Today, I did something I have never done on December 1—I went for a bike ride. After last week’s snowstorm, I was sure there would be no biking on the road until next spring. Both Clif’s bike and my bike went down cellar, as we Mainers put it, and I had resigned myself to the exercise bike. But what a difference a week can make. Even in our shady yard, the snow is nearly gone, and all the roads are bare and clear. As soon as I discovered the temperature was relatively mild and the sun was shining, I decided to go for a ride.
With great effort, I hauled the bike out of the cellar via the bulkhead, and off I went, feeling as giddy as a school girl playing hooky. Could I really be riding my bike on the road on December 1? It seemed that I was. I looped through town, stopping to admire the brand new sign at The Flaky Tart. What a beauty! The sign and the shop really spiff up downtown Winthrop. To celebrate the new sign, I went in, bought a whoopie pie for Clif, and chatted with Kim, one of the owners.
On I went, past the library, and I decided to take a picture for the blog. Richard, the director, saw me taking pictures, and even though the library was closed, he told me to come in to pick up some books I had ordered through interlibrary loan. In the library, we chatted a bit about politics, wood stoves (this is Maine, after all), and how, at the Red Barn in Augusta, the owner actually pays her employees a living wage. (Richard once worked there.) Maybe that’s why the atmosphere is always so upbeat at the Red Barn. Happy employees bring about good Karma. Clif and I have always loved going to the Red Barn, and now that I know how well the employees are treated, we will make a special effort to support this restaurant.
Then came the ride by the lake, and it was a brisk one. How odd it seemed to be riding with the sun so low in the sky. There was a slight wind, and Maranacook Lake was choppy and deep blue.
When I got home, I was cold but invigorated, and my noontime green tea with honey tasted especially good.
My bike will not be going down cellar until the next snowstorm comes. I will be putting it in our little shed, where I can easily get it out. And if tomorrow is nice, I’ll be back on the road.
Yesterday, despite the heavy March-like snow, we did not lose our power and our New York daughter made it to Maine without incident. I was able to make pumpkin bread and green bean casserole to bring to my daughter Shannon’s home for Thanksgiving.
And yesterday, despite the slippery roads, three dedicated food pantry volunteers—JoEllen Cottrell, Mike Sienko, and Charlie Gove—opened the Winthrop Food Pantry. A food truck from the Good Shepherd Food Bank was supposed to come to Winthrop with boxes of food, but because of the bad weather, they canceled. JoEllen, the food pantry’s executive director, was concerned that there might be people who were counting on that food, and therefore she decided to open the food pantry, even though the weather was bad.
It turns out her concern was not misplaced. Eleven families came to the pantry. In the past, when the weather has been bad, most food pantry recipients have waited until the following week to come to the food pantry. (We are open only on Thursday.) It’s a sign of these hard times that so many people came out in a storm so that they could get food.
What I want to say is this: Charlie, JoEllen, and Mike, you make the world a better place. I am both inspired by and thankful for the example you set, not only for me but for the rest of the community as well.
As austere November winds its way down to Thanksgiving, and the days grow ever shorter, people all over the country are bustling to get ready for Thanksgiving, and tomorrow, I will write about my Thanksgiving preparations. During this busy season, some of us even find time to give thanks for what we have. Despite the tough economic times, there is much to be thankful for. This country does not experience mass starvation and famine, as other countries do, and usually even the poorest of us live in a place that has a toilet and running water and electricity. Although our social services could be greatly improved, we do have them, and people are not completely on their own during hard times.
That is the good news for the country at large. Here is the not-so-good news for Maine in specific. In their paper “Hunger in Maine,” Donna Yellen, Mark Swann, and Elana Schmidt cite statistics taken from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Maine is second in the nation for very low food security and ninth for food insecurity….The USDA definition for very low food security is missing multiple meals during an extended period of time or eating food that is inappropriate for that meal. Food insecurity is defined as the consistent worry about having enough income to pay for household food needs and if not, how to provide food for their family.” Yellen, Swann, and Schmidt go on to note that our neighbor to the south, New Hampshire, “has the lowest rates of hunger in the nation,” and they are somewhat puzzled as to why this should be the case.
To really explore the differences between Maine and New Hampshire would take research, time, and analysis that go well beyond the scope of this post. However, my quick take is that Maine simply does not have enough jobs that pay well enough to easily support families and individuals. Once upon a time, when the great factories were running, it was possible for everyday people to earn enough money to have a comfortable life. Not lavish, but comfortable. Now, for the most part, the great factories are still, either abandoned as ruins or converted into shops, offices, and apartments. What has replaced the factories? According to Down East magazine, retail stores such as Wal-Mart and Target are now the major employers in Maine, and except for a few management jobs at the top, these stores do not pay a living wage nor do they provide much in the way of benefits. In the meantime, housing prices have risen as have the costs of fuel, food, and education.
New Hampshire, on the other hand, is close enough to Massachusetts to benefit from that state’s tech industries. A sort of trickle-up effect, as it were. Again, this is just a quick take on a subject that certainly deserves a closer look.
Whatever the reason for the disparity in income between Maine and New Hampshire, in this time of cold and dark, I would encourage Maine readers (and indeed all readers) to think of those who have less than they do and to perhaps make a donation of money or food to their local food pantry.
Let’s just say that when we planned an October trip to go to New York City to visit our daughter, my husband, Clif, and I did not expect to have to cope with a northeaster that alternated between driving snow, sleet, and rain. But, as I’ve become fond of saying, when it comes to the weather, weird is the new normal, and the weather was definitely weird this Saturday.
We knew bad weather was coming, of course, but hearty Mainers that we are, we decided to press on with our plans. It was the weekend of our daughter’s birthday, and we wanted to be there. How bad could it get?, we reasoned. We loaded up the cats with food and water and brought our dog, Liam, to Portland so that he could stay with our daughter Shannon and her husband, Mike. All the animals were well cared for.
As if to mock us, Friday, the day we left, was a beautiful sunny day with a bright blue sky. (The same was true for Sunday, the day we came back.)
But, oh, Saturday—which just happened to be our daughter’s birthday—with its rain, sleet, and snow. We had it all. Despite the bad weather, we decided to “Keep calm and Carry on” with our plans, which included a trip to Zucotti Park to visit Occupy Wall Street and to donate some homemade biscotti.
When we left Dee’s apartment, the rain was coming down hard, and armed with umbrellas that flipped in the wind, we made it to the subway without too much discomfort. Our first stop was Zucotti Park, and after 40 minutes or so on the subway, we emerged from the underground to a pelting, slanting snow, wet and heavy. We were soaked in minutes and very cold. We took pictures, found the food tent, and donated the biscotti. We got a distracted “Thank you and God bless” from one of the volunteers, but it was clear that nobody was in the mood to chat about food, so we left relatively quickly. (I don’t blame the volunteers at all. It was damned cold to be out there in that park.)
After that it was on to Chelsea Market, an old factory whose downstairs has been converted to a food market. All the stores are indoors where it is warm and dry, a perfect place to recover from weather that had gone from snow to sleet. By then, my shoes were soaked and so were my gloves. My hair was plastered to my head because I had given my umbrella to Clif while I took pictures of Occupy Wall Street.
We wandered about, checking out the various food places, and decided to stop at Bar Suzette, where crepes are meticulously and creatively made with fillings that range from sweet to savory. Dee got a savory crepe with portobello mushrooms, and Clif and I shared one with Nutella and bananas. Very tasty indeed. (I could have one right one.)
Because it was Dee’s birthday, we decided to let her plan the rest of the day.
“Well,” she replied. “You know what I would like to do—a movie, dinner, and another movie.”
As Captain Picard from Star Trek would say, “Make it so.”
We saw In Time, had dinner—our treat—at Spice restaurant, and then saw Margin Call. The movies are very different from each other yet both explore the nature of the greed that seems to be running unchecked in our society. In Time, which could fairly be called a “gourmet popcorn” movie, did it in an alternative reality, allegorical kind of way, where the world was divided between those who had time and those who did not. And I mean this quite literally. When your time ran out—there was some kind of clock on a person’s arm to keep track of such things—then you died. Those at the top hoarded time, keeping it from those at the bottom, who had to scrabble constantly to find time to carry on. Sound familiar? Margin Call was more direct, a morality story about the collapse of a firm obviously based on Lehman Brothers, where everyone is so corrupted by money that they do things they know they shouldn’t do and in fact would rather not do. A quiet but powerful movie.
As we were following our daughter around New York City, I had on odd, haunting thought. When I had her 34 years ago, I never would have guessed that on October 29, 2011 she would be leading the way through New York City, her home, and we would be following.
“What did you envision?” Dee asked when I mentioned this to her.
“Really, nothing,” I said. “We just wanted you to grow up to be healthy and strong.” And creative I might have added, but didn’t since I just thought of it now.
Dee is certainly strong, healthy, and creative, and she just had a birthday we will all remember.
Post Script: After the long ride home, Shannon had a hot meal waiting for us—roast chicken with lemon, thyme, and garlic; roasted potatoes and carrots; salad; and bread. It’s not every day that you find someone who will take care of your dog and who will also cook a lovely meal for you on your return. Lucky us!
Last Sunday, after a chilly October bike ride along Lake Maranacook and its russet-colored shores—somehow we have skipped the blazing colors this year—I rode to Margy and Steve Knight’s house for a Winthrop Food Matters meeting. Various members of the community came to the meeting, and they all were concerned about community, good food, and resilience.
Patrice Putman, who works as director of employee development at MaineGeneral Health, moderated the meeting, and the first issue raised was food insecurity in our community. I have volunteered at the Winthrop Food Pantry for 13 years, and JoEllen Cottrell, the Food Pantry’s new executive director, was at the meeting as well. In addition, Craig Hickman, of Annabessacook Farm Bed & Breakfast, was there. His farm sponsors a private food pantry and is also the temporary home of Winthrop’s Hot Meals Kitchen, which serves free meals on Wednesday to anyone who wants dinner. (Until recently, the Hot Meals Kitchen had been in St. Francis Xavier Hall, which belongs to and is adjacent to the town’s Catholic church. Why the Hot Meals Kitchen is no longer there is a long story worthy of its own post.)
JoEllen, Craig, and I had all come to the same conclusion—due to the horrible economy, more and more people are struggling and therefore need our services. At the same time, inexpensive food from places such as the Good Shepherd Food Bank in Auburn is becoming harder and harder to get. This, in turn, puts a huge strain on the budgets of food pantries and hot meals kitchens as they must buy more of their food at full price from conventional grocery stores. (The lack of food from The Good Shepherd Food Bank, which has been Winthrop Food Pantry’s mainstay for as long as I’ve volunteered there, would be another subject worthy of an entire post on this blog. ) Craig Hickman put it succinctly: “The excess in the system is drying up.”
From there the discussion turned to having a licensed commercial kitchen in Winthrop, where donated fruit and vegetables could be processed and then given to the Hot Meals Kitchen and to the Winthrop Food Pantry. (Because of federal guidelines, the Food Pantry is unable to accept food canned or preserved by home cooks. Such food must come from a licensed commercial kitchen.)
Various homes for the Hot Meals Kitchen were discussed, from the Winthrop Middle School to an abandoned factory in town to a new building on a piece of land. Craig spoke of how the board of the Hot Meals Kitchen voted to investigate having its own place. “That way, we can control our destiny. We won’t be beholden to anybody,” Craig said. Craig’s feeling was that if everything went according to plan, the Hot Meals Kitchen would soon be back in St. Francis Xavier Hall, giving the board time and space to pursue its goal of building a community center focused on food. (I must admit, I love this idea.)
By the time the meeting concluded, there were plans of action. Margy offered to do research about food processing for food pantries in other communities; JoEllen, of course, will be devoting her time and energy into keeping the shelves stocked at the Winthrop Food Pantry; Steve volunteered to check into the Middle School about the possibility of of having a commercial kitchen there; and Craig and I discussed writing a regular food column for our local paper—the Community Advertiser—so that we could bring various food issues to people’s attention as well as provide seasonal recipes.
Even though the Winthrop Food Matters meeting ended on an upbeat note and the mood throughout was positive, one thing is certain. When it comes to food matters, there are many angles to consider—politics, resources (both food and money), time, and energy. Yet what can be more important than the food we eat and how communities are fed? Our health and well being are inextricably twined with food.
But there are lots of reasons to be hopeful. In Winthrop, the interest in local food has never been greater. Thanks to the many farmers in the area, Winthrop grows some of its own food, and the community makes an earnest effort to provide food for those in need.
(Tomorrow’s post will be Winthrop Food Matters: Part II—Food and Fellowship)
Tuesday was a day that revolved around food and town. First, I rode my bicycle, Blue Beauty, to a Winthrop Food Pantry meeting where we discussed the ongoing problem of rising food prices. Simply put, cheap food is harder to get, and this, of course, is affecting all food pantries, not just the one in Winthrop. However, the Winthrop Food Party is lucky to have an energetic executive director, an equally energetic president, a board that is willing to work with them, and a supportive town. Despite the rising cost of food, the Winthrop Food Pantry will continue to provide good food to those in need.
After the meeting, I met my friend Claire for lunch at the Flaky Tart, a new little café that has opened in town. How I am beginning to love that place, and I am not the only one. Every time I go there, the tables are full, and there is a brisk business for takeout. Claire and I sat on the high stools at a table by the window, where we could see the comings and goings in downtown Winthrop, and I am happy to report that there were indeed people on the street.
For years, Winthrop, like many other towns, has struggled with a downtown that has seemed pretty lifeless. There were a few bright spots—Becky’s Second Time Around, a very nice consignment shop, and Apple Valley Books. The area phone company was also located downtown. I am happy to say that these three establishments are still there.
But lately, things seem to be picking up in downtown Winthrop. A few years ago, a branch of MaineGeneral Medical Center set up shop in an abandoned factory, and this has brought people back into town. Recently, a store called Potato took one of the empty storefronts and has since expanded to the adjacent space. Potato sells Maine crafts, and there is such a nice variety that it is just the place to go for a special gift for a special person. A little while after Potato went in, Pete’s Roast Beef came to town, and although the decor at Pete’s might be described as utilitarian, the place is very clean, the staff is friendly, and the roast beef sandwiches are incredible.
Now there is the Flaky Tart, a place so warm and pretty that it makes you want to linger over your soup or your quiche or your tea or your coffee. Claire and I have decided to meet there once a week, and perhaps other friends will join us.
“My mother taught me how important it is to support your community,” Claire said. “And when I give gifts or eat out, I always start in Winthrop.”
While we were eating, Rosa, one of the owners of the Flaky Tart, came over to show us a golden beet she had just cut in half. “Isn’t it beautiful?” she asked. “It’s from my garden.”
Indeed it was. I had never tasted a golden beet, and I wondered how it compared with traditional ones.
Rosa replied, “They are a little milder, a little sweeter. If you roast some of these, then who needs candy?”
Someday, I hope to try roasting golden beets.
After lunch, Claire and I went to Potato, where we both bought gifts for special people in our lives—our daughters.
I am planning to do as much holiday shopping as possible in Winthrop. In fact, when my daughter Dee, who lives in New York, comes home for Thanksgiving, I am hoping to persuade her to spend Black Friday shopping in Winthrop and to have lunch at the Flaky Tart.
Black Friday in Winthrop. It has a certain ring, doesn’t it?
It’s funny how one thing leads to another. Last week at our town’s Green Committee meeting, Jenn Currier spoke about an upcoming Transition Town meeting that she wants to attend. For some strange reason, I was unfamiliar with the Transition Town movement, but as Jenn explained some of the movement’s goals—food security, the emphasis on community, and resilience in the face of the many challenges we’ll be facing because of climate change and peak oil—I thought it was definitely something I should check into.
Then, today on FaceBook, I received a link—not from Jenn—about Transition Towns, and that link, in turn, lead me to the website Transition Culture, which has the tag-line “an evolving exploration into the head, heart, and hands of energy descent.” Now, you might think that a website that focuses on “energy descent” would be a rather gloomy site, but just the reverse seems to be true. Granted, I’ve only just found Transition Culture, but as far as I can tell, the website’s mood and tone are buoyant and hopeful. The emphasis is on what can be done and all the good things that can be gained by living, working, creating, and growing food close to home.
Via Transition Culture, I even watched an hour-long show on the computer, and this is something I never do. My time for watching shows is pretty much regulated to an hour or so at night. While there is a place for watching shows in my life, I want it to be a small part, not a big part, of my day. The show I watched today was Town with Nicholas Crane, and the featured town was Totnes, in southern England. Totnes is, of course, a transition town and they are doing some nifty things, including widespread use of solar panels, community festivals, and lots of local food. To justify watching this show, I viewed half of it while I was eating breakfast and half as I ate lunch.
For dessert I watched a very short video called A Story of Transition in 10 objects: Number 4. An Egg. Now, with my love of chickens and eggs, how could I resist this video? Here the focus is on Forres, a town in Scotland, and while I was drawn to the egg, what really caught my attention were the vegetable gardens, planted in a circles. I was fascinated by this layout, which looks like a terrific way to use a relatively small plot, and the circular beds appeared as though they would be very easy to tend while producing quite a bit of food.
I’m not sure if I could use the circular design on my shady plot of land. But I will certainly be thinking about how I might be able to do so because after years of talking about moving to Brunswick—a kicky college community with great restaurants—my husband, Clif, and I have decided to stay right here in Winthrop and to devote ourselves to our house, our yard, and our community.
Another circle, as we are, so to speak, back where we started.
A blog about nature, home, community, books, writing, the environment, food, and rural life.