MAINE COOKING VS. COOKING FROM AWAY

In yesterday’s New York Times, there was a terrific piece about how good the food is in Portland, Maine—the restaurants, the bakeries, and even a couple of food markets that sell baked goods along with fresh fruit and vegetables. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/16/dining/16chefs.html?ref=dining 

I was familiar with some of the eateries and stores listed in the article, but quite a few are unfamiliar to me. And even though the drive to Portland is more than hour from where I live, I am looking forward to visiting these places and munching my way through the city. A Portland food trail, as it were.  

However, one line in the article really caught my attention: “Many of the customers who keep these premium-priced places running are people “from Away” who have moved to Portland…” And judging from the descriptions of the chefs and bakers, I would have to say that many of them are from away, too. Now, as a native Mainer, I am not one of those who thinks people should just stay put and leave our state alone. I even think that new people and new ideas are vital to a place’s well-being. However, implicit in that sentence in the Times is the idea that without people from away, we would not be able to have good food in Maine. Indeed, over the weekend at Maine Fare, during one of the panel introductions, I even heard someone state that Maine was once the land of bland cooking, and we can thank those from away for rescuing the natives from their dreary food. Fortunately, this wasn’t the prevailing attitude at Maine Fare, but it is an example of how people from away get a bad reputation. 

As someone who has eaten most of her meals in Maine, I am in a pretty good position to comment about Maine food. My memories of eating stretch all the way back to the 1960s, a time that is generally considered a culinary wasteland, not just in Maine, but in the rest of the United States as well. (This was also when Julia Child made her grand appearance.) In truth, some of the bad reputation is deserved. I remember eating a great many casseroles that involved canned cream of mushroom soup, egg noodles, and either tuna or hamburg. Veg-All just compounded the misery, and Jell-O, either plain or as a molded salad, made frequent appearances. But I would argue this wasn’t so much Maine cooking as it was American cooking, and it definitely was not the whole story. 

When I was eight, my family moved from Waterville, a small mill city, to North Vassalboro, a small mill town that was quite rural. Many families in North Vassalboro had big gardens, and my family was one of them. As a result, we had wonderful, fresh vegetables in the summer, along with raspberries, strawberries, and rhubarb. My mother, like many other women on our road, canned and froze the surplus, and summer was a flurry of snipped beans, sliced carrots, steaming jars, and the beautiful sound of snapping lids. She made different kinds of pickles and relish, and our pantry was well stocked by the time winter came. Again, I want to emphasize that this was not unusual in our neighborhood. 

My mother also made from scratch most of our baked goods—cookies, pies, brownies, muffins, and cakes. Once she made a cake from a packaged mix. When we all decided that we liked her cakes better, she didn’t use a mix again. She made tourtière, a Franco-American spiced meat pie that we ate at Christmas, and a similar spicy meat stuffing for our Thanksgiving turkey. She made fudge and candy for the holidays. Do I need to add that other mothers were doing similar things in houses up and down our road? While the food wasn’t fancy, it was certainly tasty, and only one family in our neighborhood was overweight. The rest of us were pretty lean and active, and we were all good eaters. 

Now, I’m not pining for the old days. Times change, and not all changes are bad. I just wanted to add a little perspective to what cooking was like in Maine in the “old days,” before those from away rescued us natives from our so-called food doldrums. In fact, some of our food was very good, and right now, I wouldn’t mind having one of my mother’s frosted chocolate cookies, soft and chewy. And I haven’t even touched the subject of lobster and steamed clams, yearly summer treats for a central Maine girl and her family.

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