Monday, June 21, 2010

Author Interview: Liz Crain

Liz Crain is the author of the brand new, must-have book: The Food Lover's Guide to Portland. I have been dreaming about this book ever since I heard rumor of it a few months back.  I was lucky enough to read tidbits from the electronic version, and have been trolling Liz's mouthwatering website for more appetizers.  But I cannot wait to get my hands on the real thing when it comes out next week.

See here for details on the book launch party and other upcoming events.  The book is available from amazon, Powell's Barnes & Nobel, and IndieBound, as well as several bookstores.  If you live in Portland, are planning a visit, or just like foodie books, this is the book for you.

Even amid the hullabaloo of promoting her book, Liz was gracious enough to answer several questions about her book, writing, Portland, and food:

How did you come to write the Food Lover’s Guide to Portland?

I'd been writing about food and drink in Portland for five years when I decided I wanted to write a book about Portland food culture. At the time I was interning at Hawthorne Books in Portland, where I'm now an editor, and part of my time at Hawthorne was spent sifting through submissions. That gave me a push in the right direction. I did my research on regional food books as well as publishers and decided to propose a book to Sasquatch Books in Seattle. They’d published The Food Lover's Guide to Seattle by Katy Calcott in 2001 with a second edition in 2004 so I thought they might want a similar title for Portland. I was right.

Do you have a culinary background? Or are you an amateur enthusiast?

I’m 33 years old and from the age of 16 on the majority of jobs that I've had have been in food service -- everything from cooking and catering to serving and vending. That said, I don't have serious kitchen chops, I don't own a toque, I don't have a culinary degree. I just love food -- cooking, eating, cultivating and writing about it.

You pack the book with information on hundreds of local producers, purveyors, distillers, bakers, food carts, and farmers markets -- how did you do all the research necessary? Did you eat and drink everything you wrote about?

I ate and drank a lot of what I wrote about but it wasn't too over the top. The fact that my book focuses on producers and purveyors as opposed to restaurants and bars slimmed consumption a bit. Some days I'd conduct three in-person, hour-plus long interviews and then head to my studio to sift through and transcribe them, other days I'd roll around town visiting specialty shops, food carts, ethnic markets and more with my trusty notebook, digital recorder and camera. When I did tours and interviews I was often sampling as we went along and a lot of times folks sent me home with food and drink but it never felt too overindulgent.

How would you describe the foodie culture in Portland? Has it changed in the past few years? Decades?

I can only speak about PDX food culture from 2002 on because that's when I moved here. Of course, I have a sense about what it was like before then but I'm no expert. I think there is a lot that sets Portland apart food-wise but I think that location and a strong DIY ethic are most important.

Portland is surrounded by fertile farmland and diverse growing regions and it’s situated in the Willamette Valley where everything from kiwis and cardoons to hazelnuts and wine grapes grow well. The culinary culture here is also defined by by-the-bootstraps folks and businesses. Portland is flooded with incredible food carts, farmers markets, food festivals, specialty markets and more. Food and drink made the hard way, no shortcuts, local ingredients.

What did you learn from writing your book that most surprised you?

That it's hard to type with a bandaged finger! I sliced off the tip of my right ring finger in the spring of 2009 slicing vegetables on my kitchen mandolin and it was a great excuse to further delay the writing of the book. And I definitely delayed.

I think the only thing that I'd try to do differently with a book in the future is not save so much of the writing until the end. But that's hard to train out. I do what I do because I'm curious and I love learning about food and drink culture, cultivation and craft. It's always hard for me to put the breaks on the research and start writing.

Are there any events coming up to promote the Food Lover’s Guide?

There is a lot slated. I'll tell you about a few but I'd also like to let your readers know that my website has a good list of book events and coverage. Events that I'm excited about include my book launch party at Fortune Tattoo from 6-9pm on July 1st, a book reading and food panel at the Downtown Powell's at 7:30pm on August 2nd, a similar event at In Good Taste at 2pm on July 10th, as well as the Mississippi Avenue Street Fair on the morning of the same day July 10th. I'll be tabling at the fair with Paul Gerald, author of Breakfast in Bridgetown from 10am-noon I think.

What’s next? Are you working on your next book?

I've got some ideas and a couple are collaborations that I'm excited about. I'm not sure which project or projects will take the cake but for now I'm happy freelancing, continuing my work as an editor at Hawthorne, and making a bit of time for my own creative writing. Another book will come, just not sure what yet.

Do you like to read food-related books? What are some of your favorites?

Oh yeah. In no particular order I love James Beards' Delights and Prejudices, MFK Fisher's The Gastronomical Me, Julia Child and Alex Prud'homme's My Life in France, Nigel Slater's Toast, Sandor Ellix Katz's Wild Fermentation, Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential, Judith Jones' The Tenth Muse, Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilema to name a few. I also love to read cookbooks especially older ones.

Can you tell us your favorite Portland restaurants?

That's a difficult question for two reasons--there are so many and I don't like to endorse. The way around that is I'll tell you several restaurants and food carts that I've been loving lately on a regular basis but I won't say favorite: Tanuki, Andina, BeWon, Little Red Bike, Evoe, The Frying Scotsman, Gruner, Eat Oyster Bar, Pok Pok, Nicholas, Taste of Jakarta, and The Big Egg.

Do you predict any changes coming in Portland’s culinary scene? Any trends in the making? Anything you would like to see happen?

In terms of dining in the past few years we've seen an upsurge in sandwich shops, burger bars and food carts to name a few. Those all read to me as affordable, lowbrow and fast. I think we'll see more of the same type of businesses opening in Portland -- small, low overhead, minimal menu, but really good and affordable food and drink.

My two biggest wants in terms of restaurants and carts are more seafood options and more late night dining options. These both lack in Portland. I'm not sure why we don't have more seafood restaurants although spoilage is certainly a factor. Seafood is just so freaking perishable and short lived in the walk-in.

Portland's late night dining is helped and hindered by the OLCC. All bars have to have hot and cold food available so that's competition for late-night restaurants. I'd sort of love to open a Cincinnati chili parlor. That's where I'm from and I swear by it. I want more late night slice shops, gyro spots, diners, whatever. Just more.

In terms of ingredients, which is what my book is all about I think that we'll see a lot more monomaniacal shops in the years to come. At least I hope so. By that I mean hyper-focused food or drink shops such as an all-sake bottle shop, an all fermented food shop, a house-smoked foods shop. We already have a salt shop, cheese shops, spice shops, chocolate shops etc. Portland supports entrepreneurial passion with a strong buy local ethic and celebration of unique products so these businesses survive.

One last thing: I hope with all hope that we get Ron Paul's James Beard Public Market -- a year-round covered outdoor public food and drink market. That would make me very happy.



  1. Great interview! I lived in Portland for a year and loved the food scene up there! This book and interview really reminds me of that time.

  2. apple blossom -- Thanks! I enjoyed visiting your blog today!

    Amused -- Glad you liked it! I am lucky to live in such a foodie city. I'm hoping this book with help me find some of the hidden nooks and crannies (or more likely, carts) I've missed so far.

  3. Terrific interview! I have never even been to Portland, though I'd love to visit. I wonder about the prevalence of organic farming/organic produce and food in Portland. Is it the standard or the exception?

  4. I enjoyed reading the interview, and this sounds like a good book. I've lived in Oregon all my life, yet when I've visited Portland it has usually been with things other than eating in mind. I was counting, and I think I've only eaten dinner in Portland three times (other than at the airport), yet we've visited far more often than that. It's nice to know that there's a resource like this book available.

  5. Suko -- Thanks! Portland really, really takes food seriously. I'd say organic is the norm. Even the "regular" grocery stores have big organic sections, not just the "Gucci groceries."

    Alyce -- Next time you are in Portland, you need to stay long enough to eat! And not just at the airport, although there are a couple of local restaurants with outposts at the airport that are very good, like my favorite sausage place, Good Dog, Bad Dog.

  6. Sorry it took all week to return the visit. This is a different and interesting interview. I have always thought Oregon must be a beautiful place.
    BTW- I totally get your comment about spending time organizing lists! I do that too and then there is time organizing the bookshelves and the boxes... never ending!


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