Last Lectures

Literary Epicure

By Randall S. Barton

In a convocation address, Prof. Roger Porter [English 1961–2015] once explained that the word memory had not always meant the power to recall. “Originally,” he said, “the term designated a constant, concentrated abiding with something—not just with something that has passed, but with what is present and with what may come.”

As the celebrated English professor retires from Reed, he abides with what has passed.

Prof. Porter was a student at Amherst, locked and loaded for law school, when he traveled on break with a friend to South Africa. Jungle sounds breached the walls of their thatched hut in Kruger Park as he read from a thin volume of Yeats’ poems. A crystalline thought formed in his head: “This is what I want to do—keep reading poetry and literature.”

During his senior year he invited his thesis adviser to come for wine and cheese. “I’d love to,” the adviser replied, “but Robert Frost is in town and staying with us.”

“Bring him along,” Porter replied.

For five hours Frost feted Porter and his roommates with stories about Yeats and T.S. Eliot. “We were agog,” Porter remembers. “I thought to myself, ‘To hell with law school.’”

He got his MA from Yale (and a PhD in 1967), and began teaching at Reed. Generations of Reedies discoursed with him on Shakespeare, modern drama and fiction, and life writing. Today the student body is more diverse, Porter says, but their work and interests haven’t changed much.

“Students stand out for being not just inquisitive but skeptical and often pugnaciously opposed to the dominant trend of the culture—that has been Reed from day one.”

By day, he was an eminent professor, but at night he took on the mantle of restaurant critic and food writer—becoming well-known in Portland and nominated for best restaurant criticism in America by the James Beard Foundation.

“For me there’s a connection between the pleasure I take in writing and the pleasure I take in food, so it was wonderful to have the chance to combine those two hedonisms,” he says. “Restaurant reviews are very different from academic writing. It loosened my tongue and gave me a kind of freedom. I could be playful.”

Porter had a reputation for crafting toothsome bons mots. An Italian restaurant opened in Portland, decorated with paintings of the Mona Lisa, Botticelli’s Venus, and Adam from the Sistine Chapel all sporting long, wooden noses. The restaurant was named Pinocchio’s and Porter was impressed with neither the decor nor the food.

“I cannot tell a lie,” he wrote. “Pinocchio needs more than a makeover. Like the puppet, it needs a rhinoplasty.”

Recently he has been working on Eating Words: The Norton Anthology of Food Writing, a collection that begins with the food taboos in Leviticus and then folds in ingredients such as essays by Thoreau on watermelons, Chekhov on oysters, Upton Sinclair on the stockyards, and of course, the piquant Proust.

Porter also authored three books on the subject of autobiography, The Voice Within: Reading and Writing Autobiography; Self-Same Songs: Autobiographical Performances and Reflections; and Bureau of Missing Persons: Writing the Secret Lives of Fathers.

He’s had a lifelong devotion to the theatre. In the ’70s, he began directing plays at Reed and in Portland, and later was on the board of Artists Repertory Theatre.

On an impulse, he pitched the director of Portland parks with the idea of staging A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Washington Park. She immediately penciled him in for a summer music festival beginning in three days.

“But you don’t know anything about me,” he said incredulously. “I’m a professor at Reed.”

“Well,” she replied, “we all have to start somewhere.”

Despite a predilection for autobiographies, Porter has no plans to write his own. He’s interested in starting a business to cater to tourists flocking to Portland as a food destination. Clearly he would give them some food for thought.