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Food for thought about the Northwest’s epicurean obsession

Sat., June 26, 2010

Sometimes, people are so immersed in their culture, they can’t see how insane they are.

By “people” I mean “us.” By our “culture” I mean the Northwest. And by insane, I mean the way we obsess about food.

I thought Spokane was crazy, with its dueling bistros, natural markets and locavore obsessions, but then I went on trips to Ballard (the hip Seattle neighborhood) and Ashland (the Oregon tourist town).

Good lord. You can’t walk a half-block without running into an upscale shop specializing in, let’s say, sustainable salmon for $50 a pound, or artisan cheese for $20 a pound, or a restaurant that brags about its baby watercress, handpicked by pixies in yonder creek.

And everyone seems to have upscale grocery stores, whose main distinction is being twice as expensive as a – sniff – chain supermarket.

Do you have any idea how bizarre this is? Throughout history, the main human occupation has been getting enough to eat. It has always been, more or less, a full-time job. People have always been obsessed about food, for good reason – they had to be, if they wanted to eat any.

Now, we are in this unique historical position, in which food accounts for a tiny portion of our household expenses.

How have we dealt with this? By finding other, weirder ways to obsess about food. For instance, we have the locavore movement, in which we attempt to eat only locally produced foods. This is a good thing, if kept in perspective, since locally raised food usually will be fresher and less industrial.

But can people ever be trusted to keep anything in perspective? Of course not. The locavore obsession was taken to its logical extreme last month in Portland. A belligerent Oregon chef confronted the organizers of a pork-cooking competition about the fact that they had used, shockingly, a nonlocal pig. From Iowa!

It degenerated into a fist-swinging brawl. Police had to break up the fight with Tasers and pepper spray.

Meanwhile, we have managed to turn another straightforward human activity – drinking – into an activity fraught with complications. During the past month or two, I have been to multiple wine-tastings, sampling dozens of local wines.

Did I have a great time? Yes. Could I really tell most of these wines apart? No.

I’m more of a beer guy. And in the Northwest, our beer obsession is nearly as out-of-control. Just in the past month, on my various travels, I have quaffed suds at about a half-dozen breweries and pubs. I have had a Buttface Amber, a Dry Hop Orange and a Horned Aviator, just to name three.

They were excellent, and it sure beats a straight diet of something brewed in a factory in St. Louis. But even I have to admit: It can get a little precious. When guys start sticking their noses in their beer mugs and waxing lyrical about the floral notes, I wonder if we, in the Northwest, need a reality check.

That reality check is, in fact, all around us. This snobby food culture I’m talking about? It’s only the small, top slice of our Northwest food culture.

A bigger slice of our food culture can be seen shopping for groceries at Walmart and drinking Bud Light. Yup, I guess affordability is still the main food obsession for most of us, even in the Northwest. Bucking history is not easy.

Speaking of reality checks, let’s not forget about another, equally vital part, of our food culture: Fatburger.

Yeah, Spokane has a Fatburger franchise. The Seattle area? They have five.

So far, Portland has none. That would really start a fistfight.


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