Editor’s note: OPB’s video series “Superabundant” explores the stories behind the foods of the Pacific Northwest. Now we’re taking the same guiding principles to a new platform: Email. We’ve brought on food writer Heather Arndt Anderson, a Portland-based culinary historian and botanist, to highlight different aspects of the region’s food ecosystem every week. This week she takes a look at how succulent pears became Oregon’s official state fruit.
As our badger summer finally begins to wend its way in a generally more autumn-y direction, we reflect on the myriad ways in which life evolves in this ever-changing world. The figs and blackberries, still ripening just last week, are turning to booze and vinegar on their pedicels, and the cedar waxwings are getting drunk on all of it. The light has hints of amber to it, the shadows seem longer, and at its peak is the shapeliest of fruits, the pear. Pears are used to flavor everything from jelly beans to brandy, but do you know how distillers get a pear into a bottle of eau-de-vie? Read on to find out!
Small bites: a multitude of mithai, supermarket sticker shock, and Ashland’s rising star
Freshly picked morsels from the Pacific Northwest food universe:
Love, light and a whole lotta sweets This Monday (Oct. 24) is the beginning of Diwali — a festival of lights celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, and Newar Buddhists. It celebrates the triumph of good over evil; of light over darkness — and it couldn’t come at a better time, as daylight hours rapidly shrink. So light a diya and get plenty of South Asian mithai (sweets) like chum chum, rasgulla and kalakand at any of the numerous Desi markets in Beaverton or Taj Indian Grocery and Sweets in Salem.
Butter and eggs cost an arm and a leg Last week, Kiauna “Kee” Nelson, owner of the acclaimed food cart Kee’s Loaded Kitchen (featured in the Portland episode of the latest season of the Netflix series Street Food), shared an Instagram post highlighting the real struggles faced by owners of small restaurants; namely, the price of 15 dozen eggs has increased from $14.99 pre-pandemic to around $52 in August, and now nearly $67 just two months later. Forbes also reports that national average butter prices jumped nearly 25% from August 2021 to 2022. For those living on the edge, this is no small potatoes (incidentally, the price of potatoes has also increased by more than 15%). Disruption to global distribution channels is partly to blame, so there’s never been a better time to eat local.
Small town boy makes good Shakespearean actors may get the glory in Ashland, but sometimes creative genius takes place at the stove instead of on the stage. Belated congratulations to MÅS in Ashland for hitting the New York Times “America’s 50 Best Restaurants” list a few weeks ago. Helmed by Southern Oregon native Josh Dorcak, the diminutive restaurant offers tasting menus that seamlessly weave Cascadian ingredients like local uni (sea urchin roe) and elderberries with intricate preservation techniques not often seen outside Kyoto — think carrots with acorn miso roasted over binchotan charcoal, or savory sunchokes with truffle-kelp paste and fried kombu. Watch the uni episode of Superabundant..
A perfect pear
Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote that “there are only ten minutes in the life of a pear when it is perfect to eat.” That might be a slight exaggeration, but not by much. A perfectly ripe pear is ephemeral; a triumph of nature. The essence of a juicy pear — ethyl decadienoate — evokes grassy green fields, rose brambles and sweet almond; it’s also found in pear cousins quince and apple. So beloved are pears that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has a National Clonal Germplasm Repository outpost in Corvallis, dedicated to pears alone. It contains the genetic material of more than 2,000 pear varieties.
More than 3,000 types of pears are grown worldwide, but only 10 are commercially grown here in the Northwest. And yet, the pear is Oregon’s state fruit — a whopping 80% of the country’s pear crop comes from Washington and Oregon. Summer pears like Bartlett, Starkrimson and Tosca are harvested beginning in August (in a normal weather year), whereas winter varieties like Bosc, Comice and Anjou are harvested through September. For our money, a Forelle is peerless — a fragrant and juicy variety that pairs remarkably with Cambozola cheese. But how did Oregon become an epicenter of pear culture? That story begins on the Oregon Trail.
Henderson Luelling: abolitionist, orchardist, swinger
In 1846, an abolitionist Quaker from Iowa began his preparations for a big change. He’d heard tell of the rich lands out west, free for the taking. He spent a year making preparations — rounding up his wife and eight children, gathering supplies. He outfitted two wagons with sturdy planter boxes, filled them with humus and charcoal, and planted them out with 700 saplings and shrubs. He joined up with Lot Whitcomb (who’d go on to found the town of Milwaukie, Oregon) and set off.
People called him crazy, but by gum, half of the plants survived the overland journey. He set up a land claim just north of Milwaukie, in what is now Portland’s Sellwood neighborhood (at the current location of Waverly Golf Course, specifically), and cleared the Doug-fir forest to make way for a new nursery. A year later, his buddy William Meek joined him, bringing along more seeds and scions, and in 1848 the duo opened Luelling and Meek Nursery a decade before Oregon had even attained statehood.
They grew an astounding array of fruits, not the least of which were a few varieties of pears now considered heirlooms. They grew Winter Nelis, Seckel, Fall Butter, Pound, Easter and Bartlett. “[T]he first Oregon nursery was set that autumn with portent more significant for the luxury and civilization of this country than any laden ship that ever entered the mouth of the Columbia,” historian Joseph Gaston wrote in 1911. Early fruit growers had an alchemical gift for turning apples into cheddar.
As the nursery grew, so too did the population in the West. The gold boom in California created new demand for fresh fruit, and after a few years Luelling and Meek, now stinking rich, each sold their share of the nursery and made their way south to stake claims in California. Meek bought 3,000 acres in Alameda County and built himself a mansion; Luelling established the city of Fruitvale, but then he took up with some Free Lovers in Oakland, sold Fruitvale to the governor of California, and set off on a schooner headed to Honduras.
Read Heather Arndt Anderson’s article about Henderson Luelling’s failed Tiger Island sex cult in Portland Monthly.
Harry and David prove that pears make paper
Over the following decades, fruit growing took off across the state, and by the 1880s there were two commercial orchards in the Rogue Valley, near Medford. One of them, Bear Creek Orchard, changed ownership a few times throughout the turn of the 20th century as pears were booming in the region. Bear Creek Orchard’s pears won several first-place prizes at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in 1909, catching the attention of Seattle hotelier Samuel Rosenberg, whose two sons had just graduated from Cornell with shiny new agriculture degrees. Rosenberg bought the nursery in 1910 and his sons, Harry and David, came down to southern Oregon’s scrubby savannah to run the orchard after their father’s death in 1914.
Everything was going great until the Great Depression, when everything went, well, pear-shaped. Nobody was buying fresh fruit, and that sent prices through the floor. The Rosenberg brothers brought 15 cases of pears to New York City to try to promote the product, but a week later the pears remained unsold. At the suggestion of G. Lynn Sumner, a copywriter turned marketing genius (and author of “How I Learned the Secrets of Success in Advertising” in 1952), the Rosenbergs took their perfect pears to New York’s highest-profile execs — folks like Walter Chrysler, the chief of RCA Records, and a chairman of General Electric. The next day, hundreds of orders came pouring in, and the mail-order gift box fruit business was born.
Just as it had in Japan for centuries, the practice of giving gifts of expensive fruit to important people became a custom among the country’s corporate elite. Over the years, the advertisements that ran in Fortune and Time magazines leaned on the image of flannel-clad cartoon bears or depicted the brothers themselves as a couple of rakish farm boys with a pear hobby.
Nowadays it seems like Medford grows more cannabis than pears, but Jackson County is still a top producer of the state’s favorite pome. The “Fruit Loop” of Hood River County also supplies the region with plenty of pears and is now the source of the pears that flavor Oregon-distilled brandies. New Deal’s pear brandy is made in Portland from pears grown in Hood River, and Clear Creek Distillery, too, moved operations to Hood River when they were bought by Hood River Distillery in 2014. It takes 20 pounds of pears to make one 750 ml bottle of their pear brandy, but to get the pear inside the bottle takes a little wizardry — the empty bottles must be tied to the branches with the baby pear inside, and the pear continues growing throughout the summer until harvest time when the bottles are plucked from the tree with the pear inside.
Comedian George Carlin once said “a pear is a failed apple,” but that salty old naysayer never lived in the Northwest. Our pears are special. From covered wagons to coup glasses, pears have journeyed their way into our hearts.
Recipe: Focaccia with Pears and Pecorino
Medieval Italians understood the true value of a perfectly ripe pear — it’s a taste of the good life. “Never let a peasant know how good cheese is with pears,” warned the old proverb, wishing to reserve the pleasure of the high-borne fruit paired with a humble wedge of cheese as a luxury for the social elite. At the risk of letting farmers enjoy the fruits of their labor (how dare we!), we offer this easy recipe that allows best mates pears and cheese to shine.
- 2 cups lukewarm water
- 1 tbsp active dry yeast
- 1 tbsp honey
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- ½ cup olive oil, divided
- ¾ cup whole wheat bread flour
- 3 ½ cups all-purpose flour
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- 1 tsp black pepper
- ½ large Bosc or Bartlett pear, cored and thinly sliced
- ¼ cup shaved Pecorino Romano cheese (or other hard cheese, like Asiago or Parmesan)
- 1 tbsp chopped fresh rosemary
- Flake salt for sprinkling on top
- Smoked honey for drizzling (optional)
- In a large mixing bowl, combine the water, yeast, and honey, and stir to combine. Allow to sit for a couple minutes, until the mix gets a bit foamy, then add the kosher salt, ¼ cup of the olive oil, and flour. Using the dough hook on a stand mixer (or with a rubber spatula), mix for about five minutes, until a smooth (but still pretty gloopy) dough is formed. Scrape the loose dough into an oiled bowl, cover, and let it sit in a warm spot for an hour or so. (Note: You can also pop the dough in the fridge overnight and wait to bake it the next day; the flavor will develop more fully. Just pull it out two hours before you want to bake it so it can come up to room temp.)
- Preheat the oven to 450oF and oil a 9″ x 13″ rimmed baking sheet or two 8″ cake pans with 4 tablespoons of olive oil. Transfer the dough to the oiled sheet pan (or divide in half for each cake pan) and gently press it out to meet the edge. Using the tips of your fingers to play a little air piano on the dough, then drizzle on the rest of the olive oil. (It will seem like a lot of oil, but the bread will sponge it right up and create the crispy edges you want.) Leave the dough to rise for another 20 minutes, until it’s nicely puffy.
- Strew the sliced pears and shaved cheese over the top of the dough, then sprinkle on the chopped rosemary and a couple generous pinches of flake sea salt. Bake for 20 minutes, until golden brown and hollow-sounding when you rap on the bottom of the pan with a butter knife, or when the internal temperature reaches 190 F.
- Slide a thin knife along the edges of the pan to dislodge the focaccia from its pan(s), then cool on a rack for 15 minutes before even thinking about slicing into it! If you like, drizzle on a little smoked honey and add more salt before serving.