AND SOMETHING HOPEFUL: GROWING GRAIN AND MAKING BREAD IN CENTRAL MAINE

Long, long ago, Maine used to be the breadbasket of New England. I kid you not. This was in the 1800s, before people headed west for greener pastures. However, there is a grain-growing, bread-making renaissance in Maine, culminating with a Kneading Conference in none other than Skowhegan, the mill town where my parents grew up. 

I had hoped to make it to this year’s Kneading Conference, but my schedule just didn’t allow for this to happen. When I read Marian Burros’s recent piece in the New York Times about the conference and the resurgence of grain growing and bread making in Maine, I was doubly sorry that I wasn’t able to go. 

Next year, I hope. In the meantime, I’ll be making bread.

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SOMETHING MORE SERIOUS: A BOOK ABOUT OUR WORLD’S POTENTIAL FOOD CRISIS—THE COMING FAMINE BY JULIAN CRIBB

Doomsday prophecies are nothing new. The end of our world has been predicted many times, yet onward it spins, with an ever-growing human population. Sea levels are rising, Earth’s temperature is rising, and, in response, animals and plants are slowly migrating north. (Oh, the changes I have seen since I was a child in central Maine. Believe it or not, there was nary a Japanese beetle to plague us.) But so far, at least, our little lives go on much as they always have. We work, we play, we raise our families. And we consume. Boy, do we Americans consume. 

Now, environmentalists can be a gloomy lot, and end-of-the-world, doomer predictions play right into their pessimism. It is hardly surprising that people with sunnier, more optimistic natures tend to dismiss these predictions, especially when we haven’t had any great, worldwide catastrophes in recent times. 

No one, of course, can say for certain what the future will bring, and we humans are endlessly inventive. However, just because we haven’t had a recent worldwide catastrophe, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be concerned about the way people—especially those of us in rich countries—are depleting resources. Earth has a finite supply of water, land, and resources. The more people there are, the less there is to go around. This is only common sense, a homely virtue that often seems to be in short supply. Those of us who are concerned about food—and shouldn’t we all be?—often wonder how in the world everyone is going to eat if the human population goes ever upward. 

In yesterday’s New York Times, Mark Bittman reviewed Julian Cribb’s book The Coming Famine: The Global Food Crisis and What We Can Do to Avoid It.  Since I haven’t read the book, I can’t make direct comments on it, but here is a short excerpt from Bittman’s review: “Much of ‘The Coming Famine’ builds an argument that we’ve jumped off a cliff and that global chaos — a tidal wave of people fleeing their own countries for wherever they can find food — is all but guaranteed. The rest of the book concentrates on catching an outcropping of rock with a finger and scrambling back up. The writing is neither personality-filled nor especially fluid, but the sheer number of terrifying facts makes the book gripping.” 

Not a fun read, by any means, but The Coming Famine will be going on my to-be-read pile. And, there are things as individuals that we can do. Bittman writes “Dietary change is primary, and can be as simple as eating a salad instead of a cheeseburger and an apple instead of a bag of chips. Waste less food. Compost. Garden, even if (or especially if) you live in a city. Choose sustainable food, including fish. And so on.” 

I’m preaching to the choir, I know, but let’s face it—this mindful path toward food is not always an easy path to follow. It is often more expensive and more work, and most of us like to eat fat, salt, and meat. Restraint is not always easy, but our own health and the health of our planet could very well hinge on restraint.

DIGRESSION: A LITTLE ZEN BEFORE THE WEDDING

This is not a food picture, but I comeditationuldn’t resist sharing it. Besides, a little digression now and then adds interest not only to blogs but also to life.

I took this picture of my daughter Shannon and her bridesmaid, Andrea Maddi, just before the wedding. They were both a little jittery, and I thought that maybe some prewedding meditation and breathing would calm them down and lighten the mood as well.

“Put your hands together,” I instructed. “Close your eyes. Breathe in, breathe out.”

They did as they were instructed, and I snapped a picture of them.

And by gum, I think it had the desired effect. Afterward, we all laughed, and Shannon and Andrea weren’t quite as jittery.

SHANNON’S WEDDING: AND A FIRST TASTE OF MAPLE SYRUP FOR ONE OF HER GUESTS

August 14th, the day of our daughter Shannon’s wedding, was one of those lovely, clear days that tourists who vacation in Maine dream about. The day was warm, but not too hot, there was hardly a cloud in the bright blue sky, and the humidity was low. All summer brides (and grooms!) wish for such weather for their weddings. 

The actual ceremony was held outside (another reason to be thankful for nice weather) under a large pavilion. Shannon’s boss, who is a justice of the peace, performed the ceremony, and everything was as splendid as the weather. Andrea Maddi, one of the bridesmaids, read an Apache prayer. Claire Hersom, the groom’s aunt, read one of her poems. Then, there was a receiving line, pictures, the meal, and dancing. Lots of dancing. 

In fact, like the preceding week, it all seems a blur—a bit like Christmas where a lot of preparation goes into one day that seems to pass in a flash. Many of the guests have commented on how “glowing” both Shannon and Mike were. How true! They both looked so happy to be getting married. As I have told many of my friends, Mike and Shannon are very devoted to each other, and while it may be old-fashioned and not terribly romantic, I believe it is this devotion that will help them through the hard times that inevitably come into all people’s lives. 

Anyway, a beautiful day for our family and for the many dear friends who came to celebrate it with us. And I am now a mother-in-law. 

However, as a foodie, it would be remiss of me not to relate a conversation I had the following day with a young man named Chris, one of the guests. A small group of us, including Mike and Shannon, went to Riverside Farm Market & Café in Oakland for brunch the day after the wedding. Riverside Market sits on the edge of fields, gardens, and, yes, a vineyard. Beyond the fields, gardens, and vineyard, the Messalonskee river flashes and glitters as it flows by Riverside Market. In an area of Maine known for its pastoral prospects (as well as its mills), it would be hard to find a more pleasing view. 

Along with growing grapes, which is made into wine, Riverside Market grows much of what they serve, and all the food is fresh and well prepared. I love going there for brunch and am especially keen on their eggs Benedict. The poached eggs are plump and perfect, and the hollandaise sauce is smooth and rich. My husband, Clif, sat on one side of me, and Chris, the aforementioned guest, sat on the other. 

Chris now lives in Washington, D.C., but he is originally from Louisiana, where his parents run an organic farm that features grass-fed cattle. Chris is a foodie, and as he had never been to Maine, he was eager to try lobster rolls and real maple syrup, both for the first time. (When our server heard this, she shook her head in surprise. For Mainers, real maple syrup is almost a birthright.) 

On the way to Shannon’s wedding, Chris had stopped in Freeport to have a lobster roll. “But I didn’t get a good one,” he said. 

“Oh, no?” I replied, wondering what was wrong with it. “Tell me about the lobster roll.” 

“Well, it was stuffed full of lobster meat, but there was no sauce, nothing to go on top of it.” 

Spoken like a true son of Louisiana, where most things, even the seafood, are served with some kind of hot, spicy sauce. Laughing, I told Chris that in all likelihood he had had a perfectly fine lobster roll, that we “Yankees” tended to like our seafood straight up and plain, and indeed there is some virtue in this. Too many spices can easily overcome the delicate flavor of seafood, especially when it comes to lobster. Enlightened, Chris vowed to give lobster rolls another try, keeping in mind there would be no spicy sauce on top. 

With maple syrup, which Chris had for the first time with his blueberry pancakes at Riverside Market, it was quite another matter—love at first taste. And a triumph for Maine. A maple-syrup convert. 

So the wedding is now over, and a happy day it was. I hope to have a few pictures, not all of them food related, to post sometime soon.

BUSY DAYS: SHANNON’S WEDDING

Flowers on tableThis week, as the saying goes, has been a blur. My daughter, Shannon, is getting married on Saturday, and the week has been filled with all manner of folderol as we prepare for the big day. My eldest daughter, Dee, who lives in New York, came home last Saturday so that she could help, and my husband, Clif, has taken the week off.

There are programs to print, favor bags to assemble, a stuff-the-party-favors simple supper to host, a bridesmaid luncheon to prepare, and all the other things that go with a wedding. Simply put, it’s a rather lot of work getting a daughter married, but it is also an event that is bringing great pleasure to the family. Mike, Shannon’s fiancé, loves books and movies and Shakespeare. He fits right in with our family.

For the simple supper, on Thursday, we plan on having burritos, grapes, hummus with pita bread, and all the little accompaniments—salsa, chips, and sour cream. I’m also thinking of making a green salad with apples, goat cheese, and roasted walnuts. For dessert, we will have frosted cocoa squares, easy to make and pretty tasty.

strawberry and kiwi saladOn Friday, for the bridesmaid luncheon, I will be making a chicken tarragon salad, a strawberry and kiwi salad, and little sandwiches with pesto, fresh mozzarella, and tomatoes. For dessert, one of my old standbys—lemon-frosted shortbread.

If we have presence of mind, we will take pictures of the spreads to post on the blog.

Then, it’s on to the rehearsal dinner, which we are not hosting, and the wedding day itself.

Onward and upward!

THREE PIECES ABOUT ICE CREAM

This summer, thanks to Tubby’s, my husband, Clif, and I have spent more on ice cream than we ever have. Normally, we go out a few times each summer for ice cream. Nowadays, with Tubby’s right in town, we try to keep it to a few times a week. As I noted in a previous post, Clif and I ride our bikes nearly every night, and as luck would have it, most of the routes we take seem to go right by Tubby’s. After riding ten, twelve, or eighteen miles, how can we resist stopping? Too often, we don’t, and my favorite flavor is Pucker Up, a lemon ice cream that is the right balance of tart and sweet with an intense lemon flavor. 

However, in the Dining & Wine section of today’s New York Times, I read a piece that gave me a bit of comfort. In “You Scream, I Scream…at the Price of Ice Cream,” Julia Moskin writes about the high price of artisan ice cream and gelato, and how a place called Grom, in Manhattan, charges $5.25 for a small cone. Moskin considers $2.95 for a small cone to be “a relative bargain ” and notes that it is possible to get good ice cream at that price. 

If memory serves me correctly, at Tubby’s a small cone, dubbed a “Baby Bear,” costs about $2.95. Now I can think of it as “a relative bargain” and not feel so bad about indulging a few times a week.  

Also in the Dining & Wine section is a piece about making ice cream—“Egg-Free Ice Cream Lets Flavors Bloom.” And, there is an interactive feature, “Notes from the Ice Cream Taste Test,” where “The Dining section conducted a blind taste test of 11 kinds of strawberry ice cream.” I was a bit surprised by the winner, but then that is often the case with blind taste tests. The unexpected and the cheaper often win.

Well, late summer is here, and what better time is there to enjoy ice cream at a stand where it is made in small batches? Along with summer itself, ice cream is a fleeting joy, too soon gone, but oh so sweet. Fall will be arriving shortly, and after that, well, we know what comes after that. In the meantime, let’s raise our ice creams in tribute to summer, in all its warm, green glory.

ALL ROADS LEAD TO TUBBY’S

Deep summer is here, and although the weather has been hot, it hasn’t, for the most part, been unbearable, the way it has for much of the east coast and, indeed, for much of the country. There has been a pleasing mixture of sun and rain, good for gardens and—especially—good for bicycle riding.

This year, in part to mitigate the effects of being a good eater, I am working at becoming a good biker. I have friends who serve as inspiration—Bob and Kate Johnson, Jim Leavitt, and Don Robbins. All are strong riders who think nothing of going for a twenty-five-mile bike ride.

This spring, I started out gradually, first on an exercise bike and then to the road, where I would ride about four or five miles, usually doing errands around town. Then, when the leg muscles became stronger, I started going farther, down Memorial Drive, by the lake, where the road is relatively flat and the water sparkles in the summer sun. To the end of Memorial Drive and back again is ten miles, and when that became an easy ride, I moved to another route, the Holmes Road route, which is twelve miles with hills—one very long one. Now, that has become routine, and this week I decided the time had come to go even farther, to Monmouth village, an eighteen-mile round trip with several very steep hills.

On Monday, I did it. My friend Claire, who works at home, is my back-up buddy, and I tuck my cell phone in my bike bag, just in case I should collapse in a ditch somewhere. (Fortunately, that hasn’t happened yet.) I also tucked a special sesame nut bar in my bag so that I could have a tasty snack when I reached Monmouth village, home of splendid Cumston Hall, the Shakespearean theater of Maine.

And off I went, on the back road to Monmouth via the Holmes Road, with its long, loping hill. It was a windy day, which made pedaling a little harder, but I was primed and ready for the ride, and I didn’t want to wait for a calmer day. The back road to Monmouth is classic central Maine countryside, with fields, forests, and rolling hills that give the landscape beauty and variety. But, those very same hills are a real challenge to bikers. Still, there is something so fine about pedaling on a sunny day—the blue sky, the moving bike, the motion of legs, the wheels turning, the countryside going by at a good clip, but not too fast. Things can be noticed. The ducks on the pond, the queen Anne’s lace, golden rod, and yes, even the purple loosestrife by the side of the road. A huge patch of yellow and red day lilies. Lush golden and green fields. The dead snake in the road. (A reminder that all is not beautiful.)

But, oh the hills! The way to Cumston Hall had a hill that was long but manageable, and when I pulled into the parking lot, I headed straight for the bench by the ticket booth. That sesame nut bar, sweet and salty, tasted pretty fine, and I rested on that bench for about ten minutes before heading back to Winthrop.

It was on the way back that I encountered “The Hill,” a black, vertical strip of road that reared straight up and almost seemed like a living creature. I saw its broad back as I approached it, and I squinted, wondering aloud, “Is that the road?” Oh, yes it was. All right, then. I took a deep breath, downshifted to the lowest gear, and pedaled. Slowly, slowly, I climbed, wondering if I would have to humiliate myself by walking my bike up the hill. But miracle of miracles, I made it to the top, and when I did, I looked back down its long, dark spine. Did the tail at the end snap a bit? No, of course not. It was just my overactive imagination.

After that, it was back toward Winthrop, down the Annabessacook Road, into town, and straight past Tubby’s. Well, to be honest, not straight past. Readers, I stopped and had a lobster roll, some fries, iced tea, and a small chocolate ice cream (with chocolate chips) for dessert. Seldom has a meal tasted so good, and I want to note that Tubby’s lobster rolls are exactly the way lobster rolls should be—full of fresh lobster with just the barest hint of mayonnaise to keep it together. As I ate, I mused about how all my bike routes seem to go by Tubby’s, and how I seem unable to resist stopping there. Usually it’s just for ice cream, but that is certainly enough.

Hence, the need for biking.

Dennis Price, one of the actors from the Theater at Monmouth, was at Tubby’s, and we chatted a bit. He was duly impressed with my bike ride, and his wife, Molly, was duly impressed with my next challenge—riding to Hallowell for fish and chips at the Liberal Cup, where she just happens to work. It’s about fourteen miles one way, depending on the route, with fiendish hills aplenty.

But first I need to master the road to Monmouth village and that dark hill. When I do, I’ll be ready for Hallowell.

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