DINNER AT CLAIRE’S

As incredible as it might seem to this lifelong Mainer, summer seems to have arrived, even though it’s only the end of May. (In years past, it wasn’t uncommon for summer to wait to show its pretty face until the Fourth of July.) The lilacs are nearly gone—usually they are not in bloom until Memorial Day—the leaves are fully grown, and the lupine, normally a mid-June flower, are beginning to bloom. Then there is the heat, more like July’s than late May’s. I can’t help but wonder what the rest of the summer will bring. Will there be a rainy stretch in June? Or, will our summer be dry? Will the heat hold? Will it get hotter? Much as I like the heat, I hope not. Ninety in the shade is hot enough, thank you very much. 

Last night, my husband, Clif, and I went to our friend Claire’s house for dinner. Because it was so hot she made a variety of salads—chicken, pasta, coleslaw, and green—and nothing could have been better. The heat also allowed us to eat outside, and the mosquitoes weren’t too bad. I suppose it’s because it has been so dry. 

Claire also invited two poets—Steve Cowperthwaite and Jay Franzel—and the conversation was as good as the food. We talked, not necessarily in this order, about Monty Python, the Dalai Lama, the nursing shortage in Maine, health care (and how it is indeed the right of all citizens to have it!), and hobos on trains during the Great Depression. We helped ourselves to the various salads. Pickles were passed. Iced tea was poured. Most of the bran muffins I brought were eaten. The sun set late, the air was hot and close, and a nearly full moon rose, casting its glow between the branches of a tree. Occasionally, a slight breeze rustled the leaves, and the sweet smell of night settled over us. 

One of the most interesting facts I learned—from Steve, who as well as being a poet is also a history buff—was that at one time a forty-mile (or so) canal ran from South Portland to Long Lake in Sebago. Lumber, apples, and firewood, among other things, were transported down the canal to Portland. This morning, I did a bit more research and discovered that the canal opened in 1832 and that the project cost $206,000, quite a bit of money back then. On a towpath next to the canal, horses hauled the flat-bottomed canal boats while boatmen steered with poles. Passengers could hitch a ride for one-half cent per mile, and manufactured goods were hauled inland as well. But in the 1850s trains came to replace the canals, and finally, in the twentieth century, roads and cars came to replace the trains. 

You never know what you are going to learn when you have dinner with poets.

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LUNCH AT MIA LINA’S WITH CLAIRE

Last Friday, my friend Claire and I met for lunch at Mia Lina’s, a small pizza place in a converted old house in town. Although Mia Lina’s is primarily a takeout restaurant, there are a few tables inside as well as one lone picnic table, right outside the door. Claire got there first and grabbed the picnic table, and as soon as I arrived, we ordered our favorite dish from Mia Lina’s—a teriyaki chicken salad, which comes with marinated chicken (not breaded) on romaine lettuce along with cheese, peppers, tomatoes, olives, and onions.  

All in all, the food at Mia Lina’s is pretty good. While the pizza is not cooked in a brick oven, the dough is fresh and the sauce is zesty. Clif and I mostly make our own pizzas, but whenever we order out, we do so from Mia Lina’s. 

Because the day was so fine and sunny, Claire and I rode our bikes to Mia Lina’s. As we sat outside, ate our salads, and chatted, we both agreed we felt very European. The problem was, of course, that there was a single table outside, and Claire and I were the only ones having this European moment, which included riding our bikes, eating outside, and saying hi to the various customers as they came and went. 

Winthrop does not have what you might call a café culture, where people come to sit outside in fine weather, have a drink—either alcoholic or not—linger for a bit, meet with friends, and generally relax. When she was in college, my eldest daughter, Dee, spent a month in Tours, France, and one of the things she loved best was the café culture (along with the chocolate croissant). Each night, after a day of studying French, she and her friends would go to a café and while away the evening, talking and arguing. They wouldn’t spend much money. In fact, they weren’t expected to spend much money. After they ordered one drink, they were pretty much left alone by the servers, who didn’t come again unless they were beckoned. 

We do have a couple of small restaurants in town—Sully’s and Pepper’s—but somehow they don’t really fit the bill when it comes to café culture, which is as much about being social as it is about eating. There was a small sandwich shop in the center of town, where locals used to hang out, where the food was even more basic than it is at Mia Lina’s, but it has been closed for a number of years. 

We are getting a new place—Tubby’s—which I wrote about in a previous post—Tubby’s is Coming to Town. Everyone I’ve spoken to has high hopes for Tubby’s, that the food will be really good and that it will provide a much-needed place for people to gather. As far as I can tell, there won’t be outside seating, but even a comfortable indoor spot would be better than what we have now. 

I think what the people I’ve talked to realize is that a town without a central gathering place isn’t much of a town. It’s just place where people drive through on their way to someplace else—to home or to work. While home is our refuge, and work is necessary, we also need gathering places in our communities, places where we can come together with folks we might not normally see otherwise. Maybe all we do is nod and say hi and comment about the weather. Maybe we meet friendly acquaintances and have more of a conversation, but whatever we do, we form connections with the people who live nearby, and, lately, with our rushed, isolated American lives, this has become harder and harder. 

So here’s hoping that Tubby’s will indeed be an asset to the community, a place where we can come together and be social. Claire and I will be there when it opens, and so will my husband, Clif. It will be interesting to see how many other people become regulars, but it’s my guess that Tubby’s will be a great success. The quality of food at the Wayne’s Tubby’s is very good, and the renovations of the new Tubby’s are a marvel to watch. Slowly, an extremely drab building in our downtown is being converted to a place that is snappy and attractive. 

I’ll certainly be keeping an eye on Tubby’s, and I’ll be writing about it in future posts.

PEDAL POWER MEETS COFFEE

Along with being “A Good Eater” and somewhat food obsessed, I also love to ride my bicycle, and from now until the weather gets too cold, I will be on the road, weather permitting. I ride for pleasure; I ride to meet friends in town for lunch; I ride to do errands. It’s a terrific carbon-free way to get around, and it’s great exercise, something every Good Eater certainly needs.

A couple of days ago, I came across this piece in Diner’s Journal, a blog in the New York Times. It’s about Kickstand, “a collapsible coffee stall that’s wheeled around on a pair of salvaged bikes” in Brooklyn, New York.  Kickstand is “[t]he brainchild of Aaron Davis and Peter Castelein” and their ingenuity and creativity give me hope. If we put our minds to it, we can come up with ventures that are fun, snappy, profitable, and have a low impact on the environment.

As I like to tell my pedaling friends: Bike on!

TEA AT THE GRANGE WITH ESTHER

Yesterday, I went to East Vassalboro to meet my mom’s friend Esther Bernhardt at the Grange. (My mother passed away two years ago, and Esther was her best friend.) My daughter Shannon is getting married this summer, and we will be having her wedding shower at the Grange, which was a central part of my mother’s life. Having the shower at the Grange will be like having a little piece of my mother there.

This particular Grange is lucky enough to have a dedicated group of “Grangers” who have taken loving care of this big, old yellow and white building with its large front porch. Unlike some Granges, this one has not fallen into disrepair. The porch is freshly painted, the inside of the Grange, with its stenciled walls and new curtains, is clean and bright, and the long tables have jaunty red and green checked table coverings.

Natrually, I had been to the Grange before, but I had never really checked out the kitchen facilities, and as the shower is in July, I figured I had better do so. Right from the start, we had planned to have a bridal tea shower—we are a family that is crazy about tea with all the little fixings—and this, of course, means that the food will be cold. I was pleased to discover that the Grange has two refrigerators—plenty of room for cucumber sandwiches, egg salad sandwiches, and ham salad sandwiches. There is also a big gas stove, but aside from heating water for the tea, we won’t really need to use it for much of anything. There are plenty of plates, bowls, cups, platters, and silverware, an eclectic assortment and well used.

In keeping with the rustic nature of the Grange, Shannon’s bridal tea will be a country tea rather than a fancy tea, and I have all sorts of crockery I can fill with flowers to add to the rural charm of the place. I will also be looking for cloth napkins to go with the checked table coverings.

Fortunately, I have lots of people to help me with this shower— Dee, our eldest daughter; Andrea Maddi, Shannon’s maid of honor; our good friend Kate Johnson; Esther Bernhardt; and Claire Hersom, another good friend and Shannon’s soon-to-be aunt. We’ll be making fruit salad, little sandwiches (there will of course be cucumber sandwiches), little pastries, and lots and lots of iced tea. After all, it will be July, and people might prefer to have cold rather than hot tea.

After Esther and I were done looking at the Grange, we fired up the gas stove, made ourselves tea, and took our mugs to the front porch where there are rocking chairs. It was a rainy day, but the porch is wide, and the rain wasn’t a bother. As we rocked and sipped tea, we watch the rain drip from the roof. The Grange sits in the middle of East Vassalboro village and is surrounded by many old homes. We talked a little of the history of the town, of the black smith shop across the street and of the library, celebrating its hundredth anniversary this year. The library started out in the Friends’ Meeting House, eventually moved to a small building that had been a fishing shack (an addition had been added), and is now in a new brick building not far from the Grange. I grew up in this town, went to the library, worked on rummage sales, and have been to many events at the Grange. It is full of history for me, full of memories of my mother.

There can be no better place to have Shannon’s shower, and I know she feels the same way.

Correction—5/24/2010: After reading the post, Shannon reminded me that Andrea will be her bridesmaid, not her maid of honor. Dee will be Shannon’s maid of honor. As Miss Piggy might say, “I knew that.” I just forgot that I did. Oh, my! That certainly qualifies as a distracted mother moment. Let’s just hope there aren’t too many more of them.

ALL PIE PUBLIC SUPPER

Last Saturday night, my husband, Clif, and I went to an All Pie Public Supper at the Readfield United Methodist Church in Kents Hill.  With its apple orchards, horses, and view of the western Maine mountains, Kents Hill is surely one of the loveliest towns in central Maine. Like the fish chowder luncheon Clif and I went to on Friday, the pie supper was held in a white wooden church, New England style. Long tables were set up in the basement, and there were numbers on each table, indicating serving order. Our table was next to last—I can’t remember if it was number 7 or 8—and we got there slightly before 5:00, when the supper started. We had been told to come early to the pie supper, but apparently it would have been better to come even earlier, say, 4:30 or so, because by the time we got there, all but the two last tables were full. 

No matter. We got our pie—Shepherds’, chicken potpie, and quiche—along with a roll. Salad was gone by the time our table was called. Luckily, there were plenty of desserts, and both Clif and I picked a whoopie pie. He hit the jackpot and got an especially tasty one with peanut butter filling. The main-meal pies were good enough, but not exceptional, the way the fish chowder was at the luncheon we went to the day before at the Congregational Church in Winthrop. (It seems that those men at the Congregational Church really know how to make chowder.) 

What was most interesting about the pie supper was something we learned from a couple sitting across from us. They are from Hamilton, Massachusetts and have a cottage in Mt. Vernon, the town next to Kents Hill. He is a retired math teacher, and she a substitute teacher. We talked about food as we ate, and they told us that at the high school in Hamilton, which has about 700 students, there is an Advanced Chef’s Course for students to take. Apparently, at the end of the school year, the students prepare food for the faculty at the high school, and one year the students focused on appetizers, which were “out of this world.” 

An Advanced Chef Course at a high school. Now, how terrific is that? I wonder if any Maine high schools offer such a course?  I’ve never heard of Advanced Chef Courses in Maine high schools, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. I’ll be on the lookout for them and will certainly report back if I hear of any.

FISH CHOWDER LUNCHEON AT THE WINTHROP CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH

Yesterday, my husband, Clif, and I rode our bikes to the Winthrop Congregational Church for their monthly fish chowder luncheon. The church is about a mile from where we live, and if it weren’t for the long, low, cunning hill that starts at our house and goes to the end of the road, then the ride would be an easy one. Still, as I have told my friend Claire, I must come to terms with this hill, even though it leaves me panting and gulping by the time I get to the top. By the end of the biking season, I hope to be able to manage the hill with a little more finesse. Once over the hill, it is pretty much downhill all the way to the church, and the main challenge is the ride through town, where the rider must always be vigilant for cars backing out of parking spaces. But Clif and I made it to the church in one piece, found a lamppost where we could lock our bikes, and headed downstairs for chowder. 

Built in 1861, the Winthrop Congregational Church is one of those old, white wooden churches—complete with steeple—for which New England is so famous. Although I was raised as a Catholic and am more familiar with stone churches, I must admit I have a soft spot for spare, white churches. On the street where I grew up in North Vassalboro, Maine, there was one of these simple churches, and when I walked past it, I remember admiring the beauty of the outline of the steeple against the bright blue sky. Somehow, even as a young child, this sight always lifted my spirits. 

According to the Winthrop Congregational Church’s website, its current building started out as a vestry “and was for many years used for the Sunday evening and mid-week services of the Church, as well as for its social events. In 1904 this vestry was raised and fitted with stained glass memorial windows.” Under the vestry went a meeting room and a kitchen, where the fish chowder luncheons are held today, and small stained-glass windows do indeed cast a lovely glow over the room. One more interesting fact about the church. In 1945, the interior of the church was remodeled by a man named Harry Cochrane, who in these parts is something of an architectural wunderkind.  I know I’m digressing, but to get a sense of what Harry Cochrane was capable of at his finest, take a look at Cumston Hall in Monmouth, Maine (population 3,785), right down the road from Winthrop. 

But back to the fish chowder luncheon. For $6.50 each, Clif and I got a piece of pie, water or punch, coffee or tea, homemade biscuits, crackers, pickles, and, of course, fish chowder, made that day by some of the men in the congregation. The fish chowder was everything a fish chowder should be, chockfull with potatoes and fish with the right amount of milk and flavored with just enough onions so that the flavors were enhanced rather than overwhelmed. (There are few sadder things in life than a chowder crammed with so much onion that the delicate flavors of fish and milk are destroyed.) Those men at the church sure know how to make fish chowder. The biscuits, too, were very good, light and moist. If there is a better deal for lunch anywhere in the area, then I don’t know where this place might be. The fish chowder luncheons are served from September through June on the second Friday of the month from 11:30 A.M. to 1:00 P.M.  If you are in the area, do not hesitate to stop at the church for lunch. 

While we were eating, family style at long tables, we struck up a conversation with a woman who was sitting next to us. From her we learned that on Saturday, May 15,  there would be an “All Pie Public Supper at the Readfield United Methodist Church from 5:00 to 6:30.” The cost? Seven dollars. An all pie supper? That’s almost better than fish chowder. When it comes to pie, I am not at all picky. I like almost every kind, and I even think there are some acceptable commercial frozen pies available.  When I asked the woman what kind of pies would be served at the All Pie Public Supper, she answered, “Shepherds’ pie, chicken pie, quiche, berry pies, chocolate pies, and even whoopie pies.” She told us to come early for the best selection. Clif and I will be there.

THE RETURN OF THE HORSES?

Yesterday, in the blog Henboggle, Ali posted a link to an article in the Waterville Morning Sentinel about a farmer in Troy, Maine, who uses horses rather than a tractor to plow his gardens. It is such a delightful piece that I thought I would also provide a link for Good Eater readers. So here it is: “Going Green with Horse Power”

Although I am a dog lover, horses are high on my list, too. Their beauty, intelligence, and spirit make them irresistible. In addition, nothing makes my heart leap more than pastures and gardens. I just love a pastoral view, which to me is as lovely as the coast for which Maine is so famous. I suppose it’s because I grew up in central Maine, where along with factories there are fields, orchards, and hills, deep green and verdant in the summer. Now, I know that forests are an important part of the Maine landscape and ecosystem, but it seems to me that there is room for both forests and open land in Maine. With good management, we can grow crops and have healthy forests as well. 

As oil becomes more expensive, I wonder if more Maine farmers will turn to horses for plowing. Along with the hard work of plowing, horses also provide petroleum-free fertilizers for fields and gardens. A nearly perfect system. When the Soviet Union fell apart and stopped supporting Cuba, that small island turned back to animals—oxen in their case—for farming. 

How wonderful it would be to regularly see big horses in a pasture or at the plow. To hear the swish of their tails, their whinnies, and the sound they make as they eat grass. To watch the young horses run for the sheer joy of running.

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