Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Jen is Garbage Girl at Taste of the Nation

Last April, when I was Corporate Girl, I attended the Portland version of the epic national Share Our Strength's Taste of the Nation (taste.strength.org)event on a sponsor ticket. My friends and I wore little black dresses, enjoyed exclusive access an hour before the rest of the rabble clogged the aisles, and hung out with swanky old rich folks in the sponsor's lounge, where we drank our fair share of the generous supply of Domaine Ste. Michelle wine (no trifling 1-ounce pours back in the sponsor's lounge, no way) and discussed hedge funds and the best places to stay in Martinique. Actually we mostly discussed celebrity gossip and complimented each others' shoes, but the point is that at last year's Taste of the Nation, I was Posh.

This year, I was at Taste of the Nation on a volunteer ticket, bearing the illustrious assignment of "Recycle Duty." In other words, I was Garbage Girl. My intrepid friend and fellow Garbage Girl Leigh and I spent our evening wading (sometimes literally) among thousands of discarded cornstarch plates, plastic cups, dirty forks, and the red onion marmalade and goat cheese mousse-crusted muck left behind by the 1000+ attendees, and frankly, I wouldn't have traded the experience for an all expenses paid trip to Martinique. I think.

When we arrived at the Oregon Convention Center, the huge romantically (aka: dimly) lit exhibition hall was lightly inhabited with expectant chefs, their assistants, volunteers, and Convention Center staff. "We can't see anything," everyone groused. "Are they going to turn the lights on?" I for one, was not complaining: the murky lighting made it much easier to filch a St. Cupcake coconut dot every fifteen minutes or so without detection.

Recycle Duty was not to be taken lightly. Both the Taste of the Nation organizers and the Oregon Convention Center staff take this issue very seriously, and refuse is carefully sorted into four categories: compost (food, biodegradable paper products like cornstarch plates, paper towels, etc); plastic bottles/cans; glass; and just plain garbage (plastic cups and forks, plastic wrap, candy wrappers, etc). The Convention Center Recycle Guru carefully explained the system, then suddenly cast a greasy paper plate at us to test our knowledge. I was too embarrassed to admit that I'd actually been checking out some cute chefs down the way instead of listening to his in depth explanation of my Garbage Girl duties, so I pretended to tie my slip-on while Leigh, the A student of our duo, effortlessly sorted the plate into the bright green composting bin.

Leigh and I then cleverly staked our claim to the recycling center closest to both the Andina booth and the Mint/820 Lounge booth, but when the Recycle Guru took us in the back to show us the ropes of using the portable sinks, two Mean Garbage Girls slunk in and stole our booth! Like Gwen Stefani, we ain't no hollaback girls, so it was fortunate that the Recycle coordinator intervened just in time to prevent a Garbage Girls smackdown. She reassigned Leigh and I to the back hall recycle station. We were gutted by the complete lack of atmosphere.

We met our new fun friend Pablo, an Oregon Culinary Institute student who works at Toro Bravo. He was also on Back Hall duty, so we bonded.

We morosely accepted our fate and slowly tied aprons on, but soon cheered when we realized our new gig was an absolute boon, total 'cake', you could say. Because we were completely hidden from view, everyone forgot about us, so we had to go out into the hall and solicit our refuse from the more prominent Recycle Stations, pausing of course, to earnestly forage amongst the still sparsely populated food booths. I mosied past the Toro Bravo booth, where a jovial John Gorham was assembling Sous Vide Suckling Pig sliders. I told him I was a friend of Pablo's, and he encouraged me to take a few sliders back 'for the crew.' Sweet! Little did I know how fortunate we were...rumor has it Toro Bravo ran out of Sous Vide Suckling Pig sliders by 6:30 pm!

I had to try an Andina Causita--a key lime infused purple potato bite topped with smoked trout salad, and a cup of their inimitable Green Mango Cebiche, a compilation of green mango, passion fruit, and little bay scallops "cooked" in lime juice and served with a marinade of onions, cilantro, and peppers. I also picked up a Guava Cosmo from the Mint/820 Lounge booth and shook Lucy Brennan's hand and told her I thought she was amazing. She smiled politely and said thanks.

St. Cupcake Chef and Owner Jami Curl (pink hair) and friends were joyfully manning the St. Cupcake booth, which was populated with coconut and chocolate dots.

Naturally I had to pick up a miniature Almond Financier with Rhubarb Compote and a dollop of Mascarpone from the Paley's Place booth.

We were huge fans of Tabla's Wild Boar Ribs.

At 6:30 pm, the VIP hour ended and the floodgates opened to the masses. The hall began to fill up.

No worries, we were having our own feast back amongst the trash bins! 
Behold in the bottom righthand corner, a grilled Vietnamese pork sausage by Pho Van/Silk, sharing the plate with a curry smoked scallop canape from Jake's Grill,  Caprial's smoked onion tart with warm bacon and watercress salad, Autentica's "Pulpo Enamorado"--diced octopus mixed with red onions, tomatoes, cilantro, serrano peppers and a lightly spiced mayonaisse, served on a cracker, Lovely Hula Hands' asparagus frittata with herb salad and creme fraiche, and of course, Bluehour's delectable veal short rib braised in Pinot Noir, served with herbed whipped potatoes and celery root slaw. Tucked onto the same plate is Paragon's endive-cradled chicken salad with celery, almonds, and fresh herbs. 
La Calaca Comelona (must check out their patio when faux-Spring has thawed into real Spring!) provided savory Tacos de Carnitas con Salsa Fresca, or oven-roasted pork tacos with fresh salsa and hand-pressed tortillas. Challenging the carnitas to a duel is Viande Meats and Sausage's Wild Boar Rillette on a Gougere...and behind that, I think, is Fulio's Dungeness Crab and Pesto Casserole with Italian cheeses. 
The Joel Palmer House people were kind enough to drop off a generous helping of yummy Orecchiette Pasta with Fresh Morels (the gesture was appreciated, as we did wash their massive serving spoon multiple times over the course of the evening)...which we paired with a Chambord and Champagne cocktail by Brown-Forman.
Cheers to the Garbage Girls! Cheers to feasting amongst the Oregon Convention Center rubbish bins without a shred of shame or fear of contracting a strange infectious disease!

We shared the hall with Blake & friend of Simpatica Dining Hall. They were back there madly frying pickles to go with Simpatica's scrumptious mini pulled-pork sandwiches, and delicious raviolis stuffed with ground pork and parmesan. 

Music by Bill Beach and the Brasil Beat. That's some alliteration there! 

But it was not all fun and games at the Back Hall Recycling Station. It was hard work. Hard smelly work.

Making my rounds, I ran into Tata, who was dressed to the nines and hooping it up in the VIP section.
"Are you sure you should be hanging out with us?" she said snidely, then kept calling me Cinderella. So I took my picture amongst the bourgeoise, then picked a stray bit of diced octopus off my proudly soiled apron, plopped it in Tata's glass of Willamette Valley Vineyard Pinot Gris, and went on my merry peasant way.

As the night neared an end, chefs started to stream by with carts of equipment. Bay 13 chef David Ezelle handed us his card and invited us to the afterparty at Bay 13. Take that, Tata!

Our smelly aprons, dumpster-diving, and voracious Taste of the Nation sampling a distant but lovely memory, we rubbed elbows with chefs (Nuestra Cocina Chef Benjamin Gonzalez was spotted standing off to our left looking rather tired), sponsors and volunteers alike, as we tasted a nice Pinot Noir by Boedecker cellars, and a couple of sparkling wines by Meriwether,

and quite appropriately, concluded the evening with a glass of port poured by Steve of Torii Mor Winery.

And that is my Taste of the Nation Riches to Rags story.


Share Our Strength's Taste of the Nation * taste.strength.org * yes, held annually, yes, you should really volunteer to be a Garbage Girl next year. Or Garbage Guy, whatever. And yes, we see the horrendous irony in us Garbage Girl's swimming amongst hundreds of pounds of discarded food while staring at the event tagline, "No Kid Hungry." We'd like to think the positive outcome of Taste of the Nation outweighs this unfortunate truth.


  1. Glad to hear you had such a great time. Better than me, that's for sure! Well, better may not be quite accurate...yours was perhaps just less stressful with more snacking... Thanks for all your hard work...hope to have you back on one side of the fence or the other next year...
    Gina Fleschner
    Taste of the Nation Portland Co-Chair

  2. Thanks for the comment, Gina! We surely did have a fantastic time regardless of whether we were tasting to our hearts' content or milling about in the muck! After being a Taste of the Nation Garbage Girl, I don't think I could ever rejoin the ranks of the foodie bourgeoisie again. I am: Garbage Girl Forever! Thanks for all YOUR hard work, Taste of the Nation is a magnificent event and EVERYONE should go next year!!!!!

    Anyone who'd like to be in the loop for next year's event can go to taste.strength.org, click "Buy Tickets" and then "Join the Taste Club" to get reminders about Taste of the Nation 2009.