More Sustainable Meat and Seafood Traceable to the Source? Bring It On!

Portland cooks and makers rejoice! After months of fits and starts on their expansion plans—the pandemic has wreaked havoc on construction schedules and state agency certifications alike—Revel Meat Co. and Two x Sea have finally filled their cases and staffed their counters at Providore Fine Foods on Northeast Sandy Boulevard.

"We’re happy to announce that after many months, the debut of their full-service meat and seafood counter at Providore is here," said Kaie Wellman, co-owner of Providore along with her husband, Kevin de Garmo and their business partner, Bruce Silverman. "The 'protein' corner of the store has been transformed into a mecca for those who want to work closely with their local butcher and fishmonger to source top-quality, small-farmed meat and sustainably caught seafood."

While the original plans calling for an oyster bar have been scotched, there will soon be seating in the new wine room—it's taken the space once occupied by the now-closed Nomad. There are grab-and-go goods aplenty, from salmon cakes, fish croquettes and fresh oysters to marinated chicken skewers and housemade sausages ready to take home and throw on the grill, and Vannatter says to look for holiday specials appearing soon.

A huge problem with our food system is that shoppers are often misled about what they're buying. Tilapia, a common farmed fish, is mislabeled as more expensive snapper—an analysis by the Guardian newspaper of 44 studies found that "nearly 40% of 9000 products from restaurants, markets and fishmongers were mislabelled." The same misinformation is presented to consumers regarding the sourcing, feeding and slaughtering of beef and pork.

Both purveyors have a stated mission to offer transparency and traceability to Portland cooks. Want to know where a piece of fish in the Two x Sea case comes from, the name of the boat that caught it and how it was caught? Just ask. Lauren Vannatter of Two x Sea said, "We'll tell you the real story instead of the made-up story."

Similarly, Revel's Ben Meyer is committed to tossing out what he calls the "smoke and mirrors" of the meat business, including being able to tell shoppers the name of the farmer that raised the animal, how it was raised, what it ate during its lifetime and when and how it was harvested. Like butcher shops in your grandparents' time, you'll be able to see Revel butchers breaking down primals and sub-primals of beef and pork into steaks, chops and roasts, and even butchering a whole lamb.

How about braising a beef neck, buying a whole pork belly for bacon or pig trotters to simmer with a pot of beans? You'll be able to preorder all of those and get them in a day or so. (Me, I was excited to hear that after the holidays—please let it be true, kitchen gods—I might be able to obtain the main ingredient for Hank Shaw's blood sausage, and even order the fourth stomach of the cow called the abomasum, so I can tempt my friend Paolo to make his favorite Tuscan sandwich, lampredotto.)

Calling Providore's partnership with these two purveyors a "perfect marriage," Wellman added that "their sustainability standards are unmatched anywhere. These guys walk their talk."

When the founding partners launched Providore, Wellman said that it was intended to become a vortex for people who love to cook and who care about where their food comes from, and this latest expansion is the long-planned next step in its evolution. "It's a community of like-minded businesses and business owners," she said. "It's the antithesis of a grocery store experience. It's a place where customers come in and are surrounded by real food and high quality products from small producers they can't find elsewhere."

Providore Fine Foods is a sponsor of Good Stuff NW.

Dungeness MIA This Holiday: Crabbers Getting Lowballed by Processors

With price negotiations stalled and the entire West Coast fleet
essentially tied up at the dock,
it looks like holiday crab feeds are going to have to wait.

Every New Year's Eve for the last several years we've gathered with friends for a crab feed. While our get-together wasn't going to be possible in this year of COVID, we wanted to keep the tradition going by having our own crab feed here at home, maybe even ZOOM-ing with our friends for at least a toast, if not the whole feast.

Gorgeous, delicious Dungeness.

But in calling around, there was almost no whole, fresh crab to be found. Odd, since the season for the 2020 commercial Dungeness season opened on December 16.

Is this yet another reason to curse 2020?

In doing a little digging, it turns out that the curses would be more appropriately flung at the large fish processors that dictate the price they're willing to pay crabbers for this quintessentially ephemeral delicacy. The 800-pound gorilla among these processors is Pacific Seafood with 3,000 employees and $1 billion in annual revenue. Next largest is Bornstein Seafoods with 170 employees and $40 million in annual revenue, followed by Hallmark Fisheries and Da Yang Seafood.

According to Tim Novotny of the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commissionan industry-funded agency that's part of the Oregon Department of Agriculture’s (ODA) Commodity Commission Program—each of the state's six major ports has a team of negotiators that, together, meet and propose the price crabbers believe their catch is worth each season. In 2020, the price they went to the processors with started at $3.30 per pound for live crab.

It's not just us: the whole economy of the coast is hurting.

Hallmark and Bornstein countered with a price of $2.20 per pound, then Pacific Seafood came in with a proposal of $2.50 per pound, all roundly dismissed by fishers as barely enough to cover their costs, not to mention not worth risking their lives for in winter's cold, rough seas. Crabbers then came back with a price of $3.20 per pound, which was rejected by processors.

The pandemic is playing a part in negotiations as well, with crabbers saying if crews experience an outbreak it could shut down their season entirely. For their part, processors are nervous about the market for crab, with restaurants only open for takeout and not ordering in their usual volume, and with retail customers hesitant to venture out to stores to buy product.

Pacific Seafood—which Novotny described as "the straw that stirs the drink" because of its position as "the big dog" in the market—is irked that it's being blamed for ruining holiday celebrations. An article for KCBY in Coos Bay quotes Jon Steinman, vice president of processing at Pacific Seafood, as saying "the notion that Pacific Seafood is holding up the Dungeness season is absurd.

"'We are one of many other major buyers on the West Coast,' Steinman said in a statement. "We have to do the best we can for our customers, our fishermen, and our team members who are counting on us to run a good business and be here for this season and years to come.”

Lyf Gildersleeve, Flying Fish.

It is possible that the ODA could get involved in the negotiations if a request is made by both the crabbers and the processors.

"By law, Oregon allows [processors] and fisherman to convene supervised price negotiations with oversight from the ODA," said ODA's Andrea Cantu-Schomus in response to my e-mail. "A request for state-sponsored price negotiations was made to ODA, [but] ultimately there was not enough participation [from both sides] to hold negotiations."

The opaque nature of the negotiations is frustrating to Lyf Gildersleeve of Flying Fish, a sustainable seafood retailer in Portland, who would like to see a more transparent process rather than what he terms a "closed-door conversation" between the haggling parties. "Processors always lowball the price to make another fifty cents per pound," he said, noting that, for the most part, "people will pay whatever it takes" to have their holiday crab.

And as much as I'd like to make this about me, the delay in setting a price for this year's Dungeness catch isn't just inconveniencing my holiday plans, it's hurting the whole economy of the coast. From fishing families to retailers to the small coastal towns already hard-hit by the pandemic, it's compounding the devastation wrought by job losses and the lack of tourist dollars,.

So, with price negotiations stalled and the Oregon and California fleets* essentially tied up at the dock, it looks like our New Year's crab feed is just going to have to wait.

You can find tons of recipes in my Crustacean Celebration series.

* Washington's Dungeness season has been delayed until Jan. 1 due to elevated levels of domoic acid, a marine toxin.


UPDATE: After more than three weeks on strike, on Friday, January 8, commercial Dungeness crab fishermen accepted an offer of $2.75 per pound from Oregon processors, a significant reduction from the crabbers' previous proposal of $3.25 per pound.

Find tons of recipes in my Crustacean Celebration series.