is a Portland-based plant ecologist and culinary historian. She is the author of Portland: A Food Biography (2014), Breakfast: A History (2013), and Chillies: A Global History (2016). She is a contributing writer to Render, Roads & Kingdoms, and Narratively.

Twitter: @voodoolily

Tumblr: Portland: A Food Biography


From my leafy guard I could see the passerine flocks soaring past—almost at finger’s reach—I was so high up that tree. I could see the entire world from my roost, and was deliciously invisible doing it. This was true freedom. The wind gushed, and I waved with the tippy-top of this spindly bole, less afraid of these great heights than what was on the ground.

During the 1980s I spent a lot of time roaming feral through Portland’s Brooklyn neighborhood. Though the fresh air and exercise was certainly good for me, the safety of this much freedom was questionable during these early days of the Adam Walsh-era kidnapping scares. But compared to being at home in the dank and smoky two-bedroom apartment where my dad was drinking, I may have well been skipping across wholesome Alpine countryside. The Aztec Apartments’ eight-car parking lot and splintery, bark-dusty terrain could not contain me.

Rascally little bastards, my brother and me: running around unsupervised, sneaking into people’s yards and garages, scrambling over fences, helping ourselves to the fruit in neighborhood trees and community gardens. In our defense, we were actually hungry, not just bored (though we were plenty bored). Ours were subsistence shenanigans. My favorite tree to pick was the sugar plum—those almond-shaped purple drupes that drool with sap—that grew at the edge of the parking lot behind the Aztec. It had one or two branches low enough that if I jumped straight up, I could catch one and hoist myself up by walking my bare feet up the trunk while pulling a rangy chin-up. The fruit was ubiquitous and candy-sweet.

One time I was walking through the parking lot past the plum tree, when a bunch of the neighborhood Laotian kids spilled out, shirts held in a possum-pouch of green plums, caught in the act of robbing our tree. They ran off before I could say anything, though I was only about seven years old and not yet courageous enough to confront people, let alone a bunch of older kids. I’m not sure how much English they spoke anyway. I was friends with a few of their wild and impish younger sisters, but these kids were all pretty much fresh off the boat and their homes still smelled like fish sauce and moth balls. The younger sisters taught me how to say things like “si mae meung” and collapsing into giggles, would sic me on their older brothers (and confessed only after I’d narrowly escaped getting my ass kicked that I’d innocently called them all a bunch of motherfuckers). Another time one of the girls and I were playing quietly on the stairs to the Aztec’s laundry room, and I let her put some red lipstick on my lips and eyelids. Then my dad came out and yelled at us. She ran off and I got in trouble for looking like a whore.

My brother Jeremy and I were friends with another kid whose grandparents lived a few houses down from the Aztec. He only came to visit them once in a while, so he was mostly a summertime or weekends friend. The grandparents kept a refrigerator full of soda pop and apricots in their garage, and now and then we’d sneak in and pinch a few apricots if they left the garage door open. They were generous grandparent types, but even Jeremy and I felt a little bad hounding them for food when their grandson wasn’t visiting, so we mostly left them alone. Besides, there was other fruit in the neighborhood.

I’d try any fruit at least once. I ate red berries from an English hawthorn (pasty, insipid, lots of hard, hairy seeds: “not that good”); old blackberries that’d dried up on the vine (chewy, seedy, but dense-sweet: “like the raisins of blackberries!”); the arils off of yew bushes (slimy, a bit cloying; I found out later that yews are so deadly poisonous that their bark can kill cancer, but: “like honeydew!”). I ate peppery nasturtium blossoms and ate around the wormholes on small, hard green apples. I ate hazelnuts and walnuts right off the ground, sometimes still milk-green, smashing open the hard shells with rocks or broken bricks to get to the creamy meat within. I had the entire neighborhood’s fruit trees and bushes mapped in my mind, and in the summer, I made my rounds frequently.

There was one easy tree in particular that I once spotted and tucked away in my forager’s memory banks for visiting when my little brother wouldn’t be dragging me down. Mere blocks from the Aztec, there was a great, fat cherry tree with low, thick branches—ladder-like, begging jittery child legs aboard. This was a noble, friendly tree with lenticels grinning across its trunk.

And so one day I climbed it, up and up, giddy with the comfort and ease of my climb. I got safely up into my invisibility cloak (this was the sweet spot approximately 10 feet above ground, where grown-ups and passersby were unlikely to spot me if I was very still and quiet when they walked by). I was literally surrounded by fat Rainier cherries and began stuffing the succulent sugarbombs into my greedy maw and ejecting slick pits through my second-grade lips to the ground below. These were so much better than those mealy hawthorn berries. These were like the kind of store-bought fruit that only lucky middle-class friends and grandmas had, fruit on which my mom never wasted food stamps, but these were free. Free. And all mine.

I climbed higher, eating and reaching and picking and eating. I was up about twenty or a million feet up in the tree, positively drunk on cherry-greed and I looked up to see the window of the house on the corner of 13th and Rhone, the house whose front yard was sponsoring the very tree I was up and from which I was stealing. I saw a man getting dressed, and he saw me back.

My heart stopped.

“Get the fuck out of my tree, you little piece of shit!”

I got my ass out of that tree so fast I’m not sure I even climbed down. I think I jumped. Or flew.

“…and tell your little gook friends to stay the fuck out of my yard!” Gook. That word terrified me. It was one my dad used in his ‘Nam stories, and on his diatribes about our southeastern Asian immigrant-friendly neighborhood.

I bolted home to the Aztec, faster than a chimney swift, where the devil I knew was better than the devil I didn’t.