In the early 1990s, I was new to Maine and working as a cook at a small, innovative restaurant, Cafe Miranda in Rockland, on the midcoast. It was a fun and unique place to cook – chef-owner Kerry Altiero really pushed the menu boundaries, considering the place and time, and he was committed to the idea that a strong community was good for business, so he built relationships with and bought produce, meat, fish and shellfish (and practically everything else) from local suppliers whenever it was possible and practical.

Part of my job during the growing season was to stop at the farm we did business with on my way to town and to pick up produce for the restaurant a couple of mornings a week. There, I could walk among the rows, talk with the farmer, and imagine specials built around stuff that looked especially good. This was the idyllic side to the work. On the practical side was the sweat of prepping and cooking and serving and making margins.

Understanding nothing of the fishing economy (OK, I’m a flatlander, from Oklahoma, so I mean really flat), I was baffled by the fact that locally caught finfish were so hard to come by. Why couldn’t I get some nice Maine haddock, or cod, or even hake? Why were the fish from Norwegian or other foreign waters, not the outer harbor (or even New England)? The people at the fish counter smiled at me politely, though they probably thought I was about as dumb as a pounded hake.

SHOWDOWN WITH SYSCO ‘KID’

What this restaurateur was doing was nothing new, but in that place and time, it seemed an almost radical revitalization of a way of living, eating and doing business that embodies New England’s character: independent, resourceful and self-sufficient, with a mighty work ethic and a preference for doing business with people you know.

By the time he opened the restaurant, the majority of farm production, processing and distribution was fully industrialized and commodity-driven and its products made more affordable and widely available to consumers by economies of scale. But ordering from the Sysco “Kid” as we jokingly called the dominant national distributor, a self-described “global leader in selling, marketing and distributing food products to restaurants, healthcare and educational facilities, lodging establishments and other customers who prepare meals away from home” was the exception, not the rule for us.

In my view, this restaurateur wasn’t so much inspired by Alice Waters and the burgeoning local food movement as he was both an astute and a community-minded businessman. He was willing to bet that his diners would try – and like – local Maine mussels in coconut curry and “New Age” fish chowder with sweet potatoes and other unorthodox ingredients. It was good bet and good business, with the bonus of good eating.

REGIONAL COMEBACK

Twenty years later, home and restaurant cooks have far wider access to local ingredients that they can use in traditional Maine recipes – or any recipes. The spectrum of thinking about modern food and its production runs from organic idealists who promise that growing and buying organic food will heal the planet and feed the world, to the new agrarians who are concerned with better food but also, on a practical level, with the quality of “agriculture and rural life for the positive impact thereof on the individual and society,” as agricultural historian David Danbom has described it.

Now, and particularly in the New England states, according to the 2007 census of agriculture, we are feeling some of that positive impact. Local and regional food systems, in which producers sell directly to consumers, are making a serious comeback. The 2007 census numbers show that, collectively, New England sold $135 million in food products, mostly through one of its 654 farmers markets or 555 Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) networks. In the state of Maine alone, the market value of products sold increased by 33 percent between 2002 and 2007. Again – good business, with the bonus of good eating. It’ll be interesting to see the numbers when the 2012 census is complete in May.

So how did we get here, and what can we learn by finding out? How did Maine and New England producers adjust to the challenges of industrial agriculture and fishing? The history of food and agriculture in Maine and New England has its own place in history; the history of its particular tastes and influences, the effect of its particular climate and soil and foodstuffs that would thrive in it, the variety of immigrants who settled New England and adapted the tastes of their native lands to available resources, and always, the pride of place and product – all these things inform Maine food and cooking to this day.

PERUSING MAINE’S PANTRY

And … how did I get from Cafe Miranda to here, 20 years later? After cooking and catering and waiting tables around the midcoast and Portland until almost the end of the Clinton administration, I decided it was time to move on. Next stop: Boston, where I worked as a college librarian for 10 years and began doing culinary history research on the side. In 2011, I “retired” from librarianship to spend more time researching and writing about the history of food and cooking for magazines, public television and encyclopedias. My first book is in the works, too: “Boston: A Food Biography.”

In this periodic column, I’ll roam seasonally through Maine’s rich pantry, from early apples to yellow-eye beans, store cheese to steamers, bugs to blueberries, and look at who’s growing or making Maine foods. How we cooked it – both recipes and technology – and when we ate it. Pie for breakfast? Baked beans with your eggs and toast? Dulse on your morning oatmeal? There are some Maine and New England food customs that seem unique to the region, if not to Maine. I’ll also look at Maine’s food processing industry, which at one time included what America considered to be the best canned corn, all manner of canned fish and shellfish, baked beans and brown bread, of course, and even canned fiddleheads and dandelion greens. What are we processing and distributing today? Does Portland really have the oldest continuously operating farmers market in America? Through these and other topics, I hope to connect Maine’s rich food history with its equally rich and dynamic present.