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Oregon agriculture savors urban culinary opportunities

The Bite of Oregon among several events to showcase the great taste of local food

When up to 50,000 people flock to Portland’s Waterfront Park this weekend for the 30th annual Bite of Oregon, it’s another opportunity for agriculture to connect with a large urban audience. As consumers sample heritage chicken skewers basted with an Oregon blueberry salsa or indulge in a Pinot noir-glazed tri-tip, they will be reminded of the wonderful bounty provided by local farmers and ranchers.

A collection of talented chefs are acting as liaisons between local growers and the urban public.

“Culinary events have long been a staple for building awareness and promoting Oregon food products,” says Gary Roth, director of marketing for the Oregon Department of Agriculture. “This weekend, we have a diverse celebration of food going on right in the heart of the state’s largest urban center. The opportunity for Oregon agriculture to be present and tell its story to the many people who come through The Bite during its duration is huge.”

The connection between city folks and agriculture has grown stronger over the years. The popularity of farmers’ markets has been a major factor. So have a number of festivals dedicated to Oregon agriculture, from wine to seafood to berries. All have responded to the increased interest by consumers in where their food comes from and how it is grown.

“It’s really important that Oregon agriculture make its presence known in these types of urban culinary events,” says Leif Benson, a 4-time Chef of the Year winner in Oregon and member of the Oregon Potato Commission. “Oregonians really like the concept of supporting local farmers. When they have awareness of Oregon agriculture through these types of events, it provides an incentive for them to continue looking for local products.”

Chef Benson’s efforts to tie Oregon’s commodity commissions with the delicious foods they produce are on display at The Bite, which runs Friday through Sunday, August 9-11. A new event called the Oregon Bounty Chef’s Table is one of many dining options for attendees, highlighting the important connection between the state’s locally grown ingredients and nationally recognized cuisine. The brainchild of Benson, local chefs will be preparing 40,000 portions of food featuring five Oregon agricultural commodity commissions, using two recipes from each commission, continuously for all three days of the event. Pro Chefs Oregon– the organization that is undertaking the effort– has never gone so large-scale. It takes a lot of effort, expertise, and Oregon product to make it all happen.

“It’s like a farmers’ market on steroids,” says Benson. “There will be a lot of food prepared and consumed at The Bite.”
The idea started brewing three years ago when Benson spoke with ODA Director Katy Coba about his desire to create partnerships between Oregon chefs and the agricultural commodity commissions. Since Benson was already a member of the Oregon Potato Commission, he was aware of the disconnect between growers and end users in the culinary world. Benson, representing Oregon chefs, eventually approached many of the commissions with an offer of a resource to help growers expand markets by getting into the culinary scene. That included having chefs provide cooking demonstrations and unique preparations at culinary events and festivals.

“Our organization provides one-stop shopping for the commissions to promote their products, whether it’s overseas, locally, at a farm event, a festival, or even a culinary competition,” says Benson. “We can provide chefs to help out with the effort.”

Along with the Potato Commission, this collaboration now includes the Oregon Beef Council, the Oregon Blueberry Commission, the Oregon Raspberry/Blackberry Commission, and the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission– which at this year’s Bite, has expanded to include other seafood commissions.

The Chef’s Table portion of the event will offer some unique food samples using products from the five participating commissions. How about a salad that features Oregon blueberries and pink shrimp? After all, berries are no longer just for dessert. Featuring product from the Oregon Beef Council, attendees can enjoy a Vietnamese beef sandwich called Bahn Mi. Marionberries mixed in with vanilla ice cream using liquid nitrogen may sound unusual, but you can bet it tastes great. Chefs will also prepare a seafood cake that makes use of Oregon Dungeness crab, pink shrimp, and salmon. All these featured foods and more will be offered in samples of 3.5 ounces. Remember, it’s called The Bite of Oregon.

“People can try multiple products instead of having one giant plate of a single item,” says Benson.

Attendees of The Bite also have the opportunity to meet the rancher, farmer, or fisherman who is responsible for the flavorful food offered at the Chef’s Table.

“It’s a good partnership,” says Bryan Ostlund, administrator of the Oregon Blueberry Commission. “And it’s a lot of fun for our growers. As the state’s largest food event, The Bite is our best opportunity to meet our customers and tell the story of Oregon blueberries.”

Blueberries, along with many other Oregon agricultural products, are globally recognized for high quality and flavor. Events like The Bite bring that reputation back home by providing an awareness campaign of what is produced in Oregon. Benson says he’s surprised that some Oregonians don’t even know potatoes are grown inside the state’s borders.

“We are looking for more commissions to participate in The Bite next year, and any other urban venue that provides an opportunity to educate people on what is produced in Oregon and how.”

For chefs like Benson, it’s not a case of being loyal to one or a handful of agricultural commodity commissions. They are loyal to good food, especially when it’s produced in Oregon.

For more information, contact Bruce Pokarney at (503) 986-4559.

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