Category Archives: Food for Thought

A Spark on Water Street in Augusta

Once upon a time, towns and small cities in Maine were thriving, busy places. Maine is a state with many rivers, and along those rivers were factories that made shoes, spun wool, and produced paper. There was a downside: Those factories polluted the water and the air. But they also provided good jobs. Then, in the 1970s and 1980s, the factories left, one by one, to go to places where there was cheaper labor, first in the southern part of the United States and then out of the country all together.

The devastating effect of this on Maine, a small, rural state with only a million people, cannot be overstated. No big tech companies rushed in to fill the void, the way they have in more populous states in southern New England. Therefore, young people left—Maine has the largest percentage of senior citizens in the country.  Many of those who stayed behind pieced together a patchwork life of part-time work.  Or, full-time jobs that barely pay enough to raise a family, buy a house, and pay for a college education. (Hannaford Supermarkets is one of the largest employers in Maine, along with Wal-Mart.)

Not surprisingly, when the great factories fell silent, once flourishing downtowns went into a tailspin. Business after business closed, and all over Maine there were so many empty store fronts that Tim Sample, a Maine humorist, joked about the “Vacant Building Festival” in Eastport, Maine, where the locals supposedly quip that “If you could buy a Greyhound bus ticket with a food stamp, we’d all be outta here.”

Funny, but ouch, and this applies to much of Maine, not just to Eastport.  It certainly applies to central Maine, to Augusta, the state capital, whose downtown on Water Street has been moribund for so long that only an old timer like me remembers when it was thriving.

However, lately there have been sparks of life on Water Street, and those sparks have burst into a little flame. Appropriately enough, Cushnoc Brewing Co., a brewery that also serves pizza baked in a wood-fired oven, seems to have been one of the first to light the spark in Augusta. (My son-in-law Michael maintains that breweries have done a lot to revive communities. Perhaps he is right.)

Along with Cushnoc came other businesses—Otto’s, Circa 1885, and most recently Huiskamer Coffee House, where we went on Saturday to hear our friend Claire Hersom read poetry along with Jay Franzel and Bob MacLaughlin.

Huiskamer Coffee House is a delight. There are couches, comfortable chairs, tables, and Vermeer and Mondrian prints. (What a contrast between the two artists!)  Wonder of wonders, there was good tea—Harney & Sons—as well as good coffee. Grace Fecteau, one of the owners, let us use our own mugs for tea and coffee, but there are ceramic mugs and plates.

Here is a view of the coffee house from our table.

And here is a picture of the delightful Claire.

As the poets read, subjects ranged from the Red Sox to back country roads to being poor in Maine. To having a father with Alzheimer. Some of the poetry was intense, some of it was funny, and all of it was close to the bone.

How nice that the coffee house was full of people listening to poetry. Tea and coffee were drunk, scones and soup eaten.

When Clif and I left, it was still light out, and on Water Street, there were cars parked on both sides of the road. People walked on the sidewalk.

Even five years ago, Water Street was deserted on nights and weekends. Not anymore.

May this spark continue to grow.

 

Of Superheroes, Pizza, and Cocktails

The pine pollen is flying, and the mosquitoes are out in force. June has come to Maine, and it’s time to finish the spring gardening chores. Fortunately, today is a bright and beautiful day, and this afternoon Clif and I will be outside.

The last week of May, when our daughter Dee came to visit, was cool and rainy. Still, we had a good time. We are all movie buffs, and the rainy week was a perfect time to go to the cinema as well as watch films on Netflix. Our favorite was Avengers: Endgame. I know. Avengers is a blockbuster movie about comic-book heroes ranging from Spider Man to Thor. But it also addresses one of the most serious issues of our times—overpopulation—in a way that smaller movies seldom do. While Avengers has the usual mega fight at the end of the movie, it also gives the characters plenty of breathing room, allowing them to mourn the terrible loss of having half of Earth’s population wiped out by the supervillain Thanos. (For an economic discussion about Thanos and his plan, check out NPR’s Planet Money.)

I realize I’m going out on a limb here, but it seems to me that nowadays, comic books, fantasy, and science fiction are doing the best at addressing the major issues we face. On the surface, these stories seem to have a lot of folderol and fighting, but underneath they have a moral seriousness and scope missing in most mainstream or literary fiction. I’ve had this discussion in book group and on Facebook. Naturally, I’ve received push back, all of it thoughtful and respectful. The push back hasn’t exactly changed my mind—I continue to think that fantasy, comic books, and science fiction should be taken seriously. However, perhaps not all mainstream stories are entirely vapid, and I was too quick to dismiss an entire genre. Anyway, readers, if you have thoughts about this, please chime in.

Back to last week…

We went to the Kennebec River on a misty, cool day, and Clif took these pictures of the moody river and the bright chairs.

We also went to Cushnoc in Augusta, one of our favorite places to go for pizza.

We had cocktails and beer.

And, of course, pizza.

All in all, a good rainy week.

 

 

A Food Store that Actually Smells Like Food: The Gardiner Co-op

On Monday, April 1,  the first day of Earth Month—or April Fool’s, depending on the way your mind runs—Clif and I went to the Gardiner Co-op to buy some bulk items.  Gardiner is about fifteen miles from where we live, and nowadays, we always enjoy going to this up-and-coming city that was once in the doldrums with too many empty storefronts and a shabby main street.

But Gardiner did something that other communities would do well to emulate: It decided to invest in itself by giving grants and tax breaks to small, local businesses. Now the main street is a lively place with restaurants, a donut shop, art studios, and the Gardiner Co-op. Gardiner is a small city to enjoy, with different festivals to celebrate each season.

Because we went on Monday, the main street was quiet, and we were able to get a parking spot not far from the Co-op. On our way, we passed this snappy exhibit at Art Dogs Studios, an arts collective.

Then it was on to the Gardiner Co-op. This shot shows what a lovely old city Gardiner is.

At the Gardiner Co-op, here is the cheery, welcoming sign that greets customers. That is one lively carrot!

There are many things to like about the Gardiner Co-op, but for me, one of the best things is that the store actually smells like food. This might sound silly, but cast your mind back to the various grocery stores where you shop. How many of them actually smell like food? Mostly, they have a generic store smell, and if you closed your eyes, you might not even realize there was food in the store.

While the Gardiner Co-op is small, it is cozy rather than cluttered, and the store is filled with good things to eat—fresh fruit and vegetables, some canned goods, and a fair number of bulk items, including coffee and peanut butter.

Naturally, we brought our own containers, and they where cheerfully weighed by the woman running the store. She praised us for bringing in our own containers. “Wonderful!” the woman said. “Because of this, there will be less plastic going into our landfills.” She smiled at me, and I felt as proud as kindergartner getting a gold star for good behavior.

The Co-op also has a cafe—no doubt this is where some of the good smells are coming from—and next time we go, we will have a cup of soup before we shop.

Here is what we got at the Gardiner Co-op: chickpeas, black beans, nutritional yeast, onion powder, and garlic powder.

Note the perky Renys bag by the jars of food and spices. Renys, an old-timey Department Store, is also in Gardiner, and I bought the bag in honor of Earth Month. This canvas bag is sturdy, roomy, and made in the US, and it will be a wonderful addition to the bags I keep in the car.

Here is a view of the back side. Shameless advertising, I know, but what the heck. As the old saying goes, if it’s true, it ain’t bragging.

 

Nobody’s Environmentally Perfect

On Saturday, our friend Diane came over for lunch, and Clif made his tasty pizza. As a hostess present, Diane brought a jar of her delectable applesauce, made from old-timey apples from an orchard in southern Maine. Those apples are so sweet and so good that the sauce doesn’t need any sugar. What a treat!

Mainers are of the opinion that almost anything goes with applesauce—I think it’s because not so long ago, fresh fruit was not easy to get in the winter in this northern state. However, we draw the line when it comes to eating applesauce with  pizza. Instead I made a salad and a homemade vinaigrette. But that night with a supper of egg and toast, we broke into our jar of apple sauce.

After lunch, we settled into the living room, and our talked ranged from politics to the environment. Diane is as keen about green living as we are, and at one time she lived in a solar home on a dirt road in a town so small that it makes Winthrop look big.

So I look to her for green advice. While Clif and I have made good progress with the trash we produce—we’ve cut the amount in half—there are things we still struggle with. One of them is Ziploc bags. We wash and mend them, but eventually there are so many holes in the bags that we must throw them away. And there they are in the landfill for a long, long time.

Slowly, we’re weaning ourselves from Ziplocs. We use jars for leftovers, both in the refrigerator and in the freezer. If we buy rolls or bread—mostly I make my own—we save those wrappers to be reused. But we haven’t quite made the break from  those darned Ziplocs.

I explained this all to Diane, and she said patiently, “Nobody’s environmentally perfect. The important thing is to do the best you can with the resources you have.”

Wise words. As I’ve written before, Clif and I live on a budget as big as a minute, which means we can’t buy as much local and organic food as we would like. But we buy as much as we can afford, and I cook most of our food from scratch.

Both Clif and I are conscious about what we use and what we discard. Because we are Mainers, this is not that hard for us. We were both brought up to keep things until they were so worn that, really, nobody else would want them.

Then, today in Treehugger, I read a piece by Sami Grover that questioned how much difference personal responsibility makes when it comes to tackling climate change. Grover writes, “In a world where unsustainable choices are the default option, where fossil fuels are excessively subsidized, and where environmental costs are not borne by those responsible for the damage, living a truly sustainable life means swimming upstream.”

Even though I like to think that Clif and I are making a difference by living as lightly as we can, in fact we are just two tiny fish “swimming upstream.” Until the system changes, it will indeed be very difficult to turn the tide of global warming. (Thought I’d stick with the water metaphor.)

Nevertheless, Clif and I try to live ever lighter. Somehow we just can’t go back to our old ways when we produced four or five bags of trash a week. A week! Most of it was household garbage—paper, plastic, boxes, food scraps. While we might not be environmentally perfect and perhaps never will be, we have made progress, which gives me hope.

Readers, do you have any thoughts about this?

 

 

From Scones to Ancestors

Yesterday, I made scones, and they weren’t quite the success that I had hoped they would be. As the pictures below indicate, they grew in width rather than height—I can sure identify with that!—and they ended up looking like cookies. I used Alton Brown’s recipe.

Even so, they were surprisingly good—sweet, but not too sweet; tender, even though they were flat; and nicely crisp on top. Not complete failures. Just not what I wanted.

So, to my blogging friends who are familiar with scones: Do you have any idea where I went wrong? I did not overhandle them, but did I cut them too big? Should they have been taller and more narrow? Hard to troubleshoot from afar, I know, but please do feel free to offer suggestions.

On a happier note…I learned some interesting family-tree news from my cousin Carol. Her father and my father were brothers, and on that side of the family, our 7x great-grandfather was a German Jew named Hanss Semele. He was born in 1590 and came to France sometime in the 1600s.

As far as I knew, my family on all sides was French right back to the caveman days, but Carol’s genetic testing proved that this is not so. You never know, do you? (Phew, am I ever glad we didn’t find a plantation slave owner on the family tree. Unlikely, given our French Canadian ancestry, but, as a friend pointed out, this has happened to some people.)

Both Carol and I were tickled by the discovery of Hanss, and in Outside Time, the current YA fantasy book I’m working on, there will be a character named Hanss, in honor of our 7x great-grandfather. When I mentioned this to Carol, she replied, “Isn’t it funny how how close you feel to them once you know they existed?”

So true! Of course, we don’t know what kind of person Hanss was, but in my story, he’ll be a good guy.

Why I Cook and Bake

Recently, on Netflix, Clif and I have been watching a delightful show called I’ll Have What Phil’s Having. Recommended to us by our daughter Shannon, I’ll Have What Phil’s Having is a food and travel show hosted by the enthusiastic Phil Rosenthal, a writer and producer who is perhaps best known for Everybody Loves Raymond. Phil goes to, among other places, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Barcelona, and Paris.

Phil has a passion for food that might even exceed mine, and his expressive face registers pure joy every time he tastes something that is utterly delicious. As Phil is going to wonderful restaurants, small and large, his success rate is very high.  (Although there is one memorable scene with eggs that have been marinating in something less than delectable for way too long.) Warm, kind, generous, and funny, Phil is exactly the kind of food host I want.

Traveling vicariously with Phil, I have actually picked up a few tips for my own cooking, but it was when he went to Paris that my thoughts about food and cooking fell into place. Naturally, in the Paris episode, Phil talked about baguettes, about how bread is so important to the culture that the government actually regulates the flour and the price. The feeling is that all people, regardless of how much money they earn, deserve good bread in specific and good food in general. It is their birthright.

How different this is from the attitude in the United States, where people who live on a tight budget must scrabble to eat well by clipping coupons, shopping sales, compiling a price book, and running to various grocery stores, few of which are nearby and usually involve having a car, another big expense. Especially in Maine, to eat well on a tight budget could almost be considered a part-time job, which is why so many harried folks rely on processed food. When you are working two or three jobs, finding the energy to cook is no easy thing.

And yet, if you live on a shoestring budget, cooking and baking are essential to eating well and eating healthy. What a conundrum!

Although Clif and I live on a shoestring budget, we are very lucky to work from home, where we have the time and flexibility to cook much of our food from scratch.

Last Saturday, I made an apple pie and cinnamon pie knots.

In the afternoon, friends came over, and as we sat around the dining room table, we ate pie and cinnamon knots and other goodies while we discussed books, movies, and politics. A finest kind of afternoon.

This afternoon, I will be making bread. Where I live, there are no good bakeries nearby, and even the not-so-good bread is expensive, costing about $5 a loaf. Therefore, I bake my own bread.

 

I am not sure what kind of seismic cultural shift it would take for Americans to change their thinking about who deserves good, affordable food.  Maybe the gap is too wide and can never be bridged.

But I live in hope.

 

 

 

The Comfort of Rituals

Nearly nine years ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Not a happy time, as I’m sure readers can imagine. But when it comes to having breast cancer, I was one of the lucky ones: my cancer was very slow growing, no lymph nodes were infected, and treatment included a lumpectomy and radiation but no chemotherapy. Four years ago, my doctor pronounced me cured, such a sweet word.

Nevertheless, for every yearly mammogram, I am so nervous and jittery that I can barely think of anything else. (Fortunately, York Hospital, the place I go, gives results fifteen or twenty minutes after the mammogram.) But over the years, I have developed some rituals to help with the jitters.

First, I wear these earrings that belonged to my mother, who had breast cancer in the mid-1970s, the beginning of what can only be called an epidemic. I am still inspired by her courage and fortitude in dealing with her cancer at a time when people didn’t really speak of such things.

Then, in the car, I must listen to Vivaldi, even though my natural inclination is for alternative rock. Somehow I am both cheered up and calmed down by Vivaldi’s joyous, exuberant bursts of music punctuated by exquisite tenderness.

Finally, I meet my friend Susan Poulin for lunch at a place called When Pigs Fly.  Susan is an extremely talented performer and comedian. I don’t think I’m exaggerating by calling Susan Poulin one of Maine’s best.  Her alter ego is Ida LeClair, who is from northern Maine, lives in a double-wide, and has a beloved husband named Charlie. Ida’s zest for life can’t be matched, and here she is, ready to go.

Is it any wonder that having lunch with Susan cheers me up?

Now, I know that in truth it doesn’t make a bit of difference if I wear my mother’s earrings, listen to Vivaldi, or have lunch with Susan at When Pigs Fly. What is, will be.

But these things give me comfort, and for that reason, they are important.

And I am happy to report that this year’s mammogram was all clear.

Phew! Onward to year ten.