Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Mmm, food

A good example of why I live in Portland, thousands of miles away from home as it may be.

I like food. A lot. I love it for how it tastes, how it makes you feel when you eat it, how it represents a place. PR is in some ways defined for me by the foods I had easy access to there. Mangoes are silky but sticky, and eating them fresh and whole (not cubed up into some kind of salsa or mixed into a smoothie) is an entirely decadent affair: you'll feel like a mess, but you'll be happy you got down and dirty. Quenepas, with the gooey, sweet pulp covering a pit small enough to fit in your mouth but large enough to choke you if you're not careful, make you feel like you're playing a dangerous game: one false move, and that stone will be going places you don't want it to go. Because you can often find them being sold by the side of the road, they are often eaten in the car. Watch out for those road bumps.

Guava, passionfruit, breadfruit, yucca, yam, sweet potato, recao, cilantro, my beloved plantain. I can find many of these over in these parts, although sometimes worse for wear after a long journey. When you know what they taste like in their own environment, fresh and ready for plucking, you have a completely different idea of what these foods can really be. In PR, they may sometimes be taken for granted because of their easy availability, but that changes once you actually take a bite. No matter how many times you may have tasted these foods, the minute you taste them you close your eyes and think "That's the stuff". And then you're reminded of how good you have it.

I have traveled to a few countries here and there, and I've found that many other places share the same relationship with food that Puerto Ricans have: respect for local ingredients, and very particular ideas on how best to treat and serve them. The US has been a bit of a different experience: it's not that nowhere in this country can you find people who love and respect food, as evidenced by the rabid discussion of what makes good barbeque, or the devotion some people show to making the best pie. I find this kind of attitude to be more regional, and not necessarily shared by the country at large. I have always argued that homogeneity of thought throughout a country as large as the US is near-impossible, and I think attitudes toward food certainly fall into that category. In many places, what is thought to be more convenient and fast trumps any other consideration -- and in the land of fast food chains, there is a particular of idea of what constitutes convenient and fast. I feel that this has led to people shying away from real food, and actually getting down to the business of dealing with it hands-on, and this has come at the expense of a more personal and fulfilling relationship with what we consume.

Portland has felt, especially in the last five years or so, as a little enclave that has not only avoided that point of view, but actively tried to eradicate it. The city is surrounded by working farms, and from it come meat, produce, dairy, wines, etc. It's a veritable bounty. And people here have certainly noticed this, judging by the many farmer's markets that can be found around town. It's easier here than in other places to become attuned to what is actually in season; it's so easy to forget, since many foods can be found year-round in the supermarkets regardless of whether they are in season locally (or anywhere else, for that matter). Some local chefs have noticed this, and what started as a town that had a few restaurants that recognized the idea of eating seasonally and locally has become a town that is developing a closer, hands-on relationship to food. Also, with a growing number of people moving here from other places, Portland has started to feel a bit more worldly. That combination has yielded some of the best restaurants I have ever had the pleasure to try. In fact, Le Pigeon, the one pictured in the articled I linked to above is among of my top 3 favorites anywhere, and Pok Pok, another restaurant mentioned, has items on the menu such as a curry soup and fish-sauce chicken wings that sometimes drift in front of my eyes at random moments. On my first visit to Le Pigeon, we sat at a counter that faces the kitchen. I ordered a pig's tail soup, and was tempted to pick up the tail and eat it right there; however, I felt a bit embarassed to do so in public (at home it would have been another story). The chef noticed, and urged me to go ahead and pick it up, because "that's the kind of joint this is". That's my kind of joint, too.

1 comment:

Wilfredo said...

I’ve always said it… I will die by the mouth… like a fish… I looove food too!