Wednesday, September 10, 2008
As you may have heard, we were in Portland over Labor Day weekend to attend some serious wedding-going activities. Josh and Nundhini had not one, but two amazing ceremonies: a Hindu ceremony in the morning (involving lots of chanting, trays of fruit, and burning things in elaborate formal wear), and a Western ceremony in the evening (also involving elaborate formal wear).
After an early check-in to our luxury hotel that afternoon, we realized we had a few hours to kill. Hmmm, I thought, perhaps the magic internet oracle would know what was going on in Portland this afternoon. A few taps on my iPhone later, our destiny was sealed: the first annual Portland Pie-Off was starting in an hour!
There was no time to consult the local bus schedules. We set out on foot. We headed up Burnside St. (a main thoroughfare that provided some great window-gazing and people watching), took a side street through an art fair, then across the freeway, and steeply uphill towards Washington Park, which overlooks the fair city. It was a beautiful day, and felt good to walk. As we entered the park, Kristi posed next to a statue of Sacagawea (her surfboard's namesake).
The main attraction of the park is its famous Rose Garden, touted as an "Internation Test Rose Garden". It was filled with so many flowers that when I walked around the corner toward the entrance, I caught myself looking around to see who was wearing such strong floral perfume. I eventually figured it out.
Most people were out enjoying the day like us, walking among the roses, entranced by the spectacle of color. A solo harpist played amongst the hedges, teasing out soothing melodies, her voice a mysterious siren that drew us in. Further down the path we could hear the playground, a steam train from the zoo -- the sound of Portland frolicking.
As we headed down the path, we could see a large group of people standing around. We had reached the Pie-Off. A large picnic shelter was cordoned off, with the picnic tables inside supporting over eighty potentially prize-winning pies, neatly arranged with descriptive placards. The judges, identifiable by their flat-top barbershop hats, were busily taking notes and planting little flags in the pies. Others, not wearing hats, functioned as a support crew, cutting precise slices from pies for taste-testing. The judging had just started, and things were already looking serious.
You could feel the anticipation in the air. The participants made polite small talk, shifting their weight from one foot to the other. I asked one of the onlookers, "Did you enter a pie in the contest?"
"What kind of pie?"
"Chocolate peanut butter."
"And how did you hear about this?"
This was a common refrain. In fact, after a debriefing from one of the Pie-Off organizers, it was clear that the whole contest was some sort of Twitter stream that got out of control. (I had only days before learned what Twitter was.) Half the crowd seemed to be there on a lark, like the kind of folks that would show up at a flash mob.
As the minutes, then hours, went by, anticipation turned into frustration. The judges seemed to be taking their sweet time deliberating over each and every pie, and we had to get to the next wedding ceremony, after all. An announcement came -- they were behind schedule. Worst of all, we were getting hungry. Not just hungry from not having eaten, but hungry from all the time spent talking about pies, traveling to get to the pies, and now, staring and salivating at the staggering arsenal of luscious pies.
The crowd started to close in as the judges neared their final category. This time, another announcement was made -- we were to form a first-come-first-serve pie line, starting at the table with the plates and silverware. It was going to be pie mayhem. I made some quick calculations in my head, dividing the number of pies by the number of people present. Our odds were good.
Before digging in, the organizers announced the winning pies in the various categories, such as Prettiest Pie, Best Custard Pie, Best Fruit Pie, Best Local Pie, etc. The ones that stood out for me were a strawberry balsamic cream pie, a grapefruit custard pie (like a key lime pie, but with grapefruit juice, and a graham cracker crust), a blueberry rosemary pie, a Dr. Pepper pie, and a tomato and basil savory pie that won best overall. This new information about the winning pies upped the ante, and you could see people begin to make mental notes, planning their routes to particular pies.
Then, like a shotgun, we were unleashed. Kristi and I flitted from pie to pie like honeybees. Yes, there were some bad pies. It seems inconceivable (I know, how can you ruin a pie?) but it must be easy because there were quite a few. There were also some incredibly delicious pies. The winners? Well-deserved. I'm definitely going to try to make the grapefuit/key lime pie at home. That was really unexpectedly good. We also snatched piece of the overall winner's pie, which was delectable. The winning piemaker sells her pies at the Portland Farmers Market, so it all makes sense.
After stuffing our pie-holes with fork-fulls of warm peaches, pecan pie, pumpkin pie, and countless others, we realized with a start that we still had another wedding ceremony to attend. With a Indian buffet!
We headed back to our hotel, on the double.
Link to the First Annual Portland Pie-Off
Link to Best Overall Pie recipe
Sunday, September 7, 2008
Thursday, September 4, 2008
The first time I visited Portland was in 2005. We were coming back from a summer road trip through the Pacific Northwest, and blew in for a day to see my good friend Josh. It was there that he and his then-girlfriend (now-wife) Nundhini first initiated us into the cult of Voodoo Doughnuts.
Since then we had heard frightening rumors that Voodoo had closed. So when we visited just a few weeks ago (for Josh's wedding), we breathed a slow, measured sigh of relief realizing it not only was alive and kicking, but was only blocks from our hotel.
We were assured of this by our good friends Janus and Marcy, whose pad we crashed at our first night in Portland. They took us out for burgers at Dots, in an urbane little neighborhood with an independent record shop on each corner. Quaffing pitchers of PBRs in the dark velvet-wallpapered, unisexed-bathroomed speakeasy, we were in hipster heaven. The comparisons to Minneapolis dive bars were inevitable (like a more loungy Matt's), but Portland would probably win the prize for coolest vibe. After-dinner drinks (very pleasant nouveau mojitos and irish coffees) were provided by Matchbox Lounge, which was literally next door to their apartment.
As for Voodoo Doughnuts? Yes, it was still around.
"The two owners of that place are famous around here. I see them all the time," Janus said, after we were back at their apartment, drunkenly playing the theme to Silver Spoons on his homebuilt marimba. He explained that one of them (Tres Shannon) is a "nightlife icon" who can be seen about town in distinctive garb and rock-star persona. The other co-owner (Kenneth "Cat Daddy" Pogson) is also the announcer for the local roller derby team, the Rose City Rollers.
We finally got our chance to go Sunday morning, right before we had to leave Portland. It was worth the wait.
There were so many donuts Voodoo is famous for, it was very difficult to choose just one. There's the maple bacon bar (with real bacon on top), Tang powder-topped mango donuts, the classic cock-and-balls shape, the humongous Tex-Ass donut (a raised glased the bigger than your head, and the inspiration for an annual eating contest), the classic "voodoo" donut (shaped like a little man, jabbed with pretzel-stick pins, and filled with blood-colored jelly).
What sets Voodoo apart from your average donut shop is the added aura of danger and bawdiness. Absent from their menu is their most legendary of their offerings, the Ny-Quil and Pepto-Bismol donuts, pulled because of the over-the-counter medication in the glaze. It also takes a special kind of donut purveyor to sponsor a contest to see who can fit the most donuts on his erect penis.
In the end, I saw that the cereal topped donuts were still sitting in the rack of trays, so I figured they were the freshest, and went for one. It was really good. Sweet but not too sweet, with a great combination of textures.
For more info, check out this interview with co-owner Kenneth Pogson posted on YouTube. He talks about the origin of the shop, and their many famous (and infamous) donut variety.