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Broth Bar

Bone Broth and a Portland Houseboat

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It’s really about giving people back their genetic inheritance, their ability to have a healthy life.

__Tressa Yellig

Portland is never short on new and interesting cuisine. Ranked by the Washington Post as the #1 food city in America, it’s a place you can live in for years and never have to eat at the same place twice. But food in Portland isn’t all about the finest or the most exotic; there is enough variety to go around, serving everything from grilled cheese from a truck to bone broth from a warm mug.

Broth Bar is the culmination of Tressa Yellig’s years spent working in kitchens of all kinds: molecular, community supported, and everything in between. It has become much more than a kitchen, but a place of healing for the community she has fostered in Portland since 2009, and continues to expand and refine as the years go on. We were honored to spend a morning with Tressa at her houseboat bobbing gently on the banks of the Columbia River, and setting sail at sunrise on her ruby red boat, Tabasco.

Tressa began Broth Bar with a mission to offer the healing nutritional support to her community that had saved her life years ago. It is through these traditional foods that she now nourishes a life of generosity in knowledge and health.

What makes Broth Bar unique to Portland’s slew of healthy/organic/seasonal/local cuisine?

We do put a lot into the ingredients, and I think that’s what makes this special. That’s definitely something that I’m passionate about. The sources, the stories. My background was really in writing, but I fell in love with food because of the folklore aspect of food. The stories and the makers of, and everything. Especially traditional food, and what we do there’s so much romance. Science can’t really explain why it is the way it is. Science is not sophisticated enough to catch up with what people have been doing for thousands of years.

 

How did you get into this style of cooking?

I fell in love with this style of cooking when I was in cooking school in New York. I took a fermentation class with Jessica Printer who was at the time on her book tour with a book called Full Moon Feast. The whole book is organized around thirteen agrarian moons from different cultures, and she picks out recipes that match that season, but in the midst of it she shows how every culture around the world has very similar foods. They all have some kind of organ meat, some kind of ferment. It’s interesting that when you look at peasant food traditions they have a lot more to do with delicious functional medicine rather than the novelty of eating. Ingredients are limited, but it’s something you do everyday, so in some ways you get more creative with less.

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After that, I went straight to California to this Community Supported Kitchen, and it was so much more than I thought it would be. It was also the first experience I had ever had managing a kitchen where everyone was really happy. It wasn’t abusive, it was just really a community supported environment, and supportive environment. So within a month I was managing the kitchen, and every day we would sit down and eat a family meal together from the ingredients they were sourcing, all from local farms or producers who had amazing stories. It was just the highest quality with the utmost integrity.

What was the menu there like?

It was a lot of things that you don’t think of as endangered foods, but they are very counter to even current regulations. The FDA doesn’t completely understand them because they’re made with practices that seem “unsafe” in this country, like working with bacteria to develop practices of preservation and cultivating flora rather than damaging bacteria, eliminating it completely, and pretending like we are a sterile environment that we have to protect. Pathogenic bacteria are never the dominant bacteria unless they’re the first on the scene. So if there is a strong enough population of probiotic bacteria, they crowd out and create a space that’s impervious to pathogenic bacteria. It’s a protective mechanism. That’s why I fell in love with all of this because you begin to discover how many effects and textures and effervescence you can create naturally – flavors that you cannot create otherwise without fermentation. Less is more. You don’t need a lot, you just need a little time and patience.

Why did you leave the Community Supported Kitchen?

I was working with restaurants, and markets, and this urban sustainable kitchen in downtown San Francisco and I was so happy. It meant something to me in food that I had never experienced before. But I think that’s when I got cocky. I thought I needed more professional training, I thought I didn’t have enough skills, that no one would ever recognize me as a “real” chef.

It’s funny that the culture that all of this comes from doesn’t have an ego. I didn’t invent any of this stuff; I just maintain it. I share it, I curate it, I pass it on. It’s just a sweet tradition, but so much of food cheffing culture is about putting a mind stamp on something that says I made this, and you can’t do it without me. And that’s fine. There is so much talent in that culture, and it deserves recognition, but it isn’t about nourishment, it’s about art. So when you think about this being a deeply nourishing tradition, it’s really about giving people back what I call their genetic inheritance, their ability to have a healthy life.

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After contracting a MRSA infection and being forced to quit her job in California in order to heal, Tressa got back into cooking traditional foods as a hobby to pass the time waiting on surgery to amputate her knee where the infection had been found. By the time of the surgery, the infection had vanished. The surgeon concluded there was no reason to amputate as originally planned, and suddenly she had her life back.

So after the news of your unexpected recovery, you moved to Portland. When did Broth Bar officially launch?

We started in January of 2009 with a small fundraising donation called Soup & Cinema that started out with us screening food movies and showcasing our food. But at the time organ meats, pork belly, and ferments were too weird, even for Portland. Nobody had any idea what we were doing, and it was really hard. So then the focus was on a product line, a very consistent few items. Every time we cut back and focused on fewer things, the business got better.

With as much as we were promoting the organic/sustainable aspects, it wasn’t the busy young professionals who wanted to eat well who were coming. The people who were finding us were sick people, looking for really high quality transparent food that they could trust. They were all renegades on their own health journey, who refused to give up on themselves, and somehow they found us. We want to be that bit of hope that helps people take back their health and their genetic inheritance.

How did your sister, Katie, get involved with the business and ultimately become your partner at Salt Fire & Time?

It’s funny when your business grows into something bigger than you, and you have to let it go because it deserves to be more. The worst thing is that it would be dependent entirely on you. Like a child, you want it to be independent, but you don’t want it to forget where it came from. It had gotten to the point where my business skills were not enough. I’m more of the creative, the teacher. I’m good at driving the big vision, but not the nuts and bolts of everything. So I called my sister Katie who was working for Coca Cola at the time, and I was crying to her that I couldn’t do this on my own anymore and if I couldn’t find someone to help me I was going to have to sell. She was struggling with her own health problems at the time, and things were starting to get more severe. She was working 16 hour days and living on energy drinks and protein bars and Excedrin. So she told me, well if you find a retail spot, as soon as you sign a lease I’ll give notice. About a week later I signed a lease, and so she moved here.

Where do you think this type of eating fits in with the grand scheme of eating?

I think this is the future; this is where food is going. Not that food as art is going away; it won’t. People crave expressions of beauty. It may as well be part of our genetics, but this is also an expression of beauty. People are just having that choice again.

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What makes bone broth so integral to this type of eating?

Bone broth is interesting because it functions in a lot of ways that we can’t explain but that we can see is positive. It normalizes stomach acid. It’s also called a “protein sparer,” which means if you’re sick, or you’re not eating meat five days a week, it keeps the body from going after and digesting it’s own muscle stores until you do get enough protein. Drinking bone broth does not require any extra energy to digest, so the body can filter all of that energy into healing, and it’s deeply soothing for this whole chunk of your nervous system. But the most important aspect of bone broth that makes it essential is that it makes the food choices you make go farther.

Our huge thanks to Tressa and her sister Katie for a healing, delicious breakfast and early sail on the Columbia River. Also a special thanks to Lila Martin for introducing us to Broth Bar.

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