Things I’ve been doing

Posted by Ruth Brown on September 10th, 2010


I had a cover story in the Week the other week. The response was… mixed, to say the least. Suffice to say, I haven’t had that much hate mail since I was a teenager and started a blog post with “I fucking hate Liberal voters” (no, I’m not linking to it; yes, it’s still out there. Actually, I’m reading it again now and heh, I was a pretty funny kid — but also a bit of a dickhead). The best one was mailed — like real, physical stamps-and-envelope mailed — to the office, followed by a fax (cover-page and all) saying they’d revised and written a better letter about how much they hate me, and to disregard the first. I presume I’ll get the third draft in a few days via carrier pigeon or telegram.

It’s a writer’s lot to always piss someone off, I guess. I mean, your Bolts and Deveneys are always going to raise a lot more hackles than your average Better Homes and Gardens scribe, but I’m sure even they receive their fair share of angry letters over papier-mâchée technique and doily maintenance.

I don’t begrudge anyone the right to hate and complain about what or how I wrote — although I personally have more respect for those that criticised my writing ability itself rather than those who were mortally wounded by a few light-hearted jabs at their city.

I don’t really have any designs on being a columnist or opinion writer, though. I’ve neither the talent nor the thick skin nor the level of self-assuredness. I prefer meeting interesting people, finding interesting stories and the challenge of playing Lego with the English language to recreate those things for other people as accurately and engagingly as possible.

Speaking of: I wrote a real article about kombucha, which is this fizzy hippy tea drink that’s big here. A few months back, I read about how it had been pulled off grocery store shelves due to concerns it was alcoholic. I knew you could home-brew it, and I knew Portlanders love home-brew and sticking it to the man, so I figured everyone was about to start making it themselves. I had nothing to do that day, and thought “brewing black market kombucha” might make for a decent web post. I got online, learned all about it, then found someone on Craigslist who was giving away starter cultures. She was a pretty long way away, but I was excited about the idea, so I rode for over an hour to go pick one up.

At first, I thought there might be a bigger story that local brewers were potentially going to be screwed over by new FDA and ATF guidelines. So I started calling around: home brewers, small brewers, big brewers, distribution companies, government agencies. But I learned that it was almost the exact opposite: the big-name brewers had been screwed over by the recall — and the small local guys were the winners, picking up all their accounts.

Anyway, it turned into a nice local business story, and it was a fairly fascinating journey into a completely foreign world. Unfortunately, word limitations meant I had to leave many of the people I interviewed out. Those included a food scientist, who actually agreed the drink had some health benefits (I admit I was expecting her to say it was all bunk), a lovely husband and wife team who taught brew-your-own-kombucha classes and were about to start brewing commercially, and a one-woman operation that had completely taken off overnight.

I still don’t drink the stuff, but I do grin every time I see grocery shelves full of locally brewed kombucha.

Very randomly, the Sydney Theatre Company was doing a collaboration with a local theatre company to perform Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and the Week‘s theatre critic was busy, so I went along to review the show and drink free booze at the opening night after party. It was odd to see an opening night in a city where anything with a collar is considered “dressing up”. Plenty of socks and sandals, corduroy, and fleece vests — and that was just lead actor William Hurt. No really, but there was lots of cargo shorts, sneakers and Hawaiian shirts amongst audience members, too. Only two monkey suits in the whole crowd, and those were two benefactors from San Francisco. I try not to be too parochial, but it was so nice to hear some Aussie accents again and chat with the STC guys and their entourage. Also kind of nice to see a home town gal blow a bunch of yanks — including an Academy Award winner — off stage (and that’s not bias; all the other reviewers agreed).

I wrote an article about a food-cart-cum-science-lab. I first saw this on Twitter months ago: a local chick who works for Cheezburger Network (the LOLcat people) wanted to start a food cart where she could sell pie and do psychological tests on her customers. She put the idea on Kickstarter, which is a great site where people put crazy ideas and anyone can donate money to make it a reality. Honestly, my initial reaction was, “Yeah, good luck with that” — I thought people would want pie, but not to be toyed with. But I underestimated Portland’s love of weird shit, and she easily raised enough cash to get it off the ground.

I set up an interview and let her pick the location. She chose Pacific Pie Co. Now, I thought she’d chosen it because it is an Australian pie shop selling Aussie meat pies and she had picked my accent, but when we arrived, it turned out she’d thought it was a regular American pie (i.e. dessert pie) place and wanted to check out the competition. In the end, I was able to introduce her to a real Australian beef pie, while she talked me through the ins-and-outs of berry pies — which they also sold — and it was a lovely morning of cross-cultural education over pie.

The cart launched a few weeks back, and seems to be doing really well. I went down there the other day and just about every person who walked past did a double-take like, “Oh my god: pie!” I also got to try some gooseberry pie, which was amazing. Gooseberries don’t look that appealing, but they’re both very sweet and very tart and make for an amazing filling.

You can read the results from her pie experiments so far here and here.

I reviewed this new food cart that sells a Texan dish called “Frito Pie”. Frito Lay is a brand of potato chip (Lay’s in Australia is a subsidiary of Smith’s, which is a subsidiary of Frito Lay), and Fritos is its signature corn chip. Fritos are not triangular like regular corn chips, or round like Lay’s chips, but rather small and rectangular and a bit curly. A Frito Pie is a pack of Fritos covered in chili, cheese and often other stuff like salsa, sour cream, jalapeños, etc.

Chili is one of my favourite foods here. It’s sold everywhere, and you can often get a cup of it for a few bucks and is a common side dish (weirdly, chips — like crisps — are also a common side-dish. We have been tricked up many times by ordering a burger or sandwich and chips and receiving crisps. Hot chips here are always fries, even if they’re thick-cut). Traditional chili con carne is obviously a meat dish, but in Portland, it’s just as common to find vegetarian bean or mock-meat chili and I always make a point of trying it. This cart uses vegan chili, and it is the best I’ve had here so far. They also make a different wacky, non-traditional chili every week, like “Thai” chili, jackfruit chili, and Indian chickpea chili.

The cart also makes ice-cream sandwiches, another wonderful American dish I have embraced wholeheartedly (you do see it in Australia occasionally, but not often), which is ice-cream sandwiched between two cookies.

Speaking of food (which I do seem to do a lot), we finally had our first BBQ here (in the Australian sense of the word, not the American one). Our yuppie apartment building actually has a really great roof-top area, with barbeques, fire-pits, an indoor area with a kitchen and couches and a killer view:

With summer drawing to an end, we figured we were running out of time to make the most of it, and invited a few friends around for a soy sausage. I have been determined to learn a few Australian recipes (not sure why, just seems the appropriate expat thing to do and a good challenge). I’m not quite sure how I thought of it, but I decided I would make damper. Damper is such a funny Australian dish — just about everyone knows how to make it, but almost no one does unless they’re camping or eight years old. Certainly, I hadn’t made it since primary school camp.

I discovered that self-raising flour is really rare here, which made things tricky, but after a bit of Googling, learned that one-and-a-half teaspoons of baking powder to every cup of flour should do the trick. Then, when I was just about to start cooking, I learned that baking powder and baking soda are not the same thing, and I had purchased the wrong one. I raced down to the grocery store and bought the correct one, but was now running incredibly far behind. I threw everything together, flour going everywhere, kneaded as quickly as I could, and chucked it in the oven — which is in Farenheit and, of course, every damper recipe is Celcius. I guessed.

Somehow, magically, half-an-hour later, the damper came out perfectly. I got a bit fancy-pants and added cheddar, parmesan, rosemary and sage. I almost didn’t add the cheddar, because cheddar here is orange and it just seemed so wrong, but fortunately you couldn’t see the colour in the finished product. Our American friends seemed to really enjoy it.

I reckon artisan damper should be the next food fad in Melbourne. Melburnians would cream themselves over the irony of paying $10 for an organic, haute cuisine version of such a daggy native dish (apparently we’ll pay $17 for a gourmet Golden Gaytime).

I interviewed a lovely local band called The Rainy States. I met them before a rehearsal at this big share-house in Belmont (which is… the kind of inner-city suburb where musicians have share-houses). Every five minutes or so, a new random person would wander through the unlocked door and ask if so-and-so was in, and they’d point back to the kitchen without raising an eyebrow. I learned later that they host a big games night there (as in board and card games, I think) once a month or week or something, but it was quite funny at the time. By the end of the interview, the whole house was packed with the most random and eclectic bunch of visitors all walking and talking around us as we tried to conduct this interview. Anyway: a very down-to-Earth bunch, and they also make very nice music (listen to my favourite of their new tracks here). I went and saw their album launch a few weeks later, and it was a great night with a lot of equally down-to-Earth friends there to support. Some had baked cookies for them.

This week is the big music festival here, MusicfestNW. The headliners are The Decemberists, The National, and, er, The Smashing Pumpkins. It turns out that the Pumpkins’ latest drummer is actually a 20-year-old from the neighbouring town of Beaverton. It’s a cute story: Billy Corgan decided to hold open auditions for the role and this kind — who was then 19 and working at McDonald’s — sent in a tape of himself playing and ultimately scored the role. Do remember that a 20-year-old in this country is still too young to drink. I interviewed him over the phone the other day. He was very sweet and I can only imagine how surreal it is returning to home after a year as a rockstar.

Anyway, I’m going to spend the next four days racing around town seeing shows. Probably not the Pumpkins.

  • Stewart Smith

    oh I do like the Week article

    • Ruth

      That’s because you’d love to be a morbidly obese vegan – but the low quality of vegan cheese in Australia makes that so difficult.

  • EasternDave

    Happy Halloween!
    Given your home location and being a journalist focusing on the events in and around Portland, you have an excellent opportunity to see Americans celebrate the end of October. I cannot explain the original cause of this celebration, but the costumes do get very… original & creative. Ask your colleagues about this celebration and what venue would be a good place to observe the celebrators. Not surprisingly there is alcohol involved in these festivities. Why bob for apples in water, when you can bob them apples in wine?

    No parties for me this year, instead I will stay at home and heat one of those little tubs of caramel, until it is viscous and then dunk my favorite candy bar (miniature sized) into the almost-liquid caramel, before I pop it down the hatch. I will repeat this until I get a sugar rush all the way to my toes.

    Be sure to share your thoughts from your first Halloween soiree/event on your site.

    • Ruth

      I believe the origins of Halloween are Celtic — All Hallows Eve — although it was America that commercialised it. Some Australians celebrate it – I sometimes went trick or treating as a kid – but not to the extend that Americans do and most Australians view it as crass.