All posts by Clif Graves

A Tale of Two Maines

A month ago, the director of the Winthrop Food Pantry sent board members information about the number of people who came to the pantry from January through April 2014. (Full disclosure: I am on the board.) Four hundred two families came, and this added up to 1,102 individuals. For a city the size of Portland or even Augusta, one thousand people might not seem like very many. However, according to the 2010 census, the population of Winthrop is 6,092, and a realtor I know pegged it at 6,200 for 2014. So my town’s population is 6,000, give or take a couple of hundred, and this year between January and April, 1,000 residents were fed by the food pantry.

I admit it. I was shocked that the numbers were so high. I shouldn’t have been. On days when the pantry is open, the waiting room is crammed with people waiting to get food. But to me, Winthrop seems like a middle-class community, a macaroni and cheese kind of place. Yes, there are some wealthy people, and they tend to live by the many beautiful lakes in town, but there are a larger number of state workers and other folks who earn an average salary.

Until I saw the food pantry numbers, I didn’t realize that there were also so many people in town living on the edge, people who are—let’s be honest—earning so little money that they meet the federal guidelines for poverty, the guidelines the pantry uses. The number of people coming to the pantry has risen since the start of the Great Recession, and those numbers don’t seem to be going down anytime soon.

For a completely different view about how some people eat in Maine, you only have to turn to last week’s Maine Sunday Telegram and its recently added food section, Source: Eating and Living Sustainably in Maine. The article’s headline was innocent enough: “Dinner is nearly ready: Summer brings a slew of opportunities for right-there-on-the-farm eating.”

Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? Bucolic and simple with lots of mouth-watering food fresh from the fields or the creamery at various farms in southern Maine. And I’m sure it is—albeit for a very hefty price. Most of the prices for the farm meals listed were between $110 and $60 per person. Yes, per person. (The Well, at Jordan Farm in Cape Elizabeth, was the only farm listing with what might be considered a reasonable price—between $23 to $20 per entry, with a kids’ menu available.)

I try to reconcile these two Maines—the thousand people in Winthrop who rely on the food pantry for some of their food, and those who can afford to spend $125 per person on a meal at a farm. But I can’t reconcile these two Maines. As the saying goes, it blows my mind to think about the discrepancy. (The idea of farm food being so expensive also blows my mind.)

To borrow yet again from the late writer Tony Judt, ill fares the land when there is such inequality.

Summer, Beautiful Summer

Treats from New York
Treats from New York

Summer has done what it always does in Maine. It comes in a rush. One day it is spring, and all the leaves are new and tender and bright green. Then, seemingly overnight, summer arrives, bringing with it full-size leaves that are deep green, nights so warm the windows can be left open, and the start of the summer flowers. Daisies and lupine by the roadside, tall irises in the garden.

Because the nights are warm, we can now eat supper on the patio, and Clif is perfecting his grilled pizza. (Long-time readers will know that his grilled bread is legendary.) The pizza, of course, is just a variation on the grilled bread, with sauce, cheese, and toppings added after the bread is cooked. However, as simple as this sounds, there is technique—stretching the dough—and timing—leaving the pizza on the grill long enough for the cheese to melt but not so long that the bread will burn. A complicating factor is that our grill’s burners need to be replaced. Right now, Clif doesn’t have much control over the heat, and sometimes the bottom of the pizza is a little charred. However, in the next two weeks, we will be ordering new burners, and then Clif should be ready to wow family and friends with his grilled pizza. I know I’m bragging, but in central Maine, nothing beats Clif’s grilled pizza, even if the bottoms are a little charred.

This weekend, Shannon and Mike (and Holly!) came over for grilled pizza. Mike is quite the pizza hound, so Clif made two. The day was sunny and warm, and we spent most of the time on the patio. The dogs sniffed and played and begged for food while Shannon told us the highlights of her New York trip, where she visited Dee.

There were two standouts on this trip—a food tour of Little Italy and China Town and a play, Of Mice and Men, staring James Franco Chris O’Dowd. My mouth watered as Shannon told us about sampling olives, cannoli, dumplings, and egg rolls. The tour lasted 3 hours, and they ate and walked and ate some more. My kind of event, that’s for sure. The guide also pointed out the Tenement Museum, which Shannon and Dee plan to visit on Shannon’s next trip to New York.

Both Shannon and Dee thought Of Mice and Men was excellent, with James Franco being able to do as well on stage as he does on screen. This is no small feat. Stage acting requires a different set of skills than does acting in front of a camera, which can pick up the smallest nuances that would be lost on stage. In turn, the larger gestures required for a play look absurd in front of camera, and to get a sense of this, you only have to watch moves pre-Marlon Brando.

“There’s nothing like a good play,” Shannon said, and we all agreed as we ate pizza. We also had salad made with greens from Farmer Kev’s garden.

Summer time, summer time. This is just the beginning of many more meals on the patio.


Farewell to A Good Eater and Welcome to Notes from the Hinterland

The time has come to say farewell to A Good Eater. It makes me a little sad to do so as I have enjoyed writing for A Good Eater for 5 years. However, I am no longer doing what I set out to do when I began this blog—write about food in Maine from many different angles, from home cooking to eating in restaurants to visiting stores that feature local food to interviewing farmers. In other words, the Maine food scene.

Initially, I started out doing exactly what I had intended with A Good Eater. Clif and I traveled around the state, we ate, I cooked, I wrote. But then the Great Recession happened and with it came an increase in the cost of both food and fuel. Clif and I were affected in other ways, as many families were, and we had to adjust to living on a tighter budget. This meant staying closer to home—central Maine—and eating out only very occasionally. (I have watched with a kind of fascinated horror as the price of lunch has gone from, say, $6 to well over $10 and sometimes as much as $15. Dinner prices have become lunch prices.)

When it become clear that we could no longer travel around the state and sample food from various places—I must admit I loved doing this—I decided to focus on home cooking. After all, I cook supper nearly every single night. Supper at our house is not fancy, but it is tasty and nutritious, and it is almost always made from scratch. (Full disclosure: I do use Bertolli jarred sauce—tomato and basil.) In addition, I make bread, biscuits, muffins, and other baked goods.

For several years, I wrote about home cooking, coming up with new recipes at least once a week. However, I am more a generalist than a specialist, and as the years went by, I wanted to write about other things, too—community, people, living in place, social concerns, the environment. Slowly, almost stealthily, I began weaving these topics into A Good Eater, and I called them “digressions.”

Then one day not long ago I realized the digressions had pretty much taken over A Good Eater. Around the same time, I read a terrific book of nature essays—Field Notes from a Hidden City—by Esther Woolfson, who lives in Aberdeen, Scotland. Her clear, lovely prose and her keen observations about animals and plants made me realize how much I wanted to write nature essays, too. I have always been interested in the natural world, and for me a happy afternoon is sitting on the patio and observing all the fluttering and buzzing around me. I love watching the seasons change and with it the coming and going of leaves and flowers. Over and over it happens, but it never grows stale or old for me. When it comes to nature, I always have a “beginner’s mind.”

Clearly, it was time to go in a different direction with blog writing, and I knew exactly what I wanted for a new name. It would be Notes from the Hinterland, the title of a column I wrote for Wolf Moon Journal, the magazine Clif and I published for 7 years. Notes from the Hinterland is a broad enough title to allow me to write about whatever I please—nature, community, people, social concerns, and, yes, even food. There is no reason why I can’t still post recipes when inspiration strikes. After all, when you live in Maine, you live in the hinterlands, and anything that happens around you is fair game.

For long-time readers, nothing much will change except the title of this blog. Both and will take you to the same place: to Notes from the Hinterland (the blog formerly known as A Good Eater). I expect I will have to change things on Facebook, but I won’t be doing that for at least a week or two. Also, the blog itself might look a little different until everything is worked out.

So I bid a fond and sad farewell to A Good Eater. Not only has it been a good run, but I will always be a good eater. Now, onward to Notes from the Hinterland!



What Is Work?

Yesterday, on Yahoo I saw a piece outlining the traits of rich people without trust funds, and one of the traits listed is that such folks “are always on the clock,” where a 40-hour work week is considered part time, and 80 to 90 hours are “the norm.” The implication is that wealthy people work harder than slackers who settle for a 40-hour work week, with the corollary being that rich people deserve to be rich because they work so hard. (I’ve also read many other articles about how hard wealthy people work.)

This, in turn, led me to wonder: What is work? What qualifies as work? Is work only considered work if money is involved? Certainly, labor in exchange for money is one kind of work, and a necessary one at that. All households need at least some money for things such as food, clothing, shelter, and transportation.

But what about making bread, hanging laundry, cooking, cleaning the house, yard work, and home repairs? What about hauling wood, taking trash to the transfer station, and tending the garden? What about raising a family? Helping a child with school work? Teaching her how to ride a bike?

I would argue that all the items listed above are work, albeit unpaid, and if you tack those everyday chores on to a 40-hour work week, then average people’s work load starts approaching the 80-hour work week of wealthy people. I would also add volunteer work to the unpaid work list. According to AARP, “Nearly 27 percent of the U.S. adult population gave 8.1 billion hours of volunteer service worth $169 billion in 2009, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service.”

Rich people, of course, usually hire other people to do everyday chores, thus freeing their time to focus on working for money. As long as wealthy folks pay their fair share in taxes, I’m fine with that. If rich people want to spend 80-hours a week focusing on how to make lots of money, then that is their right.

However, it seems to me that we should expand our notion of work to include all the unpaid chores that fill most people’s lives. (Volunteer service should be included as well.) It is neither healthy nor respectful to regard unpaid labor as inferior to paid labor. A society that thinks this way about work is a society out of balance.

And isn’t that exactly what the U.S. has become?


A Holly, Jolly Weekend

Last weekend, Clif and I dog-sitted Holly while Shannon went to New York to visit Dee, and Mike worked overtime at his job. We got lucky with the weather, which was warm and splendid. Halleluiah, summer and warm weather! This meant we could spend plenty of time outside, and a good thing, too. Holly is only a year and a half, and she has lots—I repeat—lots of energy. Especially first thing in the morning, which for various reasons, is not my best time.

Still, we did all right. There were walks and kick the ball. There was time spent racing madly around the yard—Holly—while I did some gardening. At 9, our Liam is still lively, but he is an older dog. His days of boundless energy—days I remember well—are behind him. But from time to time he would roust himself to play tag with Holly, and it was fun to watch.

On Saturday or Sunday—I don’t remember which day—Clif and the dogs needed a little nap to revive themselves.


While they were napping, I was able to sit on the patio and watch the buzzing life in the backyard. Dozens of small bugs glittered in the sun as they did a flying dance. Someone with a fanciful mind might have noted they looked like flitting fairies. I wondered, what kind of bugs are they?

As I watched, a dragonfly swooped among the dancing bugs, caught one, and landed on the umbrella under which I was sitting. I could see the dragonfly’s silhouette through the pale tan umbrella, and I watched as he—she?—ate the struggling bug. It took a while before all the parts were chewed and swallowed. Unfortunately, the dragonfly flew away before it occurred to me to snap a picture. I guess that’s what comes of observing intently. There are no thoughts of doing, only of looking.

In between observing, I read some of Mary Oliver’s Long Life, a collection of essays and poems about nature and literature and living in place. Oliver, I think, is a kindred spirit. She writes, “People say to me: wouldn’t you like to see Yosemite. The Bay of Fundy?…I smile and answer, ‘Oh yes—sometime,’ and go off to my woods, my ponds, my sun-filled harbor, no more than a blue comma on the map of the world but, to me, the emblem of everything. It is the intimate, never the general, that is teacherly.”

I concur. As for me, I have my backyard—so full of life—the woods, the sparkling Narrows, the rides along broad Lake Marancook, the library. Everything is here within a five-mile range, I thought.

In the meantime my husband slept, with one dog beside him on the couch and the other beside him on the floor.


A Sunny Day and a Remembrance

Yesterday was finally a warm, sunny day after too many cold, rainy days. From time to time over the past week, we have needed to turn on the electric heat. When the house is only 60 degrees, it is simply too cold for Clif and me.

But all was forgiven on a day when the sky was a cloudless blue, and it was fine enough to hang laundry on the clothesline. It was even warm enough to have lunch on the patio,which is right beside a large garden bed, where I could see that the dwarf irises were starting to pass. However, the flowers still smelled as sweet as ever.

The dragonflies have emerged, and one clung to Temple Dog’s small stoney face. “Come, little mosquito eaters,” I said. “And do your thing.”

Over lunch I perused the newest Daedalus Books catalog. I saw lots of interesting titles—some for presents, some for me. As I spotted one book after another, I was sadly reminded that my friend Barbara is gone, dead for 9 years this spring. Barbara was the one person with whom I could share all my bookish enthusiasms, and I so miss our regular book talks.

Now, it must be noted that I am blessed with a literate family and many literate friends, but somehow Barbara was the one whose tastes almost exactly matched mine. In the catalog, I saw What There Is to Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell. We both adored William Maxwell, a legendary editor at the New Yorker and a fine writer as well. And we, of course, admired Eudora Welty. When I came to a section featuring books by Angela Thirkell, I wondered if Barbara had read her. Ditto for The Town in Bloom by Dodie Smith, who also wrote The Hundred and One Dalmatians.

How lucky I was to have Barbara as a friend for so long—12 years, I think. On the other hand, is that all? I felt as though I knew her all my life. One thing is certain, friends like Barbara only come along very rarely.


Memorial Day, 2014: Do Facts Matter?

Clif's legendary grilled bread
Clif’s legendary grilled bread

The weather forecast for Memorial Day weekend turned out to be wrong, and for the most part, the weather was pretty nice—sunny on Saturday and Sunday and good enough on Monday for us to have our first outdoor gathering on the patio. This meant that on Memorial Day, there were 6 happy people at the little house in the big woods because Clif was able to serve his legendary grilled bread. I had a backup plan—biscuits—and although I make pretty good biscuits, they can’t compete with grilled bread, fresh and warm and dipped in olive oil.

Shannon and Mike came, as did our friends Joel and Alice. We spent most of the time on the patio as we enjoyed Clif’s grilled bread (along with other nibbles); potato salad; corn; and grilled teriyaki chicken. For dessert, Alice made some oatmeal cookies spiced with ginger and cinnamon. It was all pretty darned good, as Clif would say, and made even better because we were able to eat most of it outside. (When it was time for dessert, we came inside.)

We are all movie buffs, and one lively topic of discussion was Belle, a movie Clif and I had recently seen with Alice and Joel at Railroad Square Cinema. Belle is based—very loosely, as it turns out—on the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, a woman whose father was white and whose mother was black. Fortunately, by today’s standards, this is not especially noteworthy, but Dido was born in 1761, and she was the illegitimate daughter of the English Admiral Sir John Lindsay. When she was young, Dido was sent to live with her great uncle, William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield.

Now, anyone with even just a passing knowledge of English society in the late 1700s would realize that Dido was in a difficult social situation—she was illegitimate and she was black, but she was also the great niece of an earl. While the movie accurately acknowledges some of the realities of Dido’s life, it blithely ignores other aspects, some of which are known and recorded. (I’m not going to get into a detailed discussion of the ways the movie disregarded the known facts. I don’t want to turn this post into a spoiler.)

However, I can safely write that while I did enjoy the movie, which was well acted and well filmed, as I thought about the movie afterwards, I realized that parts of it didn’t make a lick of sense, given the realities of eighteenth-century England. When I read a little about Dido’s life and what was known about her, I could see how the filmmakers had decided that some of the facts didn’t matter and how they went their own foolish way with Dido’s story. David Denby, from the New Yorker, called the movie “a fraud,” and he is right.

I am of the firm opinion that facts do matter, and when making a movie or writing a book about real people, the film makers or authors have an obligation to stick to the known facts. Obviously, there is going to be a great deal of unknown details that will be imagined and recreated. I understand this. But to blatantly change the known facts seems, to me, just plain wrong, and it makes me a little cranky to think about it.

However, to end on an upbeat note: Clif and I are lucky to have family and friends with sharp intellects, and our discussions are always spirited and interesting, whatever the topic.

And that, readers, is a fact.

Addendum, May 29: My friend Joel Johnson rightly pointed out that I only included a snippet of the sentence of what the film critic David Denby wrote about Belle. Here is the whole sentence: “Factually, the movie is probably a fraud, but it’s crisply entertaining, and Mbatha-Raw, born in Oxford and acting since she was a child, delivers her increasingly confident lines with tremulous emotion and, finally, radiant authority.” Denby is right about  Belle’s good points, but there is no probably about it—the movie is certainly a fraud.

More Spring Blooms

This is the kind of rainy day I like: The clouds went away to be replaced by blue sky and sun. While I do understand that rain is necessary, in Maine this is not usually a problem. In fact, just the opposite. Once it starts raining, it doesn’t have enough sense to stop. After the third or fourth day of rain, it gets a little old, especially this time of year when there is much to do outside.

I was so encouraged by the blue sky that in a burst of optimism I even put in a load of laundry to be hung on the line. After my morning writing, I’ll be heading outside to work in the gardens. Who knows? I might even get to have lunch on the patio.

Here are some more pictures from the backyard:

A patch of Jack-in-the-pulpits
A patch of Jack-in-the-pulpits
Closed yesterday, in bloom today
Closed yesterday, in bloom today

Ah, the lovely month of May.

Chickpea Cutlets for a Cool Spring Night

Spring is here, but how cool it still is. The other day I met a friend at the grocery store, and she said, “Look what I’m wearing—a turtle neck, a sweater, a big shirt, and a jacket.” I nodded. I was similarly dressed, and when I got home, I shed the jacket but kept the triple layers. It is as cool inside as it is outside, and my husband and I are too stubborn to use the heat.  We are both longing for warm days where we can sit outside and be comfortable wearing a short-sleeved shirt.

Despite the cool weather, the plants and trees and lawns are thriving. The green of the new growth is so bright that it lights up the gloomiest days, which we have had in abundance this past month. The woods in back are positively aglow with green, and I love looking into them as I work in the kitchen. The dwarf irises, with their deep purple flowers, are ready to bloom. They are one of the first flowers in my gardens, and they are eagerly anticipated.


The birds also seem to be thriving, and our feeders are busy. For Christmas, Clif bought me a lovely red-glass hummingbird feeder, and last week I boiled some sugar and water, filled the feeder, and put it on a hook in the backyard. It didn’t take long for the hummingbirds to find it, and I was thrilled to see the flash of red and green and hear the whirring of wings as I worked in the yard.

However, a few days ago when I was working in the kitchen, I was even more thrilled when I saw a burst of bright blue at one of the other feeders. “Clif, Clif, come here. I think there’s an indigo bunting in our backyard.” Clif hurried to the window and then to the bird book. Yes, that blue beauty was indeed an indigo bunting, and we stood and watched as the bunting picked at the sunflower seeds. I’ve only seen an indigo bunting one other time, while I was driving, and a streak of blue crossed the road in front of me.

This weekend, we are planning on having a barbecue for Memorial Day. Who knows what the weather will do? Naturally, we have two plans—grilled teriyaki chicken if the weather allows and broiled if it doesn’t.

In the meantime, as we still eat most of our meals inside, here is the recipe I promised for the chickpea cutlets, which are so tasty and easy to make that they are fast becoming a staple in our house. We heat up a bit of jarred spaghetti sauce to go on top of them, but if time allows, homemade, of course, is always best. Basically, these cutlets are a variation on a recipe for chickpea patties I posted a while ago. But I’ll repost the pattie recipe, with added instructions for making the cutlets.