There are so many things about the ‘City of Roses’ that you could call uniquely Portland, and no “Keep Portland Weird” is not one of them. We actually stole that from Austin, Texas, but that’s another matter.
Here in Portland, we have a nation-leading craft beer scene and a Napa Valley-rivaling swathe of wine country. We have bars where you can also rent ping-pong tables. We block off sections of town so that throngs of naked bicyclers can have their 15 minutes. We know how to have fun, the Portland way… but that’s not all.
We also know how to give in uniquely Portland way. You could say we know how to ask in a uniquely Portland way.
Which brings us to an evening at the beautiful home of Thomas McCarley and John Eader, located on an acre of land in a forested neighborhood set among the hills of Southwest Portland.
When I say evening, I mean 4:00pm, a good hour-and-a-half before dinner. After all, I could never miss the teaser of a performance from the Rose City Raindrops, Portland’s very own (awarded) synchronized swimming troupe.
With elegance and grace, they wow the crowd gathered around the pool. The performance ends. Everyone claps and smiles. Life is good.
The gardens are beautiful, with blooming rhododendrons, camellias and magnolia and dogwood trees. An ornamental cherry and Japanese maple round out this exquisite showing of flora.
Three long white tables await a sold-out crowd of around 60 people. They are here for a cause, of course, but they are also here to see what Toro Bravo chef Pat Manning has in store for his seven-course extravaganza. A signature cocktail courtesy of Bull Run Distilling Company and the evening’s wine pairings courtesy of Lemelson Vineyards add to the enticement. The dinner itself is sponsored by Bob’s Red Mill.
This is a big deal, and it should be.
I’m here for one of the coveted spots in the Chef in my Garden series, and this is where we get back to Portland’s unique way of doing things. Specifically, the unique way we fundraise, and the unique causes we give to.
The Chef in my Garden series is an annual roundup of truly spectacular summertime dinners, cooked by some of Portland’s best chefs, in a beautiful garden setting at a beautiful home and garden somewhere in Portland or the surrounding area.
Proceeds from Chef in my Garden go to benefit Growing Gardens, a non-profit organization who’s mission statement is:
Growing Gardens uses the experience of growing food in schools, backyards and correctional facilities to cultivate healthy, equitable communities.
Growing Gardens bears that out in their major programs. This is where you think to yourself, “Wow, what a uniquely Portland thing!” And it is.
In a city where farm-to-table (or fork) has become almost cliché, a philanthropic organization helping low income and incarcerated people through growing fruits and vegetables fits right in.
Growing Gardens cultivates several main programs, the first of which is the Home Gardens Program. This program is a three-year partnership free to any Portland resident who meets a certain low-income guideline. Growing Gardens provides a garden installation, plant seeds and starts, compost, tools and provides educational workshops.
Their Youth Grow program is a big one and as they describe it, “is designed to connect kids to nature, inspire a love of eating fresh-grown food, and provide interdisciplinary learning opportunities.” The main thrust of this program is in partnerships Growing Gardens sets up with schools where 60% or more of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals.
They then provide after-school and summer food gardening programs, support a school garden and help the teachers use the garden as a learning tool.
Their final – and perhaps most innovative – program is called Lettuce Grow, which provides educational and gardening experiences to those who are incarcerated in the state of Oregon. In 2009, they worked in one prison garden. Today they work in 16.
In a stunning validation of the efficacy of their endeavors, inmates who participate in the Lettuce Grow Program show a recidivism rate of 5%. Oregon’s is 30% and nationally it’s 68%. In 2015 alone, over 284,000 pounds of food was grown for prison kitchens, which not only benefits the inmates, but saves the taxpayer.
Through these programs, Growing Gardens aims to help those who are least able to help themselves and do it in a way that is, well, uniquely Portland: Through the simple act of growing fresh, healthy food.
Speaking of fresh, healthy food, the Rose City Raindrops have just finished and it’s time to gather at the tables. After everyone has spent some time getting to know the whiskey liver mousse, cheese and cured meats board – drink in hand, of course – we all sit.
Our menu, which starts with a watermelon and avocado salad with curry vinaigrette paired with a Pinot gris, has an ice breaker question at the bottom.
What has been your most memorable meal?
Possibly revealing my lack of, shall-we-say, blue blood bona fides, I reveal my most memorable meal was a fried tarantula paired with a fried scorpion I bought from a ten-year old in a Cambodian night market. It may not have been as refined as some of the other answers, but it sure fit the bill as a great conversation starter!
The question was appropriate, however, as a truly memorable meal was to follow.
The starting soup was one of my favorites, a cucumber soup with chorizo and flowers plucked from the garden. I don’t know what it is, but put flowers in a soup and I’m always won over.
We were prepped with clams with ginger and jalapeno paired with a chardonnay, followed up with chermoula beets with pistachios and yogurt paired with a Pinot noir.
The main event came in the form of a Kurobuta prime rib of pork with padron peppers. This was one big hunk of meat, truly a beautiful sight, and just waiting to be devoured after the starters had the group salivating.
Closing out the evening was a simple blueberry shortcake served – appropriately – with either Riesling, tea or coffee.
Suddenly the sun had dipped below the tree-line and shadows cast themselves across the bright green lawn. Speeches were given, thanks were made and cards exchanged. Friends, old and new, dispersed or stayed to dance.
It was truly an excellent experience for an excellent cause. And guess what? There are only three dinners left unsold, with the next one right around the corner. August 6 with Jason French of Ned Ludd, set amidst the gardens of renowned Portland sculptor Lee Kelly, you won’t want to miss it before it sells out.
For more information on the Chef in my Garden series, which ones are left, and ticket purchasing information, simply click or tap on this link.
For more information on supporting the vital work Growing Gardens does, visit their website at www.growing-gardens.com.
William Bessette – PDX People Contributor
William Bessette is a journalist and freelance writer who has been covering politics, entertainment, culture and travel for over thirteen years. When he’s not profiling Portland-area restaurants and residents, you can find him reporting on national and international travel and eco-tourism through his travel brand, Floppy Hat Adventures.