Three perspectives on food through three films

I visited a library branch that I’d never previously been to; I love randomly combing through the DVD section and I love it even more when I find things I want to watch! At this new-to-me branch, I found 3 documentaries.

Ingredients: the local food movement takes root (a film directed by Robert Bates in 2009)

Pay the doctor or pay the farmer. Simplicity, flavour and quality are the most important. Pay now or pay later (some may say, suffer later). Growing food more naturally makes more sense. As a farmer, you’re producing food, not fuel. Vibrant healthy ecosystem = better colour, better flavour, better quality, better nutritional values. Taste and how the producer takes care of the land are important. We have been taught through the industrial food system that cheap food is better because it is more convenient and cooking is time-consuming drudgery. This is a well-made film featuring chefs, including Alice Waters, and farmers/ranchers that I’d definitely recommend watching.

Escape from Suburbia: Beyond the American Dream (directed by Gregory Greene in 2007)

The film is centered around the concept of peak oil, which is when oil extraction rates peak; after this point, production would decline and what happens thereafter is somewhat speculative.

The timing of when we’ll reach peak oil, or if we’ve already reached it, is also debated, but the one thing that is for sure it that oil is a finite resource that we will not rebuild within our lifetime (let alone many lifetimes). This core concept is simple but the implications are incredibly vast. You can’t have a discussion on peak oil without getting into politics, community dynamics, societal lifestyles and culture, lobbyists and corporations, environment, ownership and stewardship, personal responsibilities, and much more.

As the name of the film implies, connected to the concept of peak oil is the reliance on vehicular transportation based on the suburbia model. The premise isn’t necessarily to decry suburbs but to make suburban developments more self-contained, with services and food sources available within walking distance, and at the same time really considering the environmental toll that development takes, particularly when agricultural land is under consideration. Once the land is paved over, it will be incredibly difficult reclaiming the land for agricultural use. If our reliance on oil continues in the same way, then presumably, demand will surpass supply, costs will rise (prohibitively, I’d guess), and we won’t be able to transport ourselves in the same way that many of us do now: in our own personal cars. At that time, we’d probably want to have food sources nearby…but if we used up agricultural land for housing or other development, how can we supply ourselves with enough food to sustain communities? There are also many food deserts already throughout North America and this would become more apparent if access to cars was limited. Location, location, location!

Those are a few of the issues discussed by the film; you can see the trailer here:

Food Stamped: Is it possible to eat healthy on a food stamp budget? (A film by Shira and Yoav Potash in 2011)

Accessibility of healthy food options can be a barrier for people, particularly if there are socioeconomic factors at play. The film doesn’t get detailed with respect to the issues affecting accessibility but the filmmakers were interested in spending a week living on a food stamp budget (officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP). The filmmakers are a young couple living together who had time to pre-plan a weeks’ worth of meals, have access to a supermarket, do not usually live on a fixed income, have no children, and are familiar with how to cook foods. Although I’m wary of projects like this where folks take on a fixed income lifestyle for a very short period of time, I think they’re good if they increase awareness of food accessibility issues (eg. food deserts) and help us examine how our lifestyle choices affect people of all different backgrounds. I recall some Ottawa councillors taking part in a similar endeavour as part of the Living Wage Campaign a few years ago…but I’m not certain how much of an influence the experience had on affecting food policy in the city.

A market a day in Portland

One amazing thing about Portland is that there is a farmers’ market somewhere in the city, every day. We were able to visit two markets during our stay, including the big Saturday market at Portland State University.

Northwest Market
NW 19th Avenue at NW Everett

This is a cute little market and although small in the number of stalls, you can get a good variety of food. There was a good selection of produce (veggies and fruits), bread, baked goods, and more.

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This was our resulting dinner from goods picked up at the market:

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Portland State University Market
On the campus of PSU

This is a very large and extensive market where you can get everything that you would need to subsist on all week. Eggs, pâté, bread, baked goods, candles, honey, personal care products, fruits, vegetables, cooked food, frozen food. I was incredibly impressed and slightly overwhelmed at the size and richness (in variety) of this market.

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We had a great lunch sitting on some steps in the middle of the hustle and bustle of this market, listening to live music on a beautiful warm, sunny day. Pâté on a fresh sourdough baguette topped with fresh local greens. Dessert was handfuls of Rainier cherries! Can’t get enough cherries!

Rail Travel in 2012: SFC, PDX, SEA, VAC

The last time I travelled by rail in North America must’ve been when I was in Grade 4 and took a train with my entire class for 1-2 hours into the middle of nowhere…to stay at a Coast Salish Longhouse for three days. This year, I knew that I needed to be in Portland, Oregon for the World Domination Summit in July. The thought process then went something like this:

  • Since I was going to be on the west coast anyways, I figured I couldn’t go to Portland without tacking on a side trip to see friends and family in Vancouver.
  • If I’m going to be spending more than one weekend on the west coast, I’d love to visit San Francisco again (absolutely cannot get enough of this city…plus I reconnected with a cousin there late last year and was interested in meeting up with him after 15+ years).
  • How am I going to travel cheaply between all of these cities?
  • I don’t want to spend all of my vacation time for this trip…maybe I should take some unpaid leave?
  • Unpaid leave gives me 5 weeks off. Maybe I can fulfill a lifelong dream of taking the trans-Canadian rail through the Rockies!
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    And that is how I decided that aside from an initial flight from Ottawa to San Francisco – as there is no quicker way of coast-to-coast intercity travel than flying – I would be traveling by rail. No reliance on cars or the Greyhound (the smell inside the coach bus makes me sick). After three legs on the Coast Starlight and Amtrak Cascades trains, I have a few observations about rail travel:

  • The perceived “slowness” of rail travel is not wholly the truth. Yes, you must have the luxury of time to spend 18 hours on the Coast Starlight between San Francisco and Portland but the 4 hours from Seattle to Vancouver, Canada is really comparable to the total time it takes to take a flight between those two cities.
  • Airports tend to be placed outside of the city center while train stations remain in the heart of most cities (or at least in the older hearts of cities). For those traveling without cars or who are strict tourists in a city, it saves travel time (and associated costs) to and from an airport…not to mention any time spent waiting in line for security.
  • Speaking of lines for security, there isn’t one at the train station. You also don’t need to come over an hour early for your train. If you want to check baggage, you should plan to arrive an hour ahead of departure time but if you don’t have checked bags, just come half an hour before and you’ll be on the train before you know it!
  • By train, you’ll see landscapes that you won’t typically access by car. Farmland, industrial plants and factories, abandoned buildings, beautiful houses, bridges and bodies of water, fields, forests, mountains, and the backsides of towns.
  • There’s wifi access on most trains nowadays, with the exception of the Coast Starlight and one other Amtrak train. But that’s just a great excuse to sleep, read a book (remember what that is?), and enjoy the scenery.
  • The plane does not lull me to sleep. Especially when there’s turbulence. That is not lulling in any way and I’m not particularly fond of feeling like I’m on a roller coaster…in the air. The train, however, does lull me to sleep. Any time of the day. There’s much more foot space and chair space on the train than a plane (and yes, I sat in coach class, which is the lowest class), there are multiple washrooms available for your use, you can stroll between numerous cars or to the on board bistro.
  • Speaking of time, you start to lose any sense of time passing whilst on the train. Sure, the train stops several times at stations along the route and there’s a monitor in each car to tell you where along the route you currently are and how much time there is until the next station…but somehow, it still becomes quite hard to tell whether half an hour has passed or four hours. It’s fabulous.
  • “Stopovers” on the train (proper term is de-training) are ridiculously quick. Compared to airplane stopovers of at least half an hour, the train stops for as short as five minutes before you’re on your way again!
  • The boarding process for trains is also ridiculously quick compared to the tedious boarding process of an airplane. Not to mention the plane is so squishy!
  • The interior of the train does not smell like chemicals as a plane or many coach buses do. There is also no issue with pressurization or depressurization (no achy ears).
  • Rail travel is also not as cost-prohibitive as I had first had been expecting. It was $175.50 for the entire trek from San Francisco to Vancouver, British Columbia. That’s one way. I did cost out travelling by Greyhound when I was researching travel costs and bus and train were pretty much on par. If you’re calculating cost with time as a measure, the entire rail trip took about 25 hours. You can further reduce costs by bringing snacks and meals on board yourself (but there is a cafe and sometimes a restaurant if you didn’t get a chance to pack anything).
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    The Amtrak portion of my trip is complete and I am absolutely satisfied with the rail experience that they provided. It was a bit uncomfortable sleeping on the Coast Starlight train (I boarded at 11pm in Emeryville, California, bound for Portland on an overnight train) but you had far more space than you would’ve on a plane (unless you can manage Executive class, which I can’t) so can’t really complain. Oh yes, the train also provides pillows on the Coast Starlight! And they’re better than the cheap ones that you have to buy aboard planes nowadays.

    Otherwise, it was a great experience. Obviously there are pros and cons with traveling by train, just as with any other mode of transport, but I hope that more people consider rail as a valid travel mode. More relaxing and beautiful scenery.

    Portland Pods

    Upon arriving in Portland, I quickly got onto the task of locating the food carts for the impending dinner hour. As soon as I searched “food carts in Portland”, I learned that this city makes it easier for me to find food carts around the city by organizing them into “pods”, which are like mini cities of food carts located in various parts of the city. Of course, there are random food carts strewn about and they make for a great find if you’re lucky enough to chance upon them on your walk through town. We visited the pods that are located in the downtown Portland area and tried a handful of them.

    El Cubo de Cuba
    Pod at SW 10th Avenue at SW Alder Street

    Had the Cuban sandwich with a side of maduros (fried plantains) for $7.50. The sandwich is pressed (think grilled panini) and has mayo, mustard, pickles, cheese, pork, and ham. I personally wasn’t a huge fan of it because I prefer a stronger flavour but it’s filling.

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    Korean Twist on 5th
    Pod at Stark & SW 5th Avenue

    Kept reading on the internet that Korean tacos are a must-try in Portland and who am I to argue, as I adore Korean food. Found this truck from which I excitedly ordered a 3 taco platter. These are soft shell tacos, filled with bulgogi, spicy pork, and spicy chicken (there was also a tofu option). The combo was $5 ($2.50 for one taco) and well worth it! These things are absolutely delicious if you enjoy meat with Korean flavoring.

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    Brunch Box
    Pod at Stark & SW 5th Avenue

    I was very recently introduced to a TV show called Eat St. (I don’t have a TV) and they do stories on food carts in various cities; lo and behold, when I was on the flight to San Francisco, the TV on the plane had this show and the episode about Portland…and needless to say, I watched it. It featured Brunch Box and their ridiculous burgers, like the redonkadonk, a burger with egg, bacon, beef patty, garnishing vegetables, and two grilled cheese sandwiches for buns. Had to visit this food truck but was not adventurous or hungry enough to try such a crazy burger…so went with the Hawaii 5-oh, which is a burger with grilled pineapple and spam. For $6, it was different from any other burger I had tried and it was delicious! The combination of spam and pineapple is amazing! And don’t say you don’t like spam before trying this.

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    Koi Fusion
    Find where they are @Koifusionpdx

    They have Korean-influenced tacos, burritos, quesadillas, sliders, and a rice bowl. You have a choice of toppings/ingredients of bulgogi beef, pork, chicken, tofu, short ribs and maybe kimchi. We had pork tacos, where an order costs you $2 and you get one soft-shelled taco with marinated pork and topped with bean sprouts, cucumber, and cilantro. It was good but I preferred the tacos from Korean Twist on 5th.

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    I like Thai food
    Pod at SW 10th Avenue at SW Alder

    We needed a quick meal before a film screening so decided to grab one of the specials on the little board in front of this food truck: pumpkin curry with brown rice for $5. This was probably the best value that we got at a food truck. They gave us a good containers’ worth of curry and a little Chinese takeout container (the ones you see in movies of New York) full of brown rice. The curry was spicy and absolutely delicious! Definitely recommend giving this truck a try if you enjoy Thai (the sentence even rhymes!).

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    Sorry the image is sideways!
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    Taste of India
    Pod at SW 10th Avenue at SW Alder

    We shared the meat curry lunch special for $6, which included a chickpea curry, saag curry, chicken curry, basmati rice, and two pieces of naan. Because it was so hot outside, we also had a glass of lemonade for $1. The chicken curry was delicious but I had had much better saag and chickpea curries. The lemonade is not fresh-squeezed (they never advertised it as such) and tasted like it had been made either with chlorinated water (light pool water) or in a container that had recently been sanitized with bleach…not the thirst-quenching drink I had been hoping for. The meal is a bit small to share between two people, even though neither of us was super hungry.

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