By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes
Friday, April 13, was day 109 in the life of Marion-Polk Food Share’s Northwest patty. This is the longest Chef Steve Morton has ever worked on a recipe, but he only keeps count because payoff is potentially huge.
“The patty is kind of a Trojan Horse, it lets you in the door to have all sorts of conversations about what people eat,” Morton said.
That’s a large claim to make, but Morton has had 108 days to think about the potential impacts of this one recipe. If all the dominoes line up right, the last one could fall on, and play a part in quashing, hunger in Marion and Polk counties.
The story of the Northwest patty, and Morton’s involvement with it is one worth savoring.
Last year, Morton closed the doors at his West Salem restaurant and was 11 hours away from signing a contract with a catering company when he learned Food Share officials were interested in talking with him to take over duties as head of its community kitchen.
At the interview, MPFS President Ron Hays picked up a handful of calypso beans and asked what could be done with them. Morton rattled off a list of ideas, but Hays wanted him to think bigger.
“I think he had the idea for the patty even then,” Morton said. Morton learned to cook at the elbow of his mother and grandmother and it led him to a career in the culinary arts and running his own restaurant for 22 years. Developing a recipe was nothing new, he knew the basics of binding and developing layers of flavor and texture, but doing it for the purpose of something approaching mass production was a new challenge.
“It’s very easy to come in here and make a batch of patties, but then you have to replicate it every time out and then make more and more of them,” Morton said. “It’s like wrestling with hydration and a master class on binding, nutrition and texture.”
The most difficult aspect to take control of was his own desire to experiment.
“The first couple of months, I would go through a couple of different batches in a week and then forget which ones had what [ingredients] in them. I really had to whittle it down to one change per batter,” Morton said.
The patty dough, or batter, is a mix of lentils, rice flour, onions, garlic, carrots and a hard winter wheat. After mixing the ingredients with a specially-developed seasoning, it cures in the refrigerator for about a day. It comes out feeling a bit like grainy hamburger which is then pattied by a machine that cranks out two dozen in less than a minute. After baking for about 20 minutes the cooked patty is packaged for distribution along with emergency food boxes at local food banks and pantries. The total cost: about 13 cents per patty.
“This isn’t supposed to replace other proteins like chicken and pork and beef that we still get donations of, but it’s another option in the arsenal against hunger,” Morton said. “The idea is packing [the patties] full of nutrition while maintaining cost.”
Morton visited the Keizer Community Food Bank last week to show off what’s come of the program and flip a few for visitors.
“I was learning how to flip them off the grill onto the plate. The thing about food is that it has to be fun at some level or no one is going to want to try it,” Morton said.
The one thing the patties lack is fat content of any kind.
“It can come off as dry and misses the luxurious feature of beef,” Morton said.
When traveling to show off the product, Morton carries along a basket of condiments to aid in the presentation and taste.
“We want people to be able to experience the full range of possibilities and maybe fill out the feedback card and let us know what works and what doesn’t,” he said.
The goal is to get people talking not only about the patty, but everything they eat and where it comes from.
“Eating is a political act. By eating something you’re endorsing something and you’ve got to follow that trail to where it goes,” Morton said.
MPFS is already in talks to set up a production line at McLaren Youth Correctional Facility in Woodburn that would provide job skill training to the youths detained there and a bit of a wage for them to address restitution payments.
“We get the patties back at a nominal fee and possibly export around the state,” Morton said.
A possible presence in grocery stores with profits supporting MPFS is also not out of the question.
These days, Morton saves his experimenting for the excess from the main batches. A recent donation of mesquite salt presented him with opportunity to do a black bean mesquite version, which, while quite tasty, has more sodium in it than he’d like to hand out to the children who are part of the food share’s growing demand.
”It tastes salty, which is great for a beer snack, but not necessarily what you want the kids eating,” Morton said.
There are still some things he misses about the restaurant business, but he’s got a completely different audience at the food share.
“I got to feed a lot of people for 22 years and now I get to work on the others who couldn’t come in,” he said.
As a capstone to a varied career, Morton doesn’t think he could ask for much more, but he has no plans to quit until he sees Northwest patty reach it’s full potential.
“I like to think of myself as a home run hitter. I’m not going to hit them all out of the park, but I want this one,” Morton said.
If it clears the fences, he’s already pondering a return to baseball.