Gene Thiel, 1936-2013

The potato whisperer and icon of the Portland Farmers Market has passed away, leaving his Prairie Creek Farm in Joseph, Oregon to his family.

By Karen Brooks July 30, 2013

Gene Thiel at his post at the PSU farmers market in 2008.

Prairie Creek Farm’s Gene Thiel passed away this morning at age 77. Perhaps you breezed by the unassuming guy with the cockeyed glasses and straw hat at Saturday’s farmers market at PSU. If you were lucky, you stopped and talked to him, for no one was more engaging on the subject of food.

But surely, you tasted his yanked-from-the-earth treasures, his glorious potatoes and wild looking heirloom carrots. Nearly every top chef in Portland, from Vitaly Paley (Paley’s Place) to Justin Woodward (Castagna), rides high on Prairie Creeks’ parade of onion flowers, craggy morels, and wild plums plucked from canyon walls in Eastern Oregon.

Evoe’s chef Kevin Gibson once said the secret to his food is simply the garlic from Prairie Creek Farms, sweeter than any you’ve tasted.

Thiel epitomized Oregon’s passionate food culture: one man so deeply connected to his crops that, even in his seventies, he trekked 600 miles from Joseph to Portland every weekend to stand at his booth all day. Why? Simply because he loved the idea that we were eating his food.

You never have to ask if these unscrubbed purple carrots, each with a wild white stripe marching through its cores, are “organic.” Just look at these babies and the line between dirt and jewels gets very thin.

I once asked him why his carrots were so much better than all others and he said, unflinchingly, “Because I talk to them!” I believe he did.   

I spoke about Thiel in my TEDxPortland talk, “Recipe For A Vital Food Scene.” Check it out here, especially his standing ovation at the end:

Thiel was also featured in The Paley’s Place Cookbook (2008). In an essay called “Total Potatoes,” his almost life-long quest to bring potatoes and a few other crops to the Northwest is beautifully captured in words, photos and recipes. 

Prairie Creek Farm will carry on under Thiel’s son Patrick, a passionate farmer himself. Patrick has been running the Prairie Creek Farm—the farm booth, the restaurant deliveries, the potato obsessions —and will continue to carry the torch. According to Vitaly Paley  Patrick brought his daughter with him on one a recent drop-off.

“We depend on long-standing relationships with farmers,” says Paley  “Our existence is built people providing us with amazing ingredients that never waver in flavors. Hopefully generations of Thiel’s will continue to inspire generations of chefs to come.”

If you’d like to offer remembrances or good wishes, send to Eileen Thiel, PO Box 549, Joseph, Oregon.

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