Erika Polmar – Charity Begins on the Farm

I
t’s the kind of day you dream about all Portland winter and spring long. Whatever plans you have are secondary to the evening you are anticipating—one that you planned months ago. You breathe in your weather dividend, turn on your car’s ignition and take it to the bank. A half dozen or so tunes later, you can’t resist removing the barrier between you and the visions of lush green farmlands, so you lower your window and let the Oregon summer aroma permeate your cabin and your senses. You twist and turn and whoosh down two-lane rural roads until you come upon a young, jean-clad woman in a brown t-shirt, smiling and waving at you, right next to a pristine white sign with the red Plate & Pitchfork logo. Take the left she invites you to take. You’re in for a real Oregon treat brought to you by an orchestra of passionate, hard-working people—all of whom will create the culinary concert you are about to take in, directed and conducted by Erika Polmar.

This evening you will enjoy delicious courses prepared by two of Portland’s finest chefs, skillfully cooking with foodstuff sourced at the very farm you will tour. Their talents are magnified by the fact that they are cooking for 120 discerning people on grills and tables you might find in the parking lot at Autzen Stadium. You will get to know the farmers, the chefs, and the winemaker whose wines have been carefully selected not only to complement your dish, but to help you appreciate the soil on which your white-clothed table sits. You will hear stories and explanations from all those that work the land and the flames—those who grow, prepare and plate your dinner.

photo by Chris Angelus

Erika has been inviting people smack dab in the middle of Mother Nature’s kitchens for 10 years now. Her summer series has been expanded to include out-of-the-ordinary experiences—like the new hands-on cooking series called ForkLift, and paddles-in adventures where you can find yourself on the Snake River enjoying days full of rapids and meals prepared by Iron Chefs on river banks. All of this requires much heart and work in the spirit of helping farmers and hungry people, directly and indirectly, as you will see below. The by-product of that charitable foundation on which Plate & Pitchfork is built, however, is paradoxically both a learning and hedonistic experience in which any true Oregonian should invest at least once. With all that’s on Erika’s plate, she’s quite busy. But I was able to catch up with her and the pot of Blue Flower Earl Grey #15 she had waiting for me at Tea Chai Té on a cool, damp, mid-spring day.

It’s the kind of day you dream about all Portland winter and spring long. Whatever plans you have are secondary to the evening you are anticipating—one that you planned months ago. You breathe in your weather dividend, turn on your car’s ignition and take it to the bank. A half dozen or so tunes later, you can’t resist removing the barrier between you and the visions of lush green farmlands, so you lower your window and let the Oregon summer aroma permeate your cabin and your senses. You twist and turn and whoosh down two-lane rural roads until you come upon a young, jean-clad woman in a brown t-shirt, smiling and waving at you, right next to a pristine white sign with the red Plate & Pitchfork logo. Take the left she invites you to take. You’re in for a real Oregon treat brought to you by an orchestra of passionate, hard-working people—all of whom will create the culinary concert you are about to take in, directed and conducted by Erika Polmar.

This evening you will enjoy delicious courses prepared by two of Portland’s finest chefs, skillfully cooking with foodstuff sourced at the very farm you will tour. Their talents are magnified by the fact that they are cooking for 120 discerning people on grills and tables you might find in the parking lot at Autzen Stadium. You will get to know the farmers, the chefs, and the winemaker whose wines have been carefully selected not only to complement your dish, but to help you appreciate the soil on which your white-clothed table sits. You will hear stories and explanations from all those that work the land and the flames—those who grow, prepare and plate your dinner.

Erika has been inviting people smack dab in the middle of Mother Nature’s kitchens for 10 years now. Her summer series has been expanded to include out-of-the-ordinary experiences—like the new hands-on cooking series called ForkLift, and paddles-in adventures where you can find yourself on the Snake River enjoying days full of rapids and meals prepared by Iron Chefs on river banks. All of this requires much heart and work in the spirit of helping farmers and hungry people, directly and indirectly, as you will see below. The by-product of that charitable foundation on which Plate & Pitchfork is built, however, is paradoxically both a learning and hedonistic experience in which any true Oregonian should invest at least once. With all that’s on Erika’s plate, she’s quite busy. But I was able to catch up with her and the pot of Blue Flower Earl Grey #15 she had waiting for me at Tea Chai Té on a cool, damp, mid-spring day.

photo by Chris Angelus

What is it that you really think you’re involved with?

That may be the best question ever. I didn’t start my professional life being in food. I started in marketing and communication and technology. And every one of those was about building audience and always having one plus one equal three. So I think Plate & Pitchfork is still doing that. What I am is a catalyst to collaboration. I live and breathe Plate & Pitchfork.

Do you have something that you can identify in your childhood that caused you to want to be involved with farms and sustainability?

My parents were both scientists, and we had a garden not necessarily because we needed a garden to have food. My mom enjoyed playing in the dirt, but it was also really important that we knew a carrot was a root. It was always a science experiment that seeds germinated—how to plant the seed. And, how the fruit was born and what pollination was.

As an adult, seeing people at a farmers market who didn’t know that carrots were dirty because they were roots or that lettuce had a slug on it because it was grown so close to the ground, made me realize how unusual it was that those things were part of my upbringing. I knew those things without thinking about them.

What kind of childhood did you lead? Small town? 

It’s filled with memorable trips to the Crawford Auto Museum (where my grandfather would talk to the mechanics restoring the cars), climbing on dinosaur statues at the Museum of Natural History, and seeing the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall. The place I most consider home was a small town in northeastern Ohio where everyone, no matter what age, went to the high school football games, and you could learn the most relevant news by walking into the diner in the middle of town. We had an immense amount of freedom and got into just the right amount of trouble.

I was doing an event where I was working with chefs in 2001. My former business partner was talking about dinners she had done in Italy on an agricultural estate where they had wine and olive oil and how they had this great community supper, and I said, “We can do that here. We have the right climate.” We went out and talked to a couple of farms and discovered that farmers had always wanted to have farm dinners but were too busy farming to be planning events. The first year we had three dinners with 45 people. 10 years later—17 dinners, 120 people a night. I don’t really know how it happened.

How could you not know?

Because ten years ago no one was talking about local, sustainable and organic. But it made sense. And I’m surprised that people still need and want the conversation.

photo by Chris Angelus

Do you think you had something to do with that conversation?

If I could implant a chip into every diner and track them that would be one thing, but I can’t do that, unfortunately. Or fortunately for them. But anecdotally I know I have given some of the smaller farms opportunities for growth. You can track diners that come to Plate & Pitchfork and purchasing patterns.

Do you have a memory you can draw upon that completely embodies the moment you knew this was an incredible thing you were doing?

One of the very first dinners we were at Lone Elder Farm in Canby and the sun was setting perfectly as the guests were sitting. There was this low-level chatter with food on the table and everything was calm in this giant field of corn and there was this feeling of, “Wow, we did it. And they like it.”

Can you recall a moment where you just thought you wanted to walk away?

Those don’t happen on the farms at the dinners. The moments I dread and I wonder why I do what I do are usually at two o’clock in the morning in the dish pit at KitchenCru as I’m washing all the dishes. Or, Monday after dinners and I am at the recycling center at the dump. Everyone thinks I have this totally romantic job—but they don’t think that I am the one disposing of the lamb carcass. My mom told me if I got Cs in high school, I would be a garbage man. And I didn’t get Cs. I got good grades. And I’m still a garbage man.

But then Monday afternoon I sit down at my computer or I listen to voicemail, and there’s a customer saying it was great—or more often than not, it’s somebody having an “aha” moment, and it erases the crap.

Who means the most to you?

All of my farmers. When they open their farm to me, they’re opening their home. I move in for three days. I am there at weird hours. They see me at my worst. But they embrace me and I’ve learned so much from them about how to evolve, both as a person and a businessperson. I love the chefs and the winemakers, and my service team is incredible. But when I look back over 10 years, it’s the farmers who have had the biggest impact on me. Farmers are dealing with flooded fields now, and the year before we had that crazy tornado on Grand Island. They roll with every punch and rarely complain.

So you’ve got Plate & Pitchfork. You’ve got ForkLift under the umbrella of Plate & Pitchfork, and are now doing rafting trips. What more do you want to be in Portland? 

I think about this on a regular basis. I don’t know what I want to do when I grow up. Plate & Pitchfork raises money for nonprofits. The contribution that I can make to the community, specifically for eradicating hunger, is really important to me. I want people to understand how their buying decisions make an impact on the health of their community. If Plate & Pitchfork stays relevant, I’ll keep doing it. But I’m not interested in having dinner parties for the sake of having dinner parties. And personally, I preach balance. I have no balance in my life. So in terms of a personal goal, it’s trying to create a more sustainable life for myself. I’m really good at doing business, not my personal life.

Speaking of balance, how do you feel about phones at the dinner table?

Extreme dislike. I miss letters written on paper and phones attached to walls with long, twisted cords. Cell phones and all the apps that come with them have propagated short attention spans and an interruption-driven community. Neither is very good for conversations anywhere, much less the dinner table.

photo by Tim Sugden

You have a lot to do with the wine industry. Where do you see it in 10… 15 years?

Climate change is going to dramatically affect our wineries. Oregon wineries are going to evolve and deal with it. We will do nothing but grow. And also, the biggest change we’ll probably see is that Oregon will stop being known as just the place where pinot noir comes from.

What about food? What about the restaurants?

There’s a very specific type of restaurant that thrives in Portland. I’m encouraged by the fact that people think about what they eat. I’m concerned that it’s become so precious and pretentious. Having a conversation over a table and breaking bread with somebody is one of the best ways to connect with them. But it can just be bread. It doesn’t have to be an extravagant 5-course meal. I don’t know what the tipping point is, but I see the pros and cons to both of those. I mean, obviously, I want people to come to my dinners. But I’m always shocked when I see people come to multiple dinners.

Why?

It’s an extravagance. I know it’s a beautiful, fabulous experience, but it almost feels excessive.

If you were in a market with more disposable income, you would see more of that excess.

What I know is that the restaurants support the growth of small farms. People’s awareness of what they’re eating—whether it’s from a restaurant or whether it’s from Plate & Pitchfork or whether it’s from shopping at a farmers market or New Seasons—all of that is going into creating a healthier, more sustainable food ecosystem. The trick now is we’re still one of the hungriest states in the nation, and so we’ve got to bridge that. And my fear is that we tip so much in one direction that we actually create a bigger gap. So people that are currently able to take care of themselves and eat good food are not going to be able to.

Why are we the hungriest state in the nation?

You want a dissertation? When you sit in Portland and you look around at your neighbors—we live in a really isolated pod and the rest of the state doesn’t look like Portland. We’ve lost a lot of industry in this state and we have a tremendous amount of hunger, especially in youth. I think about it every day.

So you’ve been around hungry people?

I’ve served in emergency food shelter kitchens. It comes from the awareness of… that apple is $2. I can’t afford that. How does a family of four do that?

Yeah, I’ve started to notice those things. You pick up a piece of fruit and say, “I remember it being 30¢, not what a sandwich used to be.”

Exactly. And then you see the woman with a stroller with two kids in it in the grocery store, and you think, “How?”

www.plateandpitchfork.com

About The Author: Chris Angelus