Kelly Cox does what she wants. The Portland-based host of PBS food-adventure show The Original Fare, now in its third season, has fished for salmon in Alaska, picked coffee beans in Colombia, and shot a grim behind-the-scenes look at Perdue whistleblower Craig Watts’s North Carolina chicken farm. All the while, she drinks. She smokes. She curses.
Cox is a self-made hustler. After getting kicked out of high school (she tells tales of drugs and fights), she fled her small farming town of Napoleon, Missouri (population 200), for New York City, where she was a personal assistant. In 2006, just as YouTube was taking over Internet video, a lightbulb came on: she could produce her own documentary videos. She teamed up with Lucas Longacre, a New York filmmaker and, now, her husband.
“I figured I’d take his talents, cheap tech, and other people’s money to tell my stories,” she says.
Her scheme worked. She and Longacre made a good living shooting ecologically minded films for Cisco and Disney. But those jobs dried up as the recession took hold. Nearly broke, they decided to move from Williamsburg to California, and it was on this 3,000-mile road trip that the TV show was born—a wild, free-form half-hour about food, booze, and life with strangers, with Cox before the camera and Longacre behind it.
“We already had all the gear, so we figured why not see if we can find some stories to tell,” she says.
Eventually, they had enough footage for a pilot and began to shop it around to NBC and then HBO, where an executive told her that her show was missing one thing: a man. “She told me, ‘If you’re not comfortable with replacing yourself with a man, you need a male cohost,’” Cox recalls.
Instead, she found a home at PBS. The Original Fare has taken Cox and Longacre all over the world—and all over Portland, their home since March 2015. This season she flies to India to learn about tea harvesting, California to learn about pot farming (and knowing when to say “when,” when it comes to edibles), and dual trips to Peru and Eastern Oregon to learn about farming philosophies.
Cox says she tries to spend as much time in her adopted hometown as she can, though she stays busy and mobile. She’s traveling to tiny villages around the world on the State Department’s dime to screen her new project, a feature-length documentary called Big Dream. The film features stories from seven young women “who weren’t blond, pretty, and privileged” finding their agency in cultural climates where girl power was verboten.
To catch a hometown screening, you’ll have to wait—Cox is talking with Amazon about distribution. But you can still catch Portland in The Original Fare’s September 6 episode, shot last year during the Feast food festival and a trip to an Oregon cranberry bog. Cox thinks of it as her tribute to Portland—and it comes with plenty of drinking and swearing.