The food accolades just keep coming in for Portland, Maine. First, Bon Appétit gives its Foodiest Small Town in America Award to Portland. (Never mind that by Maine standards, Portland is the big city, and I jokingly refer to it as “the Babylon of Maine.”) Then, shortly after, the New York Times has a very nice piece written by Julia Moskin about how great the food is in Portland. As if this weren’t enough, my daughter’s fiancé, Michael, informs me that Frank Bruni, former restaurant critic for the Times, was on Charlie Rose, and when asked where the best up-and-coming places to eat in this country were, guess which city got mentioned? Portland, Maine, of course. (As well as the other Portland, the one on the West Coast.)
Why Portland, Maine? Why the wealth of markets and restaurants? In the Times piece, Julia Moskin lists some of the reasons why chefs and cooks have settled here: affordable real estate, quality of life, and Portland’s relative proximity to Boston and New York City. Because Portland is within an easy drive of two big metropolitan areas, tourists can easily come just for the weekend, not only for the beaches but for the food as well. Maine’s ruralness is surely another factor. It means that much of our food can be grown, caught, or produced nearby.
Yet Portland has always been where it is, about two hours north of Boston and five hours north of New York City. The land has always been relatively affordable, and the rural quality of life was just as nice twenty years ago as it now. So why the current food craze in Portland? The only answer I can come up with is that the stars are aligned in Portland’s favor, just as they were in Julia Child’s favor in the early 1960s, when America was ripe for a food change.
Perhaps America is ripe for another food change. Perhaps we have finally had enough of what our national food has become—highly processed, tasteless, and commercial—as well as the results—obesity, diabetes, and a frazzled, joyless attitude toward food and cooking. However, we are still feeling our way when it comes to cooking and eating delicious, nutritious food. The change is far from complete, and it is a gross understatement to say that the food industry and the government are dragging its collective heels, that they are in the way of progress. When subsidies and tax breaks start going to small farmers and food artisans, then we will know that the change is lasting and real.
Until that time comes, it is heartening to discover that a city such as Portland, a city of the hinterlands, after all, is in the vanguard of good eating. And how lucky for me that Portland is within an easy drive of where I live. I guess the stars are aligned in my favor, too.