Posted on July 19th, 2013
(Adapted from the upcoming Portland: A Food Biography [Fall 2014])
The infant city called The Clearing was a bald patch amid a stuttering wood. The Clearing was no booming metropolis, no destination for gastrotourists, no career-changer for ardent chefs — just awkward, palsied steps toward Victorian gentility. In the decades before the remaining trees were scraped from the landscape, however, Portland’s wood was still a verdant breadbasket, overflowing with huckleberries and chanterelles, venison leaping on cloven hoof.
“The surroundings of the city were … still wild, and the shattered forests seemed excessively rude, having no more the grace and stateliness of nature, and having not yet given away altogether to the reign of art,” recalled newspaperman and historian Harvey Whitefield Scott in his 1890 History of Portland, Oregon, with Illustrations and Biographical Sketches. Harvey Scott (for whom the dormant Portland volcano Mt. Scott was named) did not realize his understatement; Portland has altogether given herself away to the reign of culinary art. In the areas surrounding the city, the breadbasket yet remains.
In the beginning, there was no Clearing. Palustrine meadows typified the pre-European Willamette Valley, and the Greater Portland Metro area was once a vast expanse of ash swales and cattail sloughs that snaked through the thick, black soils of wetland prairies exploding with ultraviolet camas lily, arrowhead-leaved wapato, and tiny, white popcorn flower. White oak savannah and its associated thickets of filbert and serviceberry were maintained by fires meticulously controlled by the Atfalati people, and as a result, so were valley quail, elk and white-tailed deer. Everywhere else was misty rainforest populated by lofty Douglas-fir with three-foot boles and long scarves of old man’s beard lichen, subtended by dense, multiseral canopies of red elderberry, vine maple, salal, and sword fern.
Before the misty, green beginning, there was fire and brimstone. With Mt. Hood to the southeast of town and several extinct cinder cones within the greater metro area, Portland is not just a river city, it is a city of volcanoes. Overlooking Hawthorne Boulevard and a retired sanitarium for the clinically insane is Mt. Tabor, a volcano located within Portland’s city limits. Rocky Butte, Kelly Butte, Powell Butte and Mt. Scott are all vents of the Boring Lava Field, an extinct Plio-Pleistocene volcanic field zone with at least 32 cinder cones and small shield volcanoes lying within a radius of 13 miles of Kelly Butte Natural Area. Within 30 miles of the suburb Troutdale there are no fewer than 90 volcanic centers. Though Kelly Butte was the site of a Cold War-era civil defense emergency operations center, and there is presently a basketball court in the crater of Mt. Tabor, 300,000 years ago these hills raged and sputtered, covering the landscape with lava and ash. The pyroclastic debris weathered into soils ideally suited to growing rhododendrons and huckleberries.
Flowing toward the Sandy River on the western foothills of Mt. Hood, the Bull Run River rushes clear and cold atop igneous basalt bedrock, formed when the Missoula Floods scoured away rich soils overlying the lavas that flowed 17 million years ago. This Bull Run water is pure and bright; in 1890, the City of Portland selected Bull Run to supply the city’s water and five years later a giant conduit piped the rushing flows, using gravity to move it directly to Portland faucets.
Before Portland was even a wee bairn strapped in its cradle-board, Chinook Indians were basking in an unsurpassed luxuriance of fruit; an embarrassment of riches. Between the aptly named Sandy River and Sauvie’s wapato-laden Island along the Columbia River, and south along the Willamette to the glissading mouths of the Clackamas and Tualatin Rivers, thousands of people dwelled amicably in the velvet forests and glittering, dewdrop marsh-meadows. For more than five thousand years, the culinary delights of the City of Roses were a closely guarded secret.
(ed. note: Heather’s first book is now out and available! We couldn’t be prouder. Or, hungrier, after reading it. It’s about breakfast.)