WHY WE FEAST
I'm always a bit conflicted about Portland's annual food extravaganza. Feast Portland, now in its sixth year, brings together chefs and gourmands from across the country to indulge in four days of food fanaticism. I've attended four of the festival's six years and, to be clear, no one had to twist my arm. It's hard not to catch Feast fever when every Portland chef, food professional and eater is buzzing with anticipation for the event. The stakes are high, driving chefs to unveil their most creative bites to impress an increasingly discerning crowd. Zero holds are barred, zero stomachs are empty.
Well, not zero stomachs.
The thought that always gnaws at me, even as I wash down my Indian-spiced goat sausage with another smoked aquavit and celery cocktail, is of my neighbors in Oregon, wondering where—or if—they'll find their next meal. The idea of hungry people in Oregon may seem hard to swallow, given its largest city's reputation as the best food city in America. But food insecurity affects one in five Oregonians, or about 644,000 people. To put that in perspective, Oregon consistently ranks among the hungriest states in the nation, its hunger rates higher than all but five other states.
It's not that Feast Portland is ignorant of the conundrum. Since its inception in 2012, Feast has donated its net proceeds (more than $300,000) to charities fighting childhood hunger. This year, the festival's exclusive charity is the very worthy Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon. But hungry children and families are missing out on more than calories.
When we attend an event like Feast, dine at a trendy restaurant, or cook a meal for our loved ones, sating our biological requirement for nourishment is typically not the primary motivation. We cook and eat and share food to experience joy and connection. Food is a medium, used to celebrate (or appropriate) culture, mark milestones and tell stories. We invest so much energy into events like Feast to tap into the formidable power of food. But food is also political and divisive, its dark side fueled by our willingness to avert our gaze from that truth.
As with all gnarly social problems, it's difficult to know what to do. Ignorance is always easier. I don't know how to end world hunger or even to reconcile my desire to taste Earl Ninsom's brisket curry with my disgust for how much food I toss at big events like this just because I'm ready to sample the next thing. But I do know a couple things. First, food has incredible potential to heal the world at physical, emotional and spiritual levels. Second, food leaders have a great responsibility to wield its power thoughtfully. I think (hope) the folks at Feast get that. And I think it's fine, even useful, to lift food up as a vehicle to ignite our sense of wonder. But as you enjoy your lobster ceviche and smoked duck fat ice cream—and you should enjoy it—also take a moment to consider your privilege, appreciate your opportunity, and remember that you're not here because you needed something to eat.