A CAT AND MOUSE KIND OF WEEKEND

This weekend we had snow, and on Saturday morning I woke up to hear a heavy dripping sound as the snow melted from the roof. But when I looked outside, I saw bright green grass under the patches of snow. The flowering trees—with their fringes of green and red—looked jaunty, and the gardens were brave and crisp beneath the wet snow. Best of all, to paraphrase the writer Bailey White, “it is quite year for forsythia,” and in almost every yard there is a glorious burst of yellow. By Sunday, the snow was gone, and undaunted, the birds and the fields and the trees and the flowers carried on with spring. 

It was also quite a weekend for mice. My husband, Clif, and I spent quite a bit of time running around the house with the blue bucket as we tried, in vain, to scoop the fleeing creatures into it so they could be brought outside. Those mice are quite the speedsters, and Clif and I are certainly not as fast as we once were. But who can blame the mice? With two cats in hot pursuit, the mice were fleeing for their lives. They had no way of knowing what softies Clif and I are and that we had no harmful intentions. Our goal is to have the mice stay outside, and we would like the cats to act mainly as deterrents, which I’m sure they do. But for some reason, our house seems to be irresistible to mice, and in they scamper, primarily in spring and fall. The cats are ready, and they hunt with the diligence of a species that still remembers the time when their ancestors were on their own. The cats finally did catch and kill them, but there was a lot of brouhaha in the process.

Despite the excitement of snow in April and the mice racing through the house, Clif and I still had time to think about our upcoming Earth Week dinners featuring mostly local food. Leaving Clif to the mice, I set out on Saturday to do some shopping and gathering, and I had both bad and good luck. The good luck was that between Harvest Time Natural Foods and Lakeside Orchards, I was able to find quite a lot of Maine food. At Harvest Time I bought whole wheat bread flour, buckwheat, and oats, all grown in Maine. At Lakeside, I bought maple syrup, honey, apples, and, my happiest and most surprising find, fresh—yes, fresh!—greens grown at Lakeside. Oh, happy day! 

Then I went to Hannaford, our local big-box grocery store, and that was where bad luck struck. I had planned on focusing on potatoes for this week’s meals—as a side, as a base for a dish with a cheddar cheese sauce, and perhaps even a soup. A month or so ago, I had bought a twenty-pound bag of Maine-grown potatoes, and I blithely assumed I could buy another bag. I was wrong. The produce manager told me that there were no more Maine potatoes, that they were sold out for the year. But they had potatoes from California. California? Mon Dieu! What would my Northern Maine, potato–growing, Franco-American ancestors think? And what would I do without potatoes? True, I have some left in the drawer in my refrigerator, but with all the plans I have this week for potatoes, it is unlikely that they will carry me through. This put me in a rather dark mood, which brightened a little when I found Monterrey Jack cheese from Pineland Farms, made in New Gloucester, Maine. Then I went to the meat section and asked the young man behind the counter if any of the meat came from Maine. He looked at me as though I had just suggested that he come to work wearing his pants on his head. “No,” he managed to reply at last, “none of the meat comes from Maine.” At the fish counter, the news wasn’t much better. The man working there responded to my question with more equanimity, but he only knew the country of origin, not the region. Except, of course, for the clams, mussels, and lobsters. They all came from Maine. Now, Clif and I could spend a happy week eating clams, mussels, and lobsters, but our budget does not really allow for this. 

No Maine potatoes. No knowledge of which region the fish came from. I left the store, and my mood was very black indeed. 

However, all was not lost. In Manchester, the town adjacent to Winthrop, is a shop called The Lighthouse Wine & Seafood Market, and—miracle of God—when I called to find out about the fish, the young man actually knew where it had come from. “Oh, yes,” he said. “We have haddock and halibut caught off the coast of Maine.” They also carry organic beef from a farm in Leeds, again, not far from where we live. We don’t eat very much meat, but it’s nice to know we can get Maine beef at The Lighthouse.

So Sunday night, we had a mostly Maine dinner. We baked two of our precious Maine potatoes and served them with baked haddock drizzled with browned butter. To go with this, we had a salad with the greens from Lakeside Orchard dressed with a vinaigrette made, in part, with Ray’s mustard, from Down East Maine. And dessert?  Apple pie made with Maine apples. 

Readers, the meal was quite good. In fact, it would even be good enough for company. 

Now, on to the rest of the week. And let’s hope it’s a mouse-free one.

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PREPARATIONS FOR AN EARTH WEEK DINNER MENU

A gray day on Narrows Pond Road. This morning, I found a dead mouse on the dining room floor. It is mouse central in our little house in the big woods, and the cats are doing their job. When I went to toss the mouse into the woods, I heard the ethereal up-and-down song of the hermit thrush and the manic call of a loon. The first of the season for me. Spring is here. 

I’ve been thinking about my idea of cooking and eating mostly local dinners in honor of Earth Week. Not an easy project in central Maine in April. Yes, dandelion greens are available, and they are free for the digging, but the truth is, I can’t stand those bitter greens. My grandmother, who grew up on a potato farm in northern Maine, just loved them and would dig them every spring. In fact, as far as I can remember, there was nothing she didn’t like. I suppose that’s what comes of growing up in a time and place where most everything you eat is produced by you and your family. You can’t afford the luxury of being picky. However, I grew up in a different time and a different place—when Spam and margarine where more common than dandelion greens. My misfortune, I know, but in my defense, I have come a long way from those Spam and margarine years. I eat a pretty wide variety of food, but somehow, I haven’t mastered dandelion greens. 

Then there is the definition of local. What is local, anyway? For some, it’s a swath of a hundred miles. I know there have to be limits to what is local, but in a way this seems rather broad. After all, food grown a hundred miles away still needs to be transported, and generally it’s by a carbon-belching vehicle. On the other hand, that vehicle will have belched less carbon than one coming across country. Or half the country. Or even five hundred miles. Nevertheless, the criteria I have come up with—and it’s just as arbitrary as any—are that Maine is my state, and local is Maine. The food can come from Fort Kent, and it can come from Kittery. It’s all Maine. No, I don’t need to be reminded that Portsmouth, New Hampshire, is just across the border from Kittery, and the distance between the two places is pretty much zip. Nevertheless, Maine is the limit. 

Then, to further muddy the waters, there is the “mostly local” part. This means that spices and olive oil are allowed and any little thing that might spruce up the meal. But the emphasis will be on what I can get in Maine. 

So what can I get? Potatoes, and as a gesture of respect to my northern Maine ancestors, they will be a central feature of what we eat in the upcoming week. Anything and everything dairy, from butter to cheese to ice cream. Blueberries, frozen of course, but from Maine nonetheless. Maple syrup, elixir of the gods. Honey, eggs, and apples. H-m-m-m. I wonder how caramel apples would taste with honey rather than sugar. It’s worth a try. Those bitter dandelion greens notwithstanding, fresh vegetables are where we falter. Heck, with vegetables in general, even frozen and canned. This Saturday, I’ll be making a trip to Lakeside Orchards in Manchester, Maine. Along with selling apples, Lakeside has a big, apple-scented store that sells all sorts of Maine products and food. If I’m lucky, I can find some squash or cabbage, but I wouldn’t place any bets on this. It’s pretty late in the season and too early for fiddleheads, which I can’t say I love, but they are more palatable to me than dandelion greens. Something tells me that I might have to sneak in some nonlocal vegetables to fill in the meal. However, caramel apples—really just a fancy, delicious applesauce recipe from the New York Times cookbook—will certainly do for a couple of meals.  We also have local tomatoes grown all year long in greenhouses in Madison, Maine, at a place called Backyard Farms, and the tomatoes are reasonably tasty. Now, it is entirely debatable how environmentally friendly it is to buy tomatoes grown in a greenhouse in April in Maine. But they are local, and right now in Maine, the pickings are very slim indeed. Grilled tomatoes with a sprinkle of olive oil and herbs don’t sound bad any time of year. 

Flour is also a consideration, especially since I bake all the bread we eat. In the 1800s, Maine used to be the breadbasket of New England. This is no longer the case, and most of our flour comes from the Midwest, from places like Kansas, not local even by the broadest standards. A call to Hannaford Supermarkets, the largest in the area, came up short. I had better luck calling Harvest Time Natural Foods in Augusta. They told me they have a decent little selection of Maine-grown flour, ranging from whole-wheat pastry flour to graham flour. I’ll be stopping by there on Saturday as well. 

So tentatively, our kick-off meal for Earth Week will begin on Saturday, April 24 and will consist of pancakes made with Maine flour, butter, milk, and eggs; home fries made from Maine potatoes; and caramel apples made with honey. A good start, but an easy one.

EARTH DAY IS COMING

As a foodie, I love to eat, cook, and think about food, and my writing and reading reflect this love. (Some might call it an obsession, and they wouldn’t be too far off.) However, I came of age in the 1970s, when the environmental movement was bursting forth, and I caught the environmental bug in my early teens. It has been with me ever since, and writing and the environment have been twin concerns for all of my adult life. A love of food, of course, fits perfectly with environmentalism because all food comes from Earth, and how we harvest, hunt, fish, and farm has a tremendous effect, often for ill, on the environment. With so many of us on the planet—over 6 billion and rising—the issue of how to feed everyone without destroying the environment becomes ever more important. When you add in our complete dependence on oil—from fertilizers to harvesting to transportation—it doesn’t take long to realize that food, along with energy and manufacturing, is at the center of all things environmental.  As Mark Bittman might put it, food matters. And, by extension, what we eat matters, not only for our own health but for the health of the planet as well. 

This year marks the fortieth anniversary of Earth Day, which was started by Senator Gaylord Nelson on April 22, 1970 and was conceived as an environmental “teach-in” to expand environmental awareness and perhaps even come up with some solutions to problems of the times—polluted rivers, smog, and DDT. Gaylord and the other Earth Day organizers were unprepared for the response—“20 million demonstrators and the thousands of schools and local communities that participated.” (Here is a link to a piece written by Senator Nelson about the first Earth Day.) 

My husband, Clif, and I are lucky enough to live in a town—Winthrop—that will be sponsoring Earth Week activities (April 17th to April 24th), from movies to gardening seminars to a public supper featuring food from local farms. A community garden is in the works. Clif and I are thrilled, and we will be participating in many of these activities. (Here is a link to the town of Winthrop’s website and the list of Earth Week events.) Naturally, I’ll be writing about some of these events, and perhaps Clif will take some photos. And you can be sure I’ll be thinking about local and organic food even more than I usually do, which is quite a lot of the time. 

It might even be fun to plan a mostly local dinner each night during Earth Week. As Ali from the blog Henbogle put it in a recent comment on one of my posts, “Don’t forget the incredible locally made cheeses, the good Maine butter, maple syrup on whatever is to hand…” No, indeed, and these ingredients are certainly a good basis for a mostly local dinner menu.

I’ll be planning and posting. What better way to celebrate Earth Week than with local food?

BLUEBERRY BRAN MUFFINS AND ICED TEA ON THE PATIO WITH DON ROBBINS

For over a year, I have known Don Robbins through his writing, which is warm, funny, generous, and elegant. My husband, Clif, and I publish a web magazine called Wolf Moon Journal, and Don has written several pieces for us, the most recent being “Look Ahead to Horizon Days,” (I have written about this in my post A Foodie Idea for a Mother’s Day Gift.) Even though Don only lives fifteen miles from where I live, we somehow had never gotten the chance to meet. But I was very keen to become acquainted with this retired schoolteacher who lives “in a dome on Mellow Hill,” and in a recent email I told him to please stop by if he was in the area. There is always tea in this house, and muffins can be made quick as a wink. Don assured me that he would keep this in mind. 

Yesterday the weather was especially fine, and I got a call from Don asking me if it would be a good afternoon for a visit. Indeed it would. Don estimated that he’d be at my house in an hour and a half. Give or take fifteen minutes or so. He was coming by bike rather than car, and it was hard to give an exact time of arrival. 

No matter. There was plenty of time to make muffins and iced tea and even to clean the kitchen afterward so that it looked reasonable tidy. As it turned out, the trip took him an hour and fifteen minutes, and he was more than ready for the muffins and tea. It was warm enough to have tea on the patio, which also allowed my dog, Liam, to beg and run and bark. Three of his favorite things. 

Don Robbins, lean and sprightly, belongs to that group of energetic seniors that Maine seems to have in such great abundance. Is it something about the brisk weather that brings out their vitality? Or, do the less energetic ones leave the state for easier, sunnier climates? Whatever the case, I know many, many men and women in their seventies and eighties who walk, bike, volunteer, and—I know this sounds like a cliché—make their communities a better place. I am always inspired by these seniors, and I do my best to keep up with them. 

On the patio, Don and I drank tea and listened to the birds twitter and sing. The dog begged, barked, and ran. Don talked about his dome in Sydney and his gardens and the “gazebo” of pole beans he constructs for a cool, leafy green place in which to read and relax in the summer. I asked him if we could visit him this summer and take pictures of his garden. I plan to feature various garden in this blog, and his answer was yes. He told me about the 180-mile bike trek he was training for, to help raise money for the American Lung Association. With all the biking he does, Don figured he could help himself to two muffins. With no such excuse, I had two muffins as well. 

What else does Don do with his spare moments? As a Christmas present to an elderly friend, he goes to her apartment and reads aloud once a week. They recently finished Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, which they both enjoyed very much. Don’s daughter owns a floral shop in Oakland, and one day a week he helps her out by delivering flowers. He and his mother, who is in her nineties, go for walks on the rail trail in Augusta. 

As Don was getting ready to leave for the bike ride home, I made him promise to come back soon for another visit. In turn, I promised to make more muffins, small enough payment for the pleasure of being in the company of such a buoyant spirit.

Blueberry Bran Muffins
Good anytime, but best eaten in the company of an energetic senior 

¼ cup of vegetable oil
¼ cup of brown sugar
¼ cup of maple syrup
2/3 cup of milk
1 egg, slightly beaten
1 cup of flour
1 cup of wheat bran
1 tablespoon of baking powder
¼ teaspoon of salt
¾ cup of frozen blueberries, thawed, or 1 cup of fresh blueberries 

Preheat oven to 400°F. Stir together the vegetable oil and brown sugar. Add milk, maple syrup, and egg. Add combined dry ingredients, just mixing until ingredients are moist. Fold in thawed blueberries. Scoop batter into prepared muffin tin. Makes eight large muffins or twelve small ones. Bake for 15 minutes or until golden brown. 

Note: I’ve used honey in place of the maple syrup, with equally good results

EATING IN ITALY: HOME FOOD

Food lovers hardly need to be reminded that Italy, along with France, is one of the prime countries to visit if your idea of a perfect vacation consists mainly of finding good places to eat. I ready admit to being guilty of this, even when I was a teenager. At sixteen, when I went to France, I was interested in two things—cute boys and food, and not necessarily in that order. 

In the New York Times, Matt Gross recently has written an article with the headline “Mangia, Mangia!” that sure makes you wish you were in Italy. He writes about joining an organization called Home Food, “an Italian organization dedicated to, as its promotional literature states, ‘the protection and increase of the value of typical Italian gastronomic and culinary legacy.’” Membership then allows you to go into actual Italian homes where families cook for you. Gross writes vividly about both the food and the families, and by the time I was done reading the article, I was ready for dinner, even though it was only 9:30 A.M. Ready for “hand-cut triangles of pasta with juicy zucchini, a dollop of sweet roasted pumpkin and a rosemary sauce bound with sheep’s-milk ricotta” and pasta “in a sauce of puréed and whole chickpeas (which the family had farmed itself).” And there was more. Much more. 

Anyway, for a vicarious food experience, here is a link to Matt Gross’s piece

Gross’s article started me thinking about what a Maine version of Home Food would be. Don’t laugh. Yankee food can be good food, and there are other ethnic groups in Maine, including Franco-Americans, my own group. We make pretty tasty tourtière pies, and our pea soup isn’t bad, either. But it seems to me that a Maine version of Home Food would be best as a summer event. When you live this far north, the local pickings are mighty slim in the winter. Of course, there is always seafood, which is good any time of year, and blueberries survive the freezing process amazingly well, which means tender blueberry cake can be on the menu even when there is snow on the ground. But my mind turns to fresh strawberries, corn, and new potatoes. Peas and string beans with a fresh, crisp snap. 

One year, my husband, Clif, invited Jack, an out-of-state colleague, to stay with us. Jack had come to Maine from Utah to help my husband run a seminar. He came in July, and we plied him with Maine’s summer bounty—scallops, lobster, strawberry shortcake, and every other good thing we could think of. At night, Jack’s conversations to his wife revolved around what he had just had for dinner. 

None of the food was fancy, but I think it’s fair to say that Jack left Maine with a good taste in his mouth. And what better way is there to leave a place?

PIZZA NIGHT: HIS VS. HERS

Pizza My husband, Clif, is convinced that a true pizza consists of tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, and a layer of pepperoni so thick that it looks as though the pizza has been tiled. Sausage is an acceptable addition or substitute. He’s also keen about barbecue sauce and chicken pizza. Basically, if the pizza has some kind of sauce and meat, chances are that Clif will like it. Our daughter Shannon’s fiancé, Mike, pretty much feels the same way, as does our good friend Joel Johnson. Male solidarity?

While I can and do eat the sauce and meat extravaganzas that Clif loves, my favorite kind of pizza is quite different. Usually, it doesn’t have any sauce at all. Instead, it has olive oil, maybe some garlic, sliced tomatoes, sliced fresh mozzarella, maybe some feta, sweet red peppers, and calametta olives. No meat. The sad truth is, when it comes to pizza, Clif and I have a mixed marriage.

Twice a month or so, usually on weekends, I make pizza and invite Shannon and Mike to join us. Normally, I make the tiled-pepperoni pizza, but last weekend, I was in the mood for my kind of pizza, and I informed Clif, as gently as possible, that this pizza was going to be more Mediterranean than what we usually have.

Clif’s reaction was admirably stoic, and as I assembled the pizza, he uncomplainingly fetched his camera so that he could take some pictures for this post.

Pizza toppingOn went the vegetables and cheese. Click went the camera. Olive oil, salt, pepper, and dried oregano followed. The camera clicked some more. Suddenly the clicking stopped, and the room was quiet for a few moments. Clif lowered the camera.

“You mean there isn’t going to be any sauce?” Clif asked, in the manner of someone who has just discovered that he’s been horribly tricked.

“No sauce,” I admitted softly.

Without comment, Clif raised the camera to his face, and the clicking continued, but it now had a half-hearted sound. I knew that for Clif, dinner had lost its usual glow. (Clif loves his dinner the way some men, say, love baseball or football, with a fervor that goes way beyond mere enjoyment.)

PizzaForty-five minutes or so later, the pizza, a glory of vegetables, creamy cheese, and crisp crust, came from the oven. Clif didn’t complain, but instead of his usual two or three slices, he only had a slice and a half.

I sighed, knowing what the next pizza would be like. To paraphrase the writer Don Robbins, “all is compromise here on Narrows Pond Road.” But maybe in three or four months, when the memory of the usurping, sauceless pizza has faded from Clif’s memory, I’ll slip in another one. Or who knows? Maybe I’ll even make two—a Mediterranean one for me and a saucy, pepperoni one for him.

A FOODIE IDEA FOR A MOTHER’S DAY GIFT

My husband, Clif, and I publish a web magazine called Wolf Moon Journal, and I just posted a piece written by Don Robbins, a retired school teacher who lives in “a dome” on Mellow Hill in Sydney, Maine. Don’s piece is called “Horizon Days,” and it’s about a present he made for his mother, who is in her nineties and doesn’t need any more gewgaws or artwork. As Don puts it, “To the contrary, she has been zealously divesting herself of many of the decorative items that crowd her small apartment.” 

But on special occasions such as Mother’s Day, we want to do something for our mothers (and fathers, too!) even if they don’t need any more clutter in their lives. So Don put together a booklet with the title Look Ahead to Horizon Days, with lists of favorite activities for him and his mother to do throughout the year. Don writes so well and so charmingly that rather than go into any detail about his project, I’m just going to provide the link to his “Horizon Days” piece

As my mind quite naturally turns to food, I started thinking about how much fun it would be to put together a Mother’s Day booklet with promised gifts of food for each month. This could be a wonderfully flexible gift. If the budget allows, and Mother lives some distance away, the food gifts could be delectable treats ordered from the Internet. (Chocolate, of course, immediately comes to mind.)  If Mother lives within driving distance, the best thing to do would be to make and deliver a special homemade treat once a month. There are lots of possibilities, ranging from bread, spiced nuts, and, when I think of my own mother, an apple crisp, which she just loved. Frosted heart-shaped sugar cookies for February. Strawberry shortcake for July. Marge Standish’s delectable blueberry cake for August, and for this cake it is always best to use wild Maine Blueberries. Main meals, too, of course. Scalloped scallops was another of my mother’s favorite dishes. And cheddar cheese soup, a perfect gift for a winter month. 

Don decorated his booklet with his own original artwork. For those of us who are not quite as talented in that department, collage would be a snappy alternative that could even feature pictures of the promised treats on each page. 

My own mother died two years ago. Nevertheless, it gives me pleasure imagining what kind of booklet I would have made for her and remembering the things she liked to eat. 

Finally, this is a gift that could be expanded to other gift-giving occasions—birthdays, Christmas, even anniversaries. Homemade treats can fit into even a very frugal budget, and some of the most delicious ones, say, bread, hardly cost anything at all to make. What this gift involves is time, that will-o’-the-wisp element that nobody, especially Americans, seems to have enough of. 

But what better gift to give?

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