I was heading to Portland, Oregon — America’s hipster haven — to take in the inaugural Project Pabst, a weekend-long music festival from the makers of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Despite Pabst Brewing Company’s recent sale to a Russian owner, PBR, the post-ironic beer ne plus ultra, seemed perfectly suited to Portland. Home of semi-constant rain, famed locavore cuisine and an unparalleled density of bearded baristas, Portland is no bland Anywhere, USA to be experienced from the tedious safety of a chain motel. With notebooks, recording equipment and research in hand, this middle-aged, tea-drinking Yorkshireman was ready for his ethnographic adventure.
But there were three pieces of bad news even before I headed for the airport. First, it wasn’t going to rain at all during the weekend, so I wouldn’t be able to see Portlandians in their natural, slightly drizzled, state. Second, Friday night’s festival anchor, Guided by Voices, had split the week before the festival, leaving Friday night’s program flapping (and one Brazilian journalist heartbroken in an airport). Third, Saturday night’s anchor, Tears For Fears, whose 1983 tape cassette The Hurting I was still clutching, 31 years after buying it — the band I was flying across a continent and a generation to see — had refused my request for an interview.
The weather had been beautiful in New York. My little girls had been highly huggable all week. The day I left we hung out and they were only slightly annoying because — quintessential homebods — they wanted to go back to the apartment rather than walk around, eat and play outside in the sun. Why would I sacrifice this time with them and burden my supportive wife with their care just to throw myself on the tender mercies of America’s Transportation Safety Administration and the reliability of United Airlines? Why would I spend the best part of $1,000 on a freelance writing trip that the subject didn’t want me to do and which I couldn’t get an editor to assign?
Sitting talking to a head-scarfed woman in a wheelchair at the airport gate I resolved to be positive. A slight soccer injury made me wary of hiring a bicycle in Portland but otherwise I was hale, free of responsibilities (and, in lieu of paid assignment, free from commitment) and on a trip of self-fulfillment to tie up a childhood loose end. I would be able to make a pilgrimage to Powell’s legendary bookstore in satisfaction of a decade-long obligation to my love of books. Plus I was in possession of many good food recommendations from my friends Devra Ferst at Eater and Michael Kaminer at the New York Daily News. Time to stop whining and start dining. Next stop Ned Ludd [nedluddpdx.com].
Portland’s MAX Light Rail service snuggles right up into the PDX airport. No heaving of bags up and down hither and yon, just go past the baggage pickup, turn right and the MAX Red Line is there waiting for you. If your United Airways flight (snacks and pre-packed meals for sale) arrives on time at 7.40pm, you can take your single backpack out of the overhead rack and be in time to eat a leisurely dinner at owner-chef Jason French’s American craft kitchen that “draws from the bounty of Oregon, the Northwest and greater West Coast region.”
United didn’t let me down, nor did the MAX and, choosing to forego the 6 bus up Martin Luther King Boulevard, I stretched my legs up the unprepossessing boulevard. Passing the Nike factory store as it locked out its final visitors I checked my email and saw I’d received a response to a Hail Mary email I’d sent to a friend of a friend of Curt Smith’s manager. I tapped out an immediate note while checking out the delicious looking Ox (“Wild Alaskan Halibut on the Bone, Toasted Garlic & Lemon… $35”), “I am hoping to have a word or two with Curt and Roland in Portland. I live in NYC but I’m here in Portland specifically to see TFF and am available anytime to speak to them. Either email me or call/text at this number, I can get anywhere in Portland at short notice…”
I arrived at Ned Ludd a little flustered and feeling like the sort of customer I despised when I waited tables: an entitled single person with a number of bags and a limitless amount of time for meaningless chatter. But I was in the right place. An unfussy and airy room with high ceilings made the spider plants and bric a brac seem homely rather than cluttered. The other patrons seemed older than I was, which meant they were probably my age. The waiters all seemed like as if younger friends of mine from New York had decided to stop being journalists, academics, law students and put plaid shirts on over jeans to work in a restaurant. I asked for help choosing a beer.
On their recommendation I got a pFriem IPA, brewed by the pFriem Family Brewers at Hood River, Oregon. I didn’t ask about that leading lower case “p,” it seemed relatively silent and I didn’t want to be that needy, over-eager lone-diner. It was a crisp tangy beer, not quite as the dark as the IPAs I usually go for, but at $6 perfect to cut the post flight blah feeling of dislocation and quench the thirst I’d worked up on my walk.
I have learned that asking for specific staff recommendations and then disregarding them can make customers seem like assholes. So when I asked for recommendations I tried to be specific about my needs “fish-eating vegetarian,” my allergies “no nuts” and my preferences “something that’s particular to here, the Northwest, Ned Ludd, something I wouldn’t normally get or try.” And I tried to explain my final choice lightly and without even unintentional sarcasm: people can spit in food as easily in Portland as in New York City.
I began with a salad featuring “shungiku.” I’d have chosen it just for that. They had me at “shungi.” This was a trip of discovery and here I was about to munch on shungiku, whatever that was. Mostly the salad was crunchy watermelon and good salty feta liberally sprinkled with lemon juice. Shungiku, it turns out, is edible chrysanthemum leaves deployed mostly as a less parsley-ish garnish, and as an alternative crispness to the melon. Delicious.
And then, avoiding the Northwest salmon because I eat a lot of salmon, wood-fired whole trout with charred leeks covered with carrots and… are those daikon? Oh my goodness, so good. The trout was small but meaty and salty and tasty: the trees that died to cook this fish gave of their souls to its savoury flesh. The leeks hiding under the fish were small and tender. The carrot layer strewn over the top was either raw or very lightly steamed and cut into sliver-thin discs with a rice vinegar tang.
Yes, locavore cuisine can be sanctimonious, and yes the faux-lumberjack thing can seem a little forced (the Ned Ludd icon is a woodprint of an axe) but when you draw a frame around art or food you ask to be judged on the product, no matter what the frame. And if it stands up, it stands up.
Discretion being the better form of valour I courteously declined the dessert menu and relaxed on a full stomach. Anxiously checking my email — to no avail — I retreated to my hotel via the number 6 bus, MAX and hotel shuttle. Perhaps it was best that I hadn’t heard from the band. What would I ask them anyway: “How did you haunt my childhood?” Over the decades they have seemed as little interested in the celebrity culture of pop stardom as I have. But maybe I was just rationalizing away my fear of actually talking to them and substituting gastronomy for cowardice. After all, the very name Tears For Fears tells you that this is the band whose identity is based on facing your nightmares squarely.
I put my bags on the cleanest piece of furniture I could find, brushed my teeth and got into bed while trying to avoid touching the top blankets which, a hotel insider website had assured me, are never washed. I grabbed “The Hurting” from the side pocket of my backpack. When I first bought the cassette from HMV in Leeds, next to Marks & Spencer and around the corner from where I would discover the Whitelocks pub a few years later , I was barely older than the child with his head in his hands on the cover. I read the song listing from the cassette and, with no player but my memory, their haunting tunes played me to sleep.
Read part 2 here.
The first in a series. Photographs courtesy of the author.