This is an objective account about what people eat in Oregon with a specific focus on the Willamette Valley.
To learn how Oregonians eat, a trip to the kitchen is a good place to start.
An Oregon kitchen’s mission in life is simple: to preserve the bounty of the summer seasons throughout the long rainy months of the year. Not surprisingly, the freezer plays the central role in this plot. Zip-lock bags full of frozen berries are stacked to the top against the back wall. Ice trays double as pesto holders, while old yogurt and hummus containers house frozen garden-grown tomato sauces. Bags of frozen vegetables are sometimes bags of real vegetables.
The kitchen pantry is second in command, and serves as a playground for Oregonians to earn their culinary stars and stripes. It features trophy shelves filled with glass jars showcasing the art of jamming, canning, preserving, pickling, fermenting and dehydrating. A “decked-out” pantry may even include a second refrigerator solely dedicated to kegs of home-brewed beer. The pantry is also the crossroads where Oregonians’ enthusiasm to preserve meets an equal commitment to anything healthy. Containers of quinoa, wheat berries, nutritional yeast, and various legumes have had shelves in homes here before the rest of the country had even heard of a Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s (it should be pretentiously noted that Oregonians began eating healthy and locally before it became popular).
The last sign of a fully functioning Oregon kitchen is the presence of bugs. A few flies here and crawling creatures there can indicate the presence of a fresh produce box from a local C.S.A. (Community Supported Agriculture), and a thriving compost bucket. Oregonians take pride in their compost, and are protective of the worms it contains.
The Willamette (“Will-lamb-et”) Valley is nestled between the Cascade Mountain Range and the Pacific Ocean. The Willamette River provides broad brushstrokes of rich soil throughout the area. This combined with the region’s wet and temperate climate provide the groundwork for the abundance of local produce.
Oregon cuisine rests on the shoulders of local ingredients rather than a few hallmark dishes. And what broad shoulders these ingredients have: James Beard, an Oregon native, and arguably the father of new American cuisine said, “The raw materials in the Northwest are probably among the greatest you find in the country.” It is these raw materials which bring flocks of chefs to Portland, with the praise of national food writers nipping at their heels. Some of the central ingredients include seafood, wild mushrooms, sweet onions, hazelnuts, and berries. And this is not even taking into account what is available to drink.
Oregonians may be stereotyped as coffee drinking liberals, but it is the wine and beer which hold their attention. Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris are particularly well-suited in the Willamette Valley’s moderate climate and iron-rich clay. Even Burgundy winemaking tycoon Robert Drouhin has set up shop in the vicinity, realizing Oregon’s burgeoning “new world” wine potential. Cooler weather wines like Riesling, Chardonnay and Gewurztraminer take root northeast on the Columbia River, while southern Oregon hosts warmer varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc. On the beer front, Oregon has long been home to a myriad of microbreweries. The Willamette Hops are used around the world for beer making. Recently, there has been a reinvigorated movement in the area towards featuring beers with strong “hoppy” characteristics, notably evident in local Indian Pale Ales (IPAs).
Similar to wine and beer, Oregonians take pride in their mushrooms. There are even festivals and 5K fun runs dedicated to these fungi. The mild and rainy weather promotes a plethora of mushroom varieties; from porcinis, oysters, matsutakes, and chanterelles, to lobsters, black trumpets, morels and wildly elusive truffles. When spring showers subside, it is not uncommon for Oregonian mycologists and amateurs alike to go on truffle hunting expeditions. Wild Mushrooms are frequently used as flavoring agents in sauces, soups and oils, but can also be the featured ingredient in a pâté, ravioli, risotto or along side a protein.
The hazelnut (commonly called the filbert in Oregon) is also an incredible flavoring agent and topping. After roasting and chopping it, it can add a rich complexity to vinaigrettes or a crunch to parfaits. Also, it can be used in breads, in brittles, or served whole with rosemary. During the October harvest, Oregonians are tripping over nut shells since nearly all of the United States’ hazelnut yield comes from the Willamette Valley.
Another complementary ingredient is the sweet onion. A small area of the Columbia River basin is designated a Walla Walla sweet onion region, but there are many other varieties throughout Oregon. The sweetness comes from reduced levels of sulfur present as compared to regular boiler onions. This shortage of sulfur also causes less crying for the chopper. Now that’s sweet! In early June, sweet onions resemble a chubby leek, but as summer passes their bulbs slowly balloon outwards. Unlike most onions, they can be consumed raw. Although some people eat them whole like apples, it’s best to cut them thin for salads, onion straws, burgers, and seafood.
Oregon’s large network of rivers and lakes combined with the Pacific Ocean help create a seafood lover’s paradise. There are salmon, trout, Albacore tuna, sole, Dungeness crab, shrimp, oysters, scallops, mussels, clams, prawns, catfish, scallops, sea bass…and the list goes on. True to Northwest gastronomy, many seafood dishes utilize simple preparation techniques and are served with other seasonal produce. The prevalent use of ginger, kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, sesame and other Asian seasonings with seafood affirm the reoccurring Pacific Rim influences in the cuisine.
If there is one reason to live in the Willamette Valley, it is the berries. As spring rains wane, the strawberry signals summer like a drum major, and the raspberry, blueberry and blackberry follow, marching in step throughout the season. Locals flock to “U-Pick” signs outside cities to fill their cardboard flats. While most of the yield is frozen or canned, it nice to reserve some berries for immediate bowls of cereal, sundaes, and of course, midnight snacking. Cobblers, muffins, tarts, pies and compotes can utilize the frozen berries.
Oregonians have a particular love-hate relationship with the blackberry. The blackberry plant is extremely invasive and can quickly take over a whole lawn if left unmanaged. And yet, this prickly and unsightly plant is redeemed one month a year with berries of divine credentials. At its peak, a blackberry should be mostly sweet but still mildly tart and its globes should burst like water balloons in your mouth. While I think the Hull blackberry epitomizes these qualities, the other varieties, including the marionberry, boysenberry, loganberry and Himalayan blackberry, are not far behind.
And there’s more. Oregon boasts over 250 crops, some of which look like cousins of familiar produce while others are simply unrecognizable. If you walk through Eugene’s Saturday Market on a summer day, you may come across some garlic whistles, gold raspberries, lemon cucumbers, and margarita melons among other novel produce. Simply put, a trip to a local farmers’ market is always more an investigation than a chore.
Ross Kanaga received a culinary degree from Le Cordon Bleu in Minnesota. He lives and grew up in Eugene, Oregon.