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Mildred Howe ’58

May 21, 2021, in Portland.

In the topsy-turvy ’70s, Millie departed academia to open Indigine, one of Portland’s first restaurants focused on indigenous ingredients. It quickly earned a reputation for being the hardest place in town to get a reservation.

Millie grew up in New Mexico and Arizona and graduated from high school in Phoenix. At Reed, she wrote her thesis, “Capital Punishment: A Study of Opinions and Personality,” advised by Prof. Maure Goldschmidt [political science 1935–81]. Two professors made lasting impressions on her. Vera Krivoshein [Russian 1949–72] instilled a fascination with Russia, and Lloyd Reynolds [art and English 1929–69] imparted a love of calligraphy. For the rest of her life, Millie wrote with a calligraphy pen, including the menus at Indigine.

She went on to get a master’s degree in economics from Stanford University, but a long-unfinished chapter of her dissertation prevented her from receiving a doctorate from UC Berkeley. In addition to economics, Millie had a keen interest in Russia. During the early ’60s, she traveled in the Soviet Union and spent time working in Italy with an Italian economist and at Cambridge in England with Ajit Singh, an economist she met in the Berkeley School of Economics.

Millie returned to Reed as a professor of economics for two years from 1968 to 1970, days of tumult, both on America’s streets and at Reed. She left the college with a group of former faculty and students to create the Learning Community, an experimental institution of higher education. Having received a $50,000 grant from the Carnegie Foundation and satellite accreditation from Antioch College, the Learning Community began formal operation in a dozen houses in Portland’s Irvington neighborhood during the summer of 1970. To help raise funds, the community opened a restaurant downtown. The Learning Community foundered; in 1973 most of the houses were sold and the community disbanded.

Millie and her partner, former Reed Prof. Howard Waskow [English 1964–72], had been very involved with the Learning Community restaurant, and when it closed, they opened a restaurant near Southeast 37th Avenue and Division Street. The space, basically a shack that had been a lawn mower repair shop, was christened Indigine. It featured a communal table that sat 16, and, in addition to Sunday brunch, offered two fixed-price dinner seatings on both Friday and Saturday. Tables were booked a year in advance and cancellations were unheard of. At least one divorce settlement stipulated who would be awarded the Indigine reservations.

“In the beginning,” Millie recalled, “we offered four courses, including what became our signature soufflé—for $7.50.”

“Indigine became a cultural statement among those Portlanders who enjoyed adventurous eating coupled with a certain sense of exclusivity,” Matt Kramer ’73 wrote in Northwest Magazine. “It was a matter of Lucullan indulgence: the setting . . .  was monastically austere. The atmosphere was and is carried by the patrons themselves. Getting a table at Indigine in the mid- to late ’70s was the most difficult feat in town.”

In addition to having a quick mind, insightful politics, and a love of teaching, Millie was also a terrific cook, a James Beard acolyte who made everything from scratch. She was a local seafood evangelist, gathered the provisions for her restaurant in the mornings, prepared them in the afternoons, and was always finding new ways of offering her innovative cooking to her fans. Her giant cinnamon rolls were made from a sourdough starter she nursed along for decades.

The menu circled the globe, offering everything from German pancakes to huevos rancheros. As a student at UC Berkeley, Millie had become friends with Gopalan Shyamala, the mother of Vice President Kamala Harris, and learned to cook and appreciate East Indian food. The Saturday evening East Indian feast was part of the Indigine legend. Millie’s love of Russia was reflected in the “Khrushchev’s Special,” a tempting plate of blini, gravlax, sour cream, caviar, and pickles.

The restaurant went through phases. For a time, it was open only for weekend brunch and takeout. In 1983, it was expanded to 10 tables and instituted a split menu, with three-course, simple suppers on weeknights and the legendary East Indian feast on Saturday. Though it was something of a one-woman show, Millie had as many as 10 part-time employees and was only rarely present during the dinner hour. Having spent the day doing the marketing and basic preparations, she left the final touches to her assistants.

“We called it the finishing school because Millie employed so many Reedies,” said Stacy Lee Fletcher, who worked with Millie as her sous chef and cared for her in her last years. Indigine closed its doors in 1999.

Comparing her life as a professor with that of being a restaurateur, Millie responded, “Running this restaurant is infinitely more challenging. There is an intellectual rigor. With cooking it’s a matter of sequence, of knowing your priorities. Classicism, or whatever one’s training, it’s crippling. It doesn’t encourage innovation. I think that most people can’t break free from it. I believe that this applies to cooking as well.”

Appeared in Reed magazine: December 2021

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