A few months ago, while on location in Portland to film an episode of Munchies' cannabis cuisine series Bong Appetit, I met a local legend—albeit one who very rarely lets on that she's, well, Almost Famous.
Our camera crew was in town to document a "Puff, Puff, Pizza" party arranged by Nick Ford, chef/owner at PREAM—the Pacific Northwest's premiere wood-fired, hip-hop inspired pizzeria. Since making marijuana-infused margherita pies at PREAM could cost him his liquor license, Nick hosted this cheesy, weedy throwdown in a nearby warehouse space, arranging for a mobile pizza oven and a live band, then gathering about fifty ganja-loving Portlanders to celebrate the legalization of "Oregon oregano" in high style.
During a filming break, he introduced me to a tall blonde woman identified only as Pennie, his wild-rice purveyor. She offered me an open invitation to visit her on Sauvie Island, a bucolic oasis just 10 miles from downtown Portland, so I could see where the product grows. At the time, I had no idea she'd inspired one of the more memorable film roles of the last 20 years.
I'd never heard of Sauvie Island, which lies between the Columbia River to the east and the Willamette River to the south, and ranks among the largest river islands in the United States, with about half of its 26,000 acres designated as a wildlife reserve, and much of the rest zoned for agricultural use only. Sixteen miles long and four miles wide, the island is home to just 1,000 or so full-time residents, plus a plethora of flora, fauna and livestock.
"When my dustbowl-era parents moved to Portland in 1950, they discovered the island, and buying a farm here—so they could raise their own food and never go hungry again—became their dream," Pennie told me a few weeks later, when I finally made it out to see her homestead. "So they visited for years until they found the land they wanted to buy, and then it took another six years to persuade the farmer to sell. They raised cattle and sheep, fished for salmon and traded other farmers for fruit, vegetables and fresh milk."
My host related her family history while driving me around the island, en route to a small dinner party a few of her neighbors had arranged. Out the window of her old farm truck, we passed that one typically only encounters on the label of a bottle of ranch dressing. The word "idyllic" gets thrown around a lot these days, but there's really no other way to describe the many flourishing small farms she pointed out as we rolled along a winding two-lane road at sunset.
It was the night before the Portland stop on my recent book tour, and by that time I knew full well I was far from the first traveling performer to accept her hospitality while passing through Stumptown. Born Pennie Anne Trumbull, she was in fact the main inspiration for the "Penny Lane" character in Cameron Crowe's Academy Award-winning film Almost Famous, a largely autobiographical tale of their shared adolescent adventures at the epicenter of the early '70s rock-and-roll scene.
When Pennie first met Cameron in real life, just as in the movie, she took him under her wing.
"I'd heard that this kid got a gig to write for Rolling Stone," she recalled. "At the time, I was taking Journalism 101 at Portland Community College and thought I should be the one to get the big story. And then I saw Cameron, who was just 15-years old, and he really did look like that little boy in the movie. He was totally in over his head, and my heart burst for him. We were both in Seattle to meet up with the Led Zeppelin tour, but they were delayed and I only had two days before I had to go home. So I spent it with Cameron running around town and having fun. We went up the Space Needle 100 times, and talked endlessly about music and life. I knew then that he was very special, and he was going to go far. And I told him so."
While Crowe hesitantly attempted to gain entry by promising the bands publicity, Pennie had already burst on the scene in a big way by offering them entertainment—in many forms. And, also just as in the film, she'd assembled a team of like-minded young women—dubbed the Flying Garter Girls—to help her provide no-strings-attached companionship to those road-weary touring musicians.
"I looked for girls who were always at the front of the stage screaming the loudest to join my troupe. True hard core music fans," Pennie said. "And I told them this is about the music, not anything else, and it's only going to work if you don't want to get anything out of it other than fun. If you want to get married, or you want to fall in love, or get rich off telling your story, keep moving. But if you just want to go out and hear the music you love, and meet the guys who write and perform it, we can have a great time for a few years—and then we're gonna go off and get married to somebody normal and have a white picket fence."
Decades later, she scrupulously maintains a strict policy of never kissing and telling on her truly famous friends, but will confirm that once the Flying Garter Girls met "literally every major rock star" on their wish list (which took about three years), they did indeed shut down operations and walk away mostly unscathed. Pennie even managed to keep her parents from ever finding out about her wild past.
Now long retired from life as a "Band Aid," as the Flying Garter Girls were called in the film, she's a sought-after marketing specialist who splits her time between corporate consulting gigs and maintaining a Sauvie Island farm she inherited from her parents. Plus, she slings a little wild rice on the side to keep things interesting.
Pennie promised me a tour of the operation the following morning, but first we feasted. Lucky me, her friends from Equinox Organics farm turned out to be stone-cold hippies who provided a downhome elegant spread of roasted sweet potatoes with homemade tomato jam; organic free range chicken with garden herbs baked on a bed of mushrooms; and a farm-fresh salad of butternut lettuce and edible flowers, dressed in handmade apple cider vinegar and avocado oil, and flavored with honey, cumin, and roasted pecans.
Over the course of the meal, these modern-day back-to-the-landers described life on the island as alternately "magical," "blessed," healing," and "divine." Based on my limited experience, I found myself wholeheartedly agreeing, especially after downing a second glass of a potent cocktail blending organic Concord grapes, sparkling water, vanilla bean, rose petals, cane sugar—and cannabis-infused tea with Moroccan mint.
Rice Dreams The next day started with a quick trip into town to drop off a 10-pound bag of wild rice at Bar Avignon, an upscale Division Street eatery. Chef Eric Joppie was blaring the Ramones and prepping in the kitchen when Pennie and I arrived. He served us Sauvie Island Wild Rice in an entree dish alongside flat iron steak sauced in a turnip leaf chimichurri.
"Wild rice is nutrient-dense and delicious, with an interesting nutty flavor and texture," he told me. "But I never liked to use it until Pennie brought me some of hers, which cooks so much more quickly because of the way it's produced—and it puffs if you fry it! Plus, it grows 10 miles from the restaurant and Pennie brings it herself. She always has a wild story, and can tell us intimately about the farm—a perfect example of why we prefer sourcing from small local farms."
Pennie's been working directly with chefs like Joppie for the last year, and personally drops off free samples in hopes of getting them hooked.
"Almost everybody I've given a bag to is now using it in their restaurant," she boasted, before slipping into a bit of her sales pitch, explaining that wild rice is actually an aquatic grain that's gluten-free and rich in vitamins and minerals, with twice the protein and fiber of brown rice. Her master plan calls for giving the ancient ingredient new life by inspiring influential chefs in Oregon and beyond to feature it on their menus, but her own favorite applications are more than just haute cuisine.
"My favorite dish is wild rice with dungeonous crab cakes, but I also love to simply add a handful in an omelet or mix it in with tuna fish for extra flavor, texture, and nutrition," she said. "Unlike regular white or brown rice, you can make it ahead of time, and it keeps perfectly in the fridge for two weeks without getting slimy or mushy like regular rice."
At our next stop, back on Sauvie Island, Pennie introduced me to farmer John Stockfleth, who also noted how well wild rice works as a leftover. "In the morning," he told me, "I like to fry it with chopped up bacon, onion, and scrambled eggs."
In 2013, Stockfleth planted the first crop of Sauvie Island Wild Rice (from Minnesota seed stock) as a gambit to attract ducks to a rustic hunting lodge owned by his friend and neighbor on the island. It yielded so well they decided to harvest, process and sell their output, enlisting Pennie to work on sales and marketing for their new joint venture.
Stockfleth took me out to see the wild rice, which covers nine acres, all of it tended using no-till farming methods.
"I don't even own a plow," he said. "I just plant into last year's residue, same way crops have been grown for 5,000 years."
Over the winter, the wild rice paddy "looks just like a mud flat," but shortly after the new season's crop takes hold in the spring, this rich farmland is irrigated via the river until up to eight inches of standing water covers the stalks.
Tall grass surrounds the rice paddy in all seasons, which is where the ducks nest. So when their eggs hatch, the baby ducks just have to make it a few feet to reach the water, where they're protected from hawks, coyotes, possums, foxes and other predators, and have lots of mosquito larva to feed on. And when the wild rice is finally ready to harvest in August, blackbirds come and knock it off the staff and into the water for the ducks to eat.
"The finished seed comes off the plant looking a lot like an oat," John told me. "It's long and greenish brown."
After the ducks get their cut, Stockfleth uses a retrofitted amphibious combine to harvest the mature wild rice seeds that remain on the stalks. He puts them in a steel bin for 48 hours, adding cold water once temperatures in the bin reach 125 degrees, to keep the seeds from fermenting. Then a third-party organic processor drains the water out, and puts the wild rice in a parcher—a pipe 4 feet in diameter and 25 feet long that rotates to keeps the wild rice stirred up while it's heated to 260 degrees.
This "roasting" process breaks the hull away from the meaty part of the kernel, and changes its color from greenish brown to black. Then it runs through a standard rice huller to separate the grain from the hull. Most wild rice on the market is actually "par-boiled," but Stockfleth says their traditional small-batch roasting method—which more closely resembles the Native American process of heating wild rice on top of rocks over an open flame—brings out a richer, deeper flavor that makes for a superior product.
The Before-and-After Party To give me a taste of both her wild rice and life on Sauvie Island, Pennie next invited over a few culinary-minded associates for what quickly escalated from an informal gathering into a full-blown promotional event, particularly as she kept talking up my humble tome and encouraging everyone to come hear me read from it at Powell's City of Books. Standing out among the pot-luck offerings friends brought over was a blended rice dish (wild rice, fermented forbidden rice, and long grain white rice) prepared by Correy Mercer Hinckley, one of the hippies from the dinner party, who is also a locally renown chef. In my honor, she added some weed-infused coconut cream to the mix and garnish it with pot leaves.
"This is the first time I've cooked with the wild rice, and it's just beautiful," Correy said. "The taste is really meaty and nutty, so I think it's a great choice for vegetarian dishes."
Later that night, after my bookstore reading, a few of us hit up PREAM to celebrate with red wine, pizza, and a house salad of Vibrant Valley Farms wilted lettuce, smoky beef bone broth, candied pork and Sauvie Island Wild Rice that was puffed, boiled and then deep fried. I love pizza like a Ninja Turtle, but found I couldn't put my fork down to grab a slice until the salad was all gone.
"The wild rice has got an incredible earthy flavor that's so smoky and sweet it gets kind of addictive. And the texture adds wonderful little crunches that you can hide in a dish," Chef Nick explained. "To prepare it properly, treat it just like pasta—meaning boil it in more water than it needs, taste it periodically, and then drain it as soon as it reaches al-dente toothiness."
Pennie and I had downed a few glasses of wine by that point, and yet somehow I managed to refrain from making a bad phallic pun out of the phrase "drain it as soon as it reaches al-dente toothiness." Not that I think she'd have been offended. It's just that she's clearly moved on from sowing wild oats to wild rice.