PORTLAND - I must be nuts! President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry are both visiting Portland on this Friday the 13th, and I'm attempting to negotiate traffic downtown. There's no place to park within a mile or more of Tom McCall Waterfront Park, where Kerry is scheduled to speak and The Bite of Oregon, the state's biggest food, music and beverage bash, is slated to open.
For the first time in its 21-year history, The Bite's organizers have invited restaurants from throughout the state; 50 restaurants and 30 wineries will be on hand. One of the participating eateries is Fulio's Pastaria from Astoria, and I've promised owner-chef Peter Roscoe that I'll help with food preparation, customer service, dishwashing and anything else he requires of me.
Fortunately, it's still early on this Friday morning, and the expected throngs for The Bite and Kerry's outdoor speech have not yet arrived. I zip out of downtown via Burnside Street, find a spot to leave my vehicle two miles away in a residential area of Northwest Portland and hoof it to the festival.
9:30 a.m. - The Bite, a fundraiser for Special Olympics Oregon, doesn't officially open for a half hour, and none of the security folks ask for identification as I saunter through the entranceway, a good thing because I have none. I quickly locate the Fulio's booth, situated among four other coastal vendors - Bell Buoy of Seaside and Mo's, the Stephanie Inn and The Wayfarer, all from Cannon Beach. The latter two share the same setup.
While hooking up the sink, searching for extra trash bags and hoping out loud that the electrical guy will show up shortly, Roscoe explains the drill. Fulio's will be serving grilled Oregon albacore and rigatoni coated with a zesty marinara, and he expects between 2,000 and 2,500 customers during the three-day-long Bite. On hand are 500 pounds of tuna filets, boxes and boxes of pasta and a huge stock pot brimming with unheated sauce. First task for me is to pour water into the bottom of the steam table, then wash the two multi-gallon plastic containers that previously held the marinara.
11:55 a.m. - The Bite's hubbub has turned into a frenzy, and lots more people are pouring through the gates. A small line has formed in front of the Fulio's booth, enticed no doubt by marinated albacore sizzling on the grill. "You're gonna love the tuna," the effervescent Roscoe tells a waiting customer. Sure enough, it's fabulous; Roscoe fed me a chunk earlier, and I can hardly wait to savor some more. The high school and college kids Roscoe has hired to help out are scurrying every which way to do whatever's necessary.
1 p.m. - Dressed in a purple polo shirt and black shorts, I don't look official. And I'm not wearing a badge. Yet when I take a break and wander the festival, no one questions me as I peek behind the scenes, browsing the temporary kitchens and observing chefs in action. One of the Asian noodle guys is particularly entertaining as he works his wok. Still, the most fun is standing behind the Fulio's counter - away from the hot grill - and watching The Bite pass by. Stages at either end of the festival are blaring live music.
2:22 p.m. - I take time off for noshing, beginning with a slice of veggie pizza topped with tomatoes, basil pesto and three cheeses from Portland's Hot Lips Pizza. Next, I appease my sweet tooth with a wedge of wheat-free Irish oatmeal cake from Piece of Cake, voted the purveyor of Portland's best cake by Willamette Week newspaper. Got to pace myself, I figure, as all manner of fast food and beverage beckons, everything from crayfish Adrienne to East African iced tea. I opt next for a "Carolina-style" pulled pork sandwich from Smokin' Swine BBQ, located in The Bite's Willamette Valley section.
Music, comedy, cooking demos, wine tasting - there's so much happening simultaneously. Can't decide where to stop, so I continue to stroll ... right past an array of booths dedicated to Eastern Oregon restaurants and foodstuffs. The dainty pancakes offered by the Oregon Wheat Growers League tempt me in mid-trudge; I try one, then wash it down with a mixed-berry smoothie from Cool Temptations, another Willamette Valley booth. By mid-afternoon, the Kerry crowd, said to be 50,000 strong, spills over into The Bite and moving about becomes trickier.
3:30 p.m. - Seemingly everybody (except me) at The Bite has a cell phone, including an official in the Sysco Foods booth behind us, who has her phone upside her head every time I look. Some folks are talking, walking and eating simultaneously, a nifty balancing act. I'm downing copious quantities of bottled water; occasionally I repair to a workers' lounge area outfitted with a couch, cushy chairs and a long table piled with bananas, bags of pretzels, cookies and candy corn.
Determined to sample something out of the ordinary, I take my third or fourth foray into the festival. Foie gras flan with black truffle sauce from Hurley's in Portland sounds unfit for an 89-degree day, so I instead savor a chicken-sundried tomato sausage sandwich garnished with grilled onions from Portland's Rheinlander booth, followed immediately by a Horn of Africa (from Portland) garlic-lemon chicken wrap. Gads, I'm getting full, but I can't resist the Marionberry shortcake from Hoffman's Dairy Garden of Canby, served by a woman colorfully attired as, I'm guessing, a fruit cocktail.
Roscoe's giving a cooking demo called "Tuna Outside the Can" at 4:30 p.m. on the Chef's Palate Stage. He returns with yummy leftovers.
6 p.m. - John Newman, chef at the Stephanie Inn, tells me he already has served more than 1,000 crab cakes, which he and his crew are continuously browning on a set of nifty Evo grills fronting an adjacent booth. I'm toasted: hot, semi-exhausted and tired of being on my feet. When I tell Roscoe I'm thinking about returning home to Astoria, he graciously gives me the go-ahead. "If we get slammed tonight, so be it," he announces with his trademark smile, an expression that looks equally mischievous and happy.
Walking back to my car, I ponder my "Bite" experience - now I really appreciate the regimen restaurant folks endure regularly.
Contact the Mouth at The Daily Astorian, P.O. Box 210, Astoria, OR 97103 or phone (503) 325-3211 or e-mail email@example.com