PORTLAND, PORTLAND: WHAT A FOODIE TOWN

The food accolades just keep coming in for Portland, Maine. First, Bon Appétit gives its Foodiest Small Town in America Award to Portland. (Never mind that by Maine standards, Portland is the big city, and I jokingly refer to it as “the Babylon of Maine.”) Then, shortly after, the New York Times has a very nice piece written by Julia Moskin about how great the food is in Portland. As if this weren’t enough, my daughter’s fiancé, Michael, informs me that Frank Bruni, former restaurant critic for the Times, was on Charlie Rose, and when asked where the best up-and-coming places to eat in this country were, guess which city got mentioned? Portland, Maine, of course. (As well as the other Portland, the one on the West Coast.) 

Why Portland, Maine? Why the wealth of markets and restaurants? In the Times piece, Julia Moskin lists some of the reasons why chefs and cooks have settled here: affordable real estate, quality of life, and Portland’s relative proximity to Boston and New York City. Because Portland is within an easy drive of two big metropolitan areas, tourists can easily come just for the weekend, not only for the beaches but for the food as well. Maine’s ruralness is surely another factor. It means that much of our food can be grown, caught, or produced nearby.

Yet Portland has always been where it is, about two hours north of Boston and five hours north of New York City. The land has always been relatively affordable, and the rural quality of life was just as nice twenty years ago as it now. So why the current food craze in Portland? The only answer I can come up with is that the stars are aligned in Portland’s favor, just as they were in Julia Child’s favor in the early 1960s, when America was ripe for a food change. 

Perhaps America is ripe for another food change. Perhaps we have finally had enough of what our national food has become—highly processed, tasteless, and commercial—as well as the results—obesity, diabetes, and a frazzled, joyless attitude toward food and cooking. However, we are still feeling our way when it comes to cooking and eating delicious, nutritious food. The change is far from complete, and it is a gross understatement to say that the food industry and the government are dragging its collective heels, that they are in the way of progress. When subsidies and tax breaks start going to small farmers and food artisans, then we will know that the change is lasting and real. 

Until that time comes, it is heartening to discover that a city such as Portland, a city of the hinterlands, after all, is in the vanguard of good eating. And how lucky for me that Portland is within an easy drive of where I live. I guess the stars are aligned in my favor, too.

MAINE COOKING VS. COOKING FROM AWAY

In yesterday’s New York Times, there was a terrific piece about how good the food is in Portland, Maine—the restaurants, the bakeries, and even a couple of food markets that sell baked goods along with fresh fruit and vegetables. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/16/dining/16chefs.html?ref=dining 

I was familiar with some of the eateries and stores listed in the article, but quite a few are unfamiliar to me. And even though the drive to Portland is more than hour from where I live, I am looking forward to visiting these places and munching my way through the city. A Portland food trail, as it were.  

However, one line in the article really caught my attention: “Many of the customers who keep these premium-priced places running are people “from Away” who have moved to Portland…” And judging from the descriptions of the chefs and bakers, I would have to say that many of them are from away, too. Now, as a native Mainer, I am not one of those who thinks people should just stay put and leave our state alone. I even think that new people and new ideas are vital to a place’s well-being. However, implicit in that sentence in the Times is the idea that without people from away, we would not be able to have good food in Maine. Indeed, over the weekend at Maine Fare, during one of the panel introductions, I even heard someone state that Maine was once the land of bland cooking, and we can thank those from away for rescuing the natives from their dreary food. Fortunately, this wasn’t the prevailing attitude at Maine Fare, but it is an example of how people from away get a bad reputation. 

As someone who has eaten most of her meals in Maine, I am in a pretty good position to comment about Maine food. My memories of eating stretch all the way back to the 1960s, a time that is generally considered a culinary wasteland, not just in Maine, but in the rest of the United States as well. (This was also when Julia Child made her grand appearance.) In truth, some of the bad reputation is deserved. I remember eating a great many casseroles that involved canned cream of mushroom soup, egg noodles, and either tuna or hamburg. Veg-All just compounded the misery, and Jell-O, either plain or as a molded salad, made frequent appearances. But I would argue this wasn’t so much Maine cooking as it was American cooking, and it definitely was not the whole story. 

When I was eight, my family moved from Waterville, a small mill city, to North Vassalboro, a small mill town that was quite rural. Many families in North Vassalboro had big gardens, and my family was one of them. As a result, we had wonderful, fresh vegetables in the summer, along with raspberries, strawberries, and rhubarb. My mother, like many other women on our road, canned and froze the surplus, and summer was a flurry of snipped beans, sliced carrots, steaming jars, and the beautiful sound of snapping lids. She made different kinds of pickles and relish, and our pantry was well stocked by the time winter came. Again, I want to emphasize that this was not unusual in our neighborhood. 

My mother also made from scratch most of our baked goods—cookies, pies, brownies, muffins, and cakes. Once she made a cake from a packaged mix. When we all decided that we liked her cakes better, she didn’t use a mix again. She made tourtière, a Franco-American spiced meat pie that we ate at Christmas, and a similar spicy meat stuffing for our Thanksgiving turkey. She made fudge and candy for the holidays. Do I need to add that other mothers were doing similar things in houses up and down our road? While the food wasn’t fancy, it was certainly tasty, and only one family in our neighborhood was overweight. The rest of us were pretty lean and active, and we were all good eaters. 

Now, I’m not pining for the old days. Times change, and not all changes are bad. I just wanted to add a little perspective to what cooking was like in Maine in the “old days,” before those from away rescued us natives from our so-called food doldrums. In fact, some of our food was very good, and right now, I wouldn’t mind having one of my mother’s frosted chocolate cookies, soft and chewy. And I haven’t even touched the subject of lobster and steamed clams, yearly summer treats for a central Maine girl and her family.

MY BIRTHDAY AFTERNOON

Yesterday was my birthday, and after all the food excitement from Maine Fare, I decided to spend it quietly. Still, I had a few little eating pleasures. For my lunch, I took a very ripe local tomato, sliced it in rounds, and put them in a small pan. On top of the rounds I spread some soft, creamy herb cheese that we bought this weekend from Longfellow’s Creamery in Avon, Maine. I make all our bread, so breadcrumbs were easy. A slice of homemade bread torn into little pieces and sautéed with a bit of olive oil until the crumbs were brown. Because the cheese was spicy, the only seasonings I used for the crumbs were salt and pepper. After sprinkling the crumbs on top of the cheese and tomatoes, I baked them in a moderate oven—350 degrees—until the cheese and the tomatoes were hot and soft. They were utterly delicious and simple to make.

I also had a tree-ripe peach from an orchard in Connecticut. My friend Judy Johnson, who is from that area, makes a fall pilgrimage to the orchard every year to get the peaches, and she brings me a big basket of these juicy wonders, ripe and sweet. As if the tomatoes and the peaches weren’t enough, the crowning glory was a piece of rich, chocolate birthday cake that my daughter Shannon had made, following a Mark Bittman recipe. This was the first time she had used the recipe, and the cake was so good that I have the feeling it’s going to be the cake of choice for many birthdays to come.

The weather was warm and sunny, and I ate my lunch on the patio, one of my favorite places, even in the fall, when most everything in the garden is frayed and definitely past its prime. There was a bit of color—leggy yellow violas, leaning pink phlox, still sweet with fragrance, ragged bee balm, and, I must admit, a few weeds here and there. Then, I saw something I have never seen before—two moles fighting in my garden. Two small, furry bodies tussling in the soil until one retreated across the garden and went down a hole. The other mole, with a triumphant kick of dirt, went back down the contested hole and tunnel.

During all this excitement, the dog was very good. I told him to the leave the fighting moles alone, and that’s just what he did. I suppose moles must be somewhat territorial and have frequent scuffles in their tunnels, where we can’t see them.

There were no hummingbirds, and I have it from a friend that this is about the time they migrate, flying incredible distances to points south. Have they left? I will be looking for them at lunch today. At least the crickets and cicadas were still singing, and I’ll be having lunch on the patio whenever the weather allows, until it so chilly that not only do I have to wear a jacket, but also gloves. Then it will be time to have lunch inside. But only then.

BREAKFAST

 (In Machias, Maine, Liz Fauver runs a cozy Bed and Breakfast called the Blue Butterfly, and she is not exaggerating even a little bit about how eagerly guests anticipate her breakfasts. Clif and I have stayed at the Blue Butterfly several times, and we have come to the conclusion that Liz Fauver is one of the best home cooks we know.—LMG)  

People are my pleasure. Food is my passion. 

A natural transition after thirty-plus years in a classroom was to open a small bed and breakfast. This allows ample opportunity to meet and greet people and to show off my culinary skills. 

My B & B guests choose the time they want breakfast on the table. Coffee is ready a half hour earlier. I do try to have good aromas wafting up stairs, causing the salivary glands to start flowing. 

For first-time guests it may be baked blueberry French toast. I can then give them a lesson on the wild blueberry industry here in Washington County, Maine. Or I may have decided to have spicy scrambled eggs and popovers. I have been surprised with the number of guests who have never had popovers. Some cookbooks may call them individual Yorkshire puddings. I have homemade blueberry jam and rhubarb conserve to serve with the popovers. 

It is great for my ego to hear the guests commenting on the wonderful fragrances as they sit down for breakfast. They fill up and have a good start for their busy day. I often think of the radio commercial from childhood. “Eat a better breakfast, feel better all day.” A very good motto for an innkeeper. 

On the desk in the guest room there is a book to sign. Many comments have been in reference to breakfast. One guest, upon checking in, spent an hour in her room before coming down. When she came down her comment was “I just read the guest book. I can’t wait for breakfast.” She wasn’t disappointed. 

With retirement my B & B keeps me interested, busy, and doing what I enjoy. Life is good. 

Next I’ll tell you about giving a dinner party. 

POPOVERS 

2 eggs, room temperature
1 cup of milk, room temperature
1 cup flour
1/4 teaspoon salt 

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Beat eggs with milk. Thoroughly whisk in flour and salt. Pour 1 teaspoon oil into each muffin tin and place in 450 degree oven for 5 minutes. Remove pan and fill each cup 2/3 full. Bake for 20 minutes or until browned and puffed. 

Ideally you will have a regular popover pan. So much better than a muffin pan.

MAINE FARE: QUITE THE FOODIE EVENT

This past weekend my husband, Clif, and I went to Camden’s Maine Fare: Celebrating the Bounty of Maine. He took the pictures, now it’s up to me to write about what we ate, saw, and heard. Readers, this was a terrific foodie event, and I regret that I’ll only be able to give a brief description of what Maine Fare had to offer. My best piece of advice is this: If at all possible, plan on going to next year’s Maine Fare, even if it means an overnight stay in the area. You will not regret it. 

The first thing I would like to comment on is how affordable Maine Fare was to people with modest incomes, a description that describes many people in Maine, including Clif and me. Yes, there were some expensive events, with a special dinner costing $75 per person. There were also $40 seminars. But here is what $10 would get you: admission to the Maine Fare Marketplace at Knox Mill in downtown Camden as well as to various panels, talks with Maine food writers, and cooking demonstrations. An incredible bargain, and there was even a special offer of $15 for a two-day ticket, for Saturday and Sunday. At the Marketplace, there was such a wealth of Maine food vendors—thirty-five or so—that I felt positively giddy when I walked into the room where they were set up. And did they ever have samples! So many that a foodie could eat herself silly, which is just what I did. Oh, the chocolates, the cheeses, the bread, and the wine. The ice cream, the apple salsa (yes, apple, and delicious), and the smoked seafood. I am happy to report that along with all the gleeful sampling, people were also buying some of these luscious products. Clif and I did our fair share, coming home with chocolate, cheese, and apple salsa. 

We went to two extremely informative and interesting panel discussions, both centered on whether Maine could feed itself. The answer was yes, with the qualifier that nobody is in a hurry to give up spices and olive oil and citrus. But the general feeling was that we needed to take greater responsibility for feeding ourselves, that we import too much food, and, ironically, this includes seafood. I was struck by the comment, (made, I think, by Craig Lapine, president of Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association): “How much we lose as a culture when we choose not to feed ourselves.” Yes, we do, and when we think of a culture that promotes “the good life,” a life that is productive yet relaxed and joyful, France, the land of good eating, especially comes to mind.

Clif and I learned that in the 1830s, Maine was considered one of the breadbaskets of New England, and the state grew an incredible amount of grain. Now, most of our grain comes from the Midwest, but there is a slow but steady resurgence in growing our own. We also found out there were plans afoot in Skowhegan to convert an old jail into a grain mill, and Clif is especially interested in seeing if he can take pictures of the jail as it undergoes its transformation.

I could write 2,000 words or so just on the topic of Maine feeding itself. It is a big subject. I did take plenty of notes, which I expect I’ll be referring to for future pieces, either for this blog or for Wolf Moon Journal. However, my all-time favorite remark came from Marada Cook, from Crown O’ Maine Organic Cooperative: “We need to eat and drink more.” Now, in this country, how often do you hear that kind of advice? Especially from a very trim young woman? She did add that we might want to expand our palates. No argument from Clif and me, and judging by the laughing and clapping, the rest of the audience approved as well. 

We did splurge and go to a guided taste seminar—Smoke & Spirits—led by Sam Hayward, the chef of Fore Street Restaurant in Portland. From 1:30 to 3:00 we sipped locally made vodka, gin, and brandy, and we ate smoked seafood. We were asked to consider the various aromas and tastes, and how they combined with each other. This we did, and by the time 3:00 rolled around, many of us were a little tipsy. Those spirits were strong. Let’s just say that after this seminar, the general mood in the women’s restroom was quite jolly. Among other things, I did learn something fascinating about blueberries. When we tasted blueberry vodka, my first impression was of a peppery taste, not unpleasant, but quite strong. I mentioned this, and there was bit of a silence. Then, one of the distillers mentioned that this often happens with blueberries when they are fermented, and it can be a problem. A little later, when the seminar was over, I remembered how once in awhile when I would buy a pint of blueberries, they would produce a hot tingle on my tongue. At the time, I wondered if something had contaminated them, but now I know they were starting to ferment. Well… 

The last thing I would like to mention about Maine Fare is its wonderful atmosphere. The staff, the volunteers, and the vendors were friendly, and so was everybody else. Complete strangers began conversations, about food, of course, and this was an event that could be attended alone with no feeling of being left out. 

All in all, a splendid weekend. I can’t wait for Maine Fare 2010.

MAINE FARE 2009 PHOTOS

On September 11th and 12th Clif and I went to Maine Fare: Celebrating the Bounty of Maine.  The event was held in Camden, Maine.  Here are some of Clif’s photos from the Maine Fare Marketplace.

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Cathe Morrill, State of Maine Cheese Company.
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C. Waite Maclin, Pastor Chuck Orchards
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Kate Haigh, Longfellow's Creamery
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Michael T. Anderson, Winterport Winery
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Brandon Bagley, Capt'n Eli's Soda
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Dean Bingham, Dean's Sweets
Shelly Patten-Prescott, Ducktrap River of Maine
Shelly Patten-Prescott, Ducktrap River of Maine

Hundreds of hungry foodies came to this tasty event. My, my, the food was good. So good that the food at Ducktrap River was cleaned out. People bought a lot, sampled a lot, and learned a lot from the various exhibitors and seminars.

EATING, THINKING, AND WRITING

A few weeks ago, I made the decision to do a food blog. Because my husband is a computer guy and I am fast writer, we were able to have the blog up and running fairly quickly. At around that same time, I became aware of three food conferences in Maine, all happening in September and October.

First there is Maine Fare, to be held from September 11th to September 13th in Camden, Maine (http://www.mainefare.com). Maine Fare bills itself as “An annual event which showcases and celebrates Maine’s natural culinary resources…. Maine Fare investigates the history, present and future of Maine’s wonderful food, from farm to table. The goal of the event is to communicate the importance of preserving, protecting, and sharing Maine’s storied culinary history and its rich and developing resources.” My husband, Clif, and I will be going to this conference on Friday and Saturday, and we are hoping to have a weekend of good food and provocative panels and lectures.

On October 2nd through October 4th, at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, there’s a conference called Food for Thought, Time for Action (www.coa.edu/html/foodsystemsconference09.htm). From the College of the Atlantic website, here is a description of the event: “Our fall conference on sustainable food, farming and fisheries will bring together a diverse range of practitioners, farmers, fishermen and scholars to discuss current issues and chart a course toward a sustainable future.” The food writer and professor Marion Nestle will be one of the keynote speakers. Clif and I hope to attend this conference on Friday, October 2nd. Unfortunately, we will be busy for the rest of that weekend.

Finally, from October 22nd through October 24th, there is Harvest on the Harbor in Portland, Maine (www.harvestontheharbor.com). Sponsored by the the Greater Portland Convention & Visitors Bureau and described on its website as “Three chock-full days in which to experience the flavors of Maine, all on the magnificent coast during the beautiful harvest season,” Harvest on the Harbor sounds more like an eating event than a consciousness-raising event. But who knows? Perhaps food issues will be slipped in somewhere between the eating. However, our schedule is so tight that weekend that we won’t be able to attend even one day of Harvest on the Harbor.

But there’s even more. On the networking site Eat Maine Foods (/www.eatmainefoods.org/ ) there is a list of more upcoming Maine food events, with enough issues to satisfy the most ardent food activist. I’ll let readers discover these events for themselves by going on the Eat Maine Foods website.

So what’s going on? “Food is big,” my husband observed when I broached the subject with him. Yes, it is. But hasn’t food always been big? After all, without food, we die. That puts food, as a human concern, way at the top of anybody’s list. What seems to have happened is that lately food has become a hot topic that has stretched the boundaries of sustenance. It runs the range from being highly profitable entertainment to being seriously political. As a foodie, I can only rejoice there is so much out there nowadays about food, so much mindfulness, so much variety. (Being a native Mainer, I can remember the old days of grocery shopping in Maine, when celery was about the most exotic vegetable available.)

But I also have two very different worries. The first is that there will be overkill, so to speak, and people will become weary of hearing about all the various food concerns, from sustainability to food justice in struggling countries. And with overkill can come indifference and boredom, which are never good. The second is that all the pleasure will be squeezed out of eating, that we will rock between anxiety about eating the “right” food and guilt over the abundance we are blessed with, legitimate concerns that nonetheless have the potential to be killjoys. With our Puritan heritage, which still ripples around us, this is no idle worry, and Americans already tend to have ambivalent attitudes toward food.

I know. Why can’t I just revel in all the food events that are coming my way? Because ’tis my nature to worry. But not all worry is bad. Sometimes it brings reflection and illumination, and perhaps I will have some of both over the next month or so. In the meantime, I’ll be eating, thinking, and writing.

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