act like you’re both in a chain restaurant in the mall.

And when places underwhelm you for the prices they’re charging for the quality (note again: quality not quantity since you’re not eating from a trough) of food, call them out when they do.  The reason why some of our crappy overpriced local restaurants are still in business is because (a) most people don’t know how good our fresh local food can be because they’re used to eating mass-produced products; (b) very few people who know about food say anything because they’re in the business and afraid of offending someone they may be working for someday; and (c) we live in a town where inertia helps us along and no one likes conflict or sounding too opinionated.

3)  Another thing to keep in mind is that we’re trained as Americans, as Westerners, and as Oregonians to “have it your way.”  We value individual choices so strongly it’s sometimes hard to get out of our own little bubble when we’re judging others.  So be reasonable with your tastes when you’re critiquing a local restaurant.

To return to my hamburger example, I know I am idiosyncratic with burgers.  The burger depicted above is how I like my burgers:  a crusty toasted roll, extra dill pickles dripping their dill juice into the meat, and more ketchup than burger so the whole thing is falling apart.  I even dip it in more ketchup.  Without a doubt, folks will find this completely gross and a BBQ cheeseburger far more preferable.  Where’s the special sauce?  Or Jesus, at least add some mayo and lettuce!

But no.  I just so happen to have odd tastes in burgers.  And I know this.  So you’ll rarely see me commenting on burger joints or even ordering a burger in mixed company, especially at a nice restaurant.  I know this and account for it:  I act like a 5-year-old with burgers and get surly when stuff like nasty yellow mustard or a raw onion touches my ketchuppicklefest, because my burger training was at fast food joints.  Now, of course, I make my own ketchup and pickles and eat beef ground to my specification from a local cow and form the patties myself, so I’m even worse than your average McDonald’s hamburger type.

In short, I am a hamburger douchebag.  I know this.  I protect others from the madness.  There’s probably even some residual shame in this that makes me do stuff like scrape off barbecue sauce on a misfire than insist I have my order the way I wanted it; who knows.

Do you act like a douchebag with your food tastes?  Complaining about a restaurant’s menu based on your own idiosyncratic needs is not reasonable.  If you’re gluten-free, for example, why are you in a bakery?  Can’t abide greasy food?  Get outta the pizza joint.  You only eat burgers and nothing else?  Heaven help you.  The seasonality of local ingredients, higher labor, and chef’s vision in more expensive places dictates that you can’t always have it your way.  That’s part of what you’re signing up for when you choose to go to a good restaurant.  If the menu is huge and offers concessions for every fathomable dietary restriction du jour, it’s going to come out in quality elsewhere.  So respect the genre of the restaurant you’re critiquing if you want to promote your own agenda, or better yet, be reasonable about your expectations.

One can be opinionated and reasonable.  Really.  I’ve seen it work.  I think it’s working now, actually, because in the past seven years I’ve seen drastic and wonderful changes in the Eugene dining scene, changes for the better.  And it isn’t because people blindly supported local establishments and kept their opinions to themselves.  Local restaurants are reading comments and listening to their customers.  You’ll be a respected critic if you state your opinions from an intelligent and understanding position, and back up your impressions with proof. You’ll still probably be attacked and called names, but that reflects on the commenter, not you.

* Why yes, I am an English professor by trade.  How can you tell?

i say plum and paste tomatoes

IMG_8629 Visual only! Don’t even dream of canning these wonderful ‘Ananas Noire’ tomatoes on view at the farmers market last Saturday at Ruby and Amber’s Organic Oasis.

IMG_8624 These guys?  Probably not.  Very much slicers, too, in my book.

Paste tomatoes are the bane of the gardener/canner’s existence, I’m feeling more and more.  They taste bad, they’re prone to blossom-end rot, and they take forever to ripen.  I’ve tried a number of varieties, always seeking that nirvana of good flavor and robust health, but every one seems to have its significant downside.  Every year I end up supplementing my significant acreage (ok, one super long row) with purchased plum tomatoes.

IMG_8620Plums are gorgeous and long-lived when they’re grown properly, especially the new striped and black hybrids, but the taste doesn’t advance beyond mediocre.  Although I strongly disapprove of adding bottled lemon juice when processing tomatoes, I kind of think it doesn’t matter when you’re using plums, since there’s no flavor to begin with.  Regular ‘Roma’ tomatoes are useless, and ‘San Marzanos’ are particularly awful here in the Willamette Valley.  People insist on buying them, since they are the Italian variety everyone knows as quality, but they just taste like cardboard in and out of the jar.

IMG_8619So what’s a local girl to do?  Keep searching for better varieties for our region.  I grew ‘Saucey’ for several years.  In 2014 my biggest success is a grafted plant of ‘Jersey Devil,’ which may be a new offering from Log House this year. They have a very pleasant little tail at the end and turn bright red, just like Satan.  They didn’t crap out like my highly anticipated ‘Orange’ and ‘Black Icicles’.

But paste tomatoes, in my opinion, are better than plums, but still prone to diva behavior.  They’re the ones that are not necessarily elongated and hollow/seedy in the middle, but may be more heart-shaped and solid flesh with very few seeds.  They will be a bit more liquidy at first than plums, but cook down nicely and produce a much more flavorful sauce.  I’ve posted many times about ‘Amish Paste,’ so I won’t go into it here, but the 1-pound tomatoes I get from the good strain of this plant (i.e., not the small tomato strain), are excellent.  Farmer Anthony Boutard recommended it to me several years ago, and he’s since moved on to his own ‘Astiana’ line plucked from a market in the Piedmont region of Italy.  I’ve yet to haul my preoccupied behind up to Hillsdale to get in on some of that ‘Astiana’ action.

IMG_8623Heart-shaped, solid tomatoes are also good for sauce.  One possibility for me this year might be these ‘Reif Red Hearts’, spotted last weekend next to the ‘Ananas Noires’. They look quite promising indeed as a sauce tomato, from what I’ve read on the internets.

IMG_8618As for local plums, and there are better varieties than ‘San Marzano,’ like ‘Scipio’, which was good last year from Sweetwater Farm, and these fat and gorgeous ‘Opalka’ plums from Mountain View Farm in Junction City.

Another possibility to consider are the good ol’ round canning tomatoes, like the all-purpose Moskovich, again from Ruby and Amber’s stand at the market.

IMG_8625What varieties are you picking, buying, and canning this year?

niblets: the more things change, the more things stay the same edition

IMG_8671Niblets is an all-too-occasional feature on the ins and outs of the Eugene food scene. Syndicate me?  You know you want to.  Or, if you don’t own a magazine or newspaper or media outlet, join Facebook and friend me there for updates about many more local events than I can post here on the blog.

Today, it’s all about Olivo Tapas.  We had an achingly delicious meal there yesterday, reminiscent of times past at Soubise and Rabbit Bistro.  Chef Alejandro Cruz was trained by Chef Gabe Gil, and it shows in his flavors, presentation, details, and sheer joy in the kitchen.  We opted for the chef’s tasting menu and watched him in the open kitchen smiling his way through the service.  Such a lovely thing to behold, a man who loves to cook and does it well.

The menu was at once unusual and comforting, “relateable,” as my students might say.  We had two oysters with a slightly spicy lemon-tabasco granita to start that were delicious but could have been even colder.  I’ve grown obsessed with icy oysters in my old age; not sure what’s up with that.  The oysters were followed by that sublime combination of watermelon and tomato, kept lively by little bits of cured salmon and pecorino and basil, then a perfectly fresh medium rare fan of albacore with a green olive sauce on squash succotash (corn, tomatoes, and a surprise of summer chanterelles).  Colors and flavors popped all over the place. Pork belly over slightly too al dente white beans was utterly enchanted by cilantro; I didn’t want the plate to end.  As my dining companion said, “I could go for a do-over on this!”

And the best of all?  The pictured dessert.  Like a molecular gastronomist’s dream of a deconstructed crisp with cream, oh my.  Pecorino custard with charred peaches and crumbled cinnamon Japanese-pan churros (which I happened to recognize because Masa gave me a taste last time I was there).  So. Good. Sigh.

The menu’s available all weekend, so hurry down and try it.  Nice, simple wine list, too (we sampled very different but equally good glasses of white bordeaux and pinot gris.  Maybe when it’s ready they’ll add this year’s William Rose rosé?

Check out my photo album for more snaps of the fabulous food and more information about the restaurant.

We also stopped by the new Oregon Electric Station for a quick cocktail before dinner. Charming host and barkeeps trying hard. I was delighted to run into bartender James West there, who will be presiding over the smaller bar with a specialty menu in the east room off the main dining hall, open officially on Monday.  I’ll be glad to see him back in action.  Food menu for the OES?  Well, it’s large and varied, with an unfortunate collection of customer favorites from the old OES (think coconut shrimp, or rather don’t).  Happy to see several varieties of ‘carpaccio’ offered, including beef, salmon, beet, and lobster.  And more types of fettucine alfredo than one can shake a stick at.  Way too much Maine lobster for a local restaurant with access to Dungeness crab, IMO, and ahi instead of albacore tuna (egads, in season!) but let’s give them a chance to learn our local.

I haven’t had the chance to patronize the new Elk Horn Brewery, run by Chef Stephen Sheehan of Delacata, because it was overrun by fans in its first few days of business.  I’ll wait for the chaos to settle, but I admire them for putting an elk burger on the menu with all their fried delicacies.

IMG_8569I *have* had the chance to eat sweet corn honey butter ice cream in this neverending-nineties weather.  The patio at Friendly Street Market is the nicest casual outdoor dining space I’ve seen in a while in this little ol’ town, and Red Wagon Creamery’s new scoopery inside the market is perfect.

And last but not least: I’ve urged you to always get the specials, especially the fish tacos, but the sangria special at Tacovore is a must-try.  It’s the best sangria I’ve had in a long time.  Thanks, bartender Amy Hand!

lane county fair 2014

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I’m a big fan of the county fair.  You can see the entire set of my photos here.  This was the first year I’ve been able to go and wander at my leisure, neither being in a wheelchair nor overscheduled, as I have been in past fairs.  And it wasn’t 90 degrees yesterday, another big plus.

If you do go, be sure to see the animals the 4-H kids have raised and all the exhibits indoors.  That’s really what the fair’s about, not the Zipper and deep-fried candy.  We’re struggling to keep the Lane County Extension 4-H programming alive due to budget cuts, so awareness and appreciation of all the good things that come from agriculture and animal husbandry education are essential.  All the baking, preservation, art, and gardening exhibits include kids’ divisions.

IMG_8197 IMG_5879 IMG_5988I noticed this year’s fair has a slightly — slightly — more conservationist quality to it.  Didn’t see the religious trailer “ARE YOU GOING TO HEAVEN?!” and there were only a few Confederate flags flying next to the gay pride and legalize pot ones.  And there was a family farm booth.  Plus, of course, the Master Food Preservers, Master Gardeners, book vendors, and MECCA’s reuse booth.  And education about the environment and animals via the parrot pirate and the sea lion show…well, there’s that.

PS.  Note to roasted corn boss: let the servers roast the corn properly.  It was only roasted on the outside, and corn, like life, is improved with a little char. Love, CE.