Special Dispatch: The Breakfasts of Portland
You might have heard: Portland, Oregon is kind of a Thing right now. Things, in my humble opinion, always warrant eye-rolling mockery. I, however, am a third-generation Portland native, and being a proper Portland hipster, can say without sarcasm that I was here before it was cool. As a native, I have a love-hate relationship with the television program Portlandia. Portland natives mostly just hate it when Portlandia is accurate, and that show is very accurate about one thing: Portlanders are completely stupid for breakfast.
In Portland, foods that, anywhere else in the United States would be eaten only by farmers and the working poor, warrant an hour-long wait and $20. True, there are things like marionberry-studded pancakes with honey from neighborhood bees, and cold-smoked fish wrested from local waters. These things are not at all a cliché, and are, in fact, delicious and worth every inconvenience; these are examples of Portland doing things properly. But for the most part, everywhere you go, you’re beaten over the head with foods invented to sustain lumberjacks and other beardymen. I don’t even have to mention any specific establishment, because no matter where you go, this is what you’re offered:
1) Biscuits and gravy. Seriously, I can’t think of any restaurants that don’t have B&G on the menu. Due to the overall drear of our climate (and a populace overwhelmingly originating from drier states) Portland is in the middle of a long, sordid love affair with gravy. High-end places have their versions using sausage made in-house from hazelnut-fed pigs; dives have theirs served with gravy from an industrial food service drum. Even vegan places have their own almond milk versions, just as savory and delectable as library paste. Biscuits and gravy are more ubiquitous than bacon and eggs.
2) Fried chicken and waffles. This combo dates back to the 1800s in cookbooks from the South, which is an instant formula for success in Stumptown. Take a waffle, put a bird on it, and then douse the whole thing in honey or maple syrup. This sweet/savory flavor profile is ideal for our city, since Portlanders are prone to smoke crippling amounts of marijuana.
3) Strange amalgams of fried chicken/biscuits and gravy. One place serves this beautiful chimera under the name “The Reggie”: fried chicken, bacon and cheese on a buttermilk biscuit, topped with gravy. Some genius thought to himself one day, “Let’s just take all of the things and put them together on the same biscuit. Oh, what the hell: Gravy.” Jealous? Well, take heart. Your friendly neighborhood breakfast joint is just one wake-and-bake away from its own Reggie.
4) Grits. Seriously, what is this, Louisiana? Restaurants don’t even bother calling it ‘polenta’ anymore. Grits sounds folksy and rustic, and Portland, with its penchant for pairing flannel with expensive spectacles, is all about being rugged, or at least the illusion of it.
5) Shit with bacon on it. Shit with kale on it. Bacony kale on grits with a fried or poached egg on top. (Disclaimer: I will admit that I have been known to make grits and put greens, gravy and fried eggs on top. Completely sober!) Speaking of fried or poached eggs,
6) Things that are hashed and have fried or poached eggs on top. I think it goes without saying that the yolk must be runny. Yolks are nature’s gravy, and Portland loves gravy! Pork shoulder, duck confit, beef brisket; all are fair game for shredding and frying with root vegetables. Being in the Great Northwest means there are several places to get a good smoked trout or salmon hash, but the hash scene is justly dominated by meat. But hey, some places offer vegan hash, and they don’t even get laughed out of town.
7) Ridiculous Bloody Marys with like, fifty different house-made, artisanal pickles on top of the glass (Portlandia also got the “we can pickle that” thing embarrassingly correct). One place I frequent even includes a pickled, hard-boiled egg on the same skewer as spicy asparagus, lactofermented pearl onions and a cube of house-cured pork belly. With bacon and eggs in your morning cocktail, do you even need to look at the menu?
I guess I should be thankful that the worst thing about my hometown is that the food scene is a parody of itself. It sure as hell beats living in Darfur. If your heart yearns for handcrafted foods created by aggressively handsome people who take pride in their craft— in everything from growing baby heirloom turnips to slinging shade-grown, fair-trade espresso— then please, come to the gastronomic wonderland that is Portland. And while you’re waiting in some line— some god-forsaken, Communist Russia-length breakfast line, remember that there is probably a really decent plate of pancakes at the completely empty café across the street.
Grits Lang is the alter-eggo of Heather Arndt Anderson, author of Breakfast: A History.