May 08 2013

Good Fast (Trail) Food

In a food cart built from scratch, I watched Picnic's John Dovydenas and Jen Cox form bread from giant containers of yeasted dough, roast carrots into softly blistered orange chunks, slice freshly roasted Kookoolan chickens to order, and hand customers hearty, creative cookie combinations like olive oil and pine nut. Picnic just opened their chalkboard shutters for their third season, moving locations to the food pod on SW 3rd and Stark in downtown Portland. From 10:45 to 1:15, I watched them field orders, greet customers from previous years, and prep sandwiches. After dealing with an irregular customer base while parked at the Green Castle food pod last year, John and Jen were elated to sell out of their sandwiches within three hours.

Over the past decade, America's street food culture has transformed itself from roaming carts full of street meat and ice cream, to mobile platforms for food experimentation. While street meat and other food of questionable origin still exist, now you're just as likely to find artisanal ice cream carts, lobster rolls, and unique takes on grilled cheese. Yet these additional carts, while welcome, have made the food cart scene more complicated: before, the challenge was in finding something edible; now it's in sifting through the sheer number of innovative carts and the social media noise that surrounds them.

This is especially true in Portland, a city home to over 400 food carts. Some carts roam the city, stopping in different locations each day, while most park in designated food pods. I'm drawn to how a cart can provide eager cooks a place to experiment without much overhead, and how a pod of carts can become a gathering spot for people who might normally never eat with or near each other.

In the food cart world, change can come quickly. In some cases, a cart may open to laudatory press, only to shut a few months later. Other carts use their tiny mobile kitchens as launchpads for brick and mortar restaurants. And some, despite an eager customer base, simply disappear. That's the nature of food carts, and it's a reality which to some extent is out of the cart owner's control. The cart's parking lot could be sold. The food pod might have very little foot traffic. The cart could continuously have parts break down, making it impossible to earn a living.

In rare cases, food carts open slowly and deliberately, exhibiting a propensity to steadfastness while maintaining a level of flexibility. A prime example of this methodical approach is Portland's Picnic.

I had lunch at Picnic a handful times last summer, when it was parked in Northeast's Green Castle food pod. The cart is constructed from salvaged barn wood, complete with a denim insulated ceiling, and outfitted with custom lettering (John went through several different type choices and colors before settling on Kodak Orange Georgia). Picnic features a small viewing glass case for cookies and baked goods, and hand written menus on two flanking chalkboards. Labeling their goods "Oregon trail food", the first thing I noticed last year was how fitting the entire menu would be for a hearty picnic, or for munching after a long hike. The menu changes with the seasons and is dominated by big, mouthwatering flavors: filling roasted vegetable sandwiches, reubens with cart-made corned beef and sauerkraut, and fried egg sandwiches with melted boerenkaas, roasted padron peppers, and basil. Everything is wrapped in butchers' paper, making it quite portable for a real picnic, if you're so inclined.

My taste buds piqued a further investigation into Picnic's menu, revealing a dedication to sourcing and seasonality that I've yet to find in any other cart in Portland. While I hadn't known the full story behind the cart and its origins, I knew that I'd found a cart that merged the gap between speed and quality, while exuding a definitive Portland vibe.

Unwilling to leave my understanding of Picnic at what I could glean from the cart's unique appearance and flavorful food, earlier this Spring, I met with John over coffee at Ford Food and Drink. I had contacted him at a good time: in late March, when we met, the cart was residing in a warehouse on Clinton St, as John repaired it and prepped to tow it to its new location. Surrounding the cart in the warehouse were items that all point to John's far-reaching and varied interests: a tree stump hanging just like a freshly slaughtered deer, a tripod holding a Nikon fitted with one of his dad's old film prime lenses, and most surprisingly, barrels of wine. The warehouse, along with storing Picnic this past offseason, is where John makes and stores wine for his new winery, Dovydenas Wines.

It took John two years to create Picnic. Before opening in 2011, he constructed the entire cart from scratch, encountering obstacles from the very beginning, but refusing to open until his cart met the standard he wanted. He originally bought a "junky old trailer" he'd hoped to remodel. The trailer's model was the Woodsman, and John briefly considered keeping that as the cart's name, before ultimately shifting to Picnic. As he says, "Picnic seemed liked a good name – I've always loved picnics, making baskets and going out into the woods."

Between 2009 and 2011, John built the cart from the outside in (you can read about the process, and various hiccups, on his blog archives). The exterior alone took a full year. John and his friend Chris laid out the interior of the cart with CAD software, and Chris custom built the windows and cabinets, paying attention to small details that could make John's cart life easier, such as designing the backdoor to be off-center to fit exactly between the sink and stove. This attention to detail extended to everything, even the lettering of the cart's name. From the mason jar lights to the latches on the doors, everything has a place. There's actually more counter space in the cart than John's home kitchen. Because the cart is self-designed and meant for serious cooking, he's one of few cart owners who does all of his cooking in his cart. Literally, all: roasting vegetables, baking cookies, breaking down chickens, whipping up condiments, and forming and baking bread. John guesses that most other cart owners have a commissary kitchen where they can spread out and prepare food for the cart.

But John is hardly rigid in his deliberate, focused, and time-consuming approach to Picnic. In three years of business, John and his co-worker Jen have moved Picnic to three different locations. He's dealt with menu fluctuations, both from sourcing dilemmas and customers' own hungry wishes. While parked at last year's pod, John's favorite sandwich, the beet and chevre, didn't sell at all. "I had to cancel my beet and chevre – no one was ordering it. All customers wanted were reubens," he recalls. "I made this one mistake: I was so sick of making the reubens that I took them off the menu. I had to put them back on the menu because people didn't want to get something else. They wanted the reuben."

Because Picnic's menu is seasonal, and mostly local, his approach to menu planning must remain flexible. He shares that he'd rather adapt to whatever is being grown from the farmers than rely on a single distributor. He currently sources from a collection of farms that include Wealth Underground Farm, Kookooklan, and John's and Jen's own gardens.

John went to school for photography and filmmaking, but when he moved to Portland, he felt drawn to pursue a career in cooking. After stints cooking at Abernethy Elementary School's cooking from scratch program, and creating elaborate dinners for a supper club he ran out of his home, he turned to the idea of opening a food cart.

"I [originally] wanted to start my own restaurant. The cart scene really attracted me the more I looked into it," John says. "I could build my own cart without certain permits, like getting an electrician to do certified work. And... I've always been really into doing all of my work in a tight confined space with other people." Comparing the tight confines of a cart to the famously tight spaces in the film Das Boot, John says that "a cart is the minimum most contained food operation you can have. And I wanted to have a cart where you can do everything in the cart. You get the advantages of restaurant and catering: if the location doesn't work, you just pick up and drive it somewhere else."

While building Picnic, John continued to display his propensity for autodidactism, teaching himself to cure meat, make his own butter and condiments, and bake bread. "The effort someone else might put into into making a fussy dish, I'd rather put the effort into learning how it's made from scratch," he says. "I see it as continuing to learn about food, starting from the basics."

The desire to build and learn everything from scratch allows John to remain inspired and creative. "The thing that's been the most difficult," he explains, "is maintaining your inspiration to cook day after day. All the ingredients that come in are raw, fresh, unprocessed. It's so much more inspiring to work with those kind of ingredients instead of buying jugs of mayo and mustard. Transforming everything yourself is one way to keep things fresh and inspiring. I end up with a well rounded group of basics that I'm making everyday. Like being a pioneer housewife."

On the cart's opening day, John and Jen – head baker, salad maker, and friendly order taker – moved fluidly in the small space, each with their assigned roles and fresh enthusiasm. Even before the cart's opening, it was easy to hear the anticipation in John's voice when he talked about about the new location and season:

It's going to be exciting being back downtown again. It felt like so much more of an adventure being downtown because I don't get downtown that much. Downtown is where the customers for Picnic really are. It's a lunch focused crowd. Green Castle was a trickle. Downtown, if someone wants to come to the cart, they'll also find something else to do.

And John anticipates changes for Picnic, if all goes according to plan, including a breakfast service, coffee (from Courier and Olé Latte), and even remaining open over the Winter, with a potential Saturday service.

I've yet to encounter another cart preparing and sourcing the kind of food Picnic makes each day: their food is the same quality I'd seek in a restaurant or from the farmers' market, but is available to me quickly and portably, while in a heavily trafficked location.

There's been much written lately about healthier fast food. Food writer and cooking champion Mark Bittman recently wrote a lengthy article about budding incarnations of healthier fast food chains. These restaurants want to give people options other than hamburgers; one even aims to make brussels sprouts the new french fry. Ultimately, the goal of each restaurant is to expand across the entire country, creating places where people can buy tofu sandwiches instead of breaded chicken sandwiches, or banana kale smoothies instead of McFlurries. I understand the need in our culture for fast, filling food. But I'm hesitant to believe that a nationwide chain of marginally healthier, standardized menus is the correct direction for America's food culture.

Healthier chains with identical menus still need to access the same standardized industrial food chain as their less healthy restaurant siblings. Creating uniform menus and shipping brussels sprouts grown in monocultures across the country is simply business as usual: the flavors will be diluted, the sourcing will be difficult to trace, there will be no regional or seasonal differences, and ultimately, we'll all be eating the same thing. If Veggie Grill wants us to order the same food whether we're in Southern California or Wisconsin, the food, even if it's healthier on paper, won't be exciting, flavorful, or flexible. Bittman writes, "Good Fast Food doesn’t need to be vegan or even vegetarian; it just ought to be real, whole food". Good Fast Food should also draw from the region where it's cooked, and not contribute to monocultures and continued growth of industrial farming.

Picnic is unique because it's a local model of quicker food that doesn't sacrifice on ingredients or flavor. The pithy slogan "Oregon trail food" works because John and Jen source and cook in Portland. I would never advocate for an identical Picnic food cart to open in Brooklyn. Picnic isn't replicable. But, the idea – locally and ethically sourced ingredients, accessible yet bold flavors, and flexible menus – should be celebrated and even locally replicated. The key is understanding a region's uniqueness and local foodshed, rather than trying to find a national fix to healthier fast food. As I witnessed last Monday, the Portlanders standing in line at Picnic seem to agree.