DIX HARBOR — When Reilly Harvey pulled her launch up to the Adeline, a navy blue Westmac out of Castine, the occupants, woman, man and dog, spied her baskets full of hand pies, peach glazed tartlets and slab-like brownies and immediately came undone.
“I feel like I’m in heaven,” cooed the woman, staring down into the launch. “I feel like we’re in Thailand,” said the man.
The desserts were just the beginning. Harvey’s boat, Mainstay, is rigged with a three-burner propane stove set in the stern, and three pots sat waiting for lobster, clams and butter, all of which Harvey had aboard. There were tubs of cauliflower-curry tofu salads with yogurt-lime-cilantro dressing and homemade biscuits that had come out of the oven less than an hour ago. Very deliberately, Harvey tries to make Mainstay look like a boat you’d see on a Venetian canal, loaded down with beautifully arranged wares. She’d succeeded. The vase full of flowers tipped the whole thing over the top. Her new customers couldn’t stop gushing. “This is like a Fellini movie,” said Peter Polshek, as the dog made a valiant attempt to board.
By now his wife, Nina Hofer, was perched on the gunwale of the Adeline, smiling like the Cheshire cat, her hands clapped together in glee. “Who are you and where are you coming from?” she asked Harvey.
LA DOLCE VITA
Harvey gave a more literal answer than Hofer may have been looking for: She’d come from Andrews Island, one of 15 islands in Penobscot Bay’s Muscle Ridge Archipelago, a few miles out from South Thomaston. For the last few years during high season, she has been loading up the Mainstay and heading from Andrews to the anchorage between Dix and High Islands. It’s a popular spot, particularly for sailors or motorists making their way east to west across Penobscot Bay or headed to and from Tenants Harbor, according to Curtis Rindlaub, one of the authors of “A Cruising Guide to the Maine Coast.”
The harbor is quiet, protected and has spectacular scenery. On the shores of both islands are signs of a quarrying past dating back to the 1850s – an old landing station made of massive, granite rectangular blocks on High and abandoned, half-carved blocks partly buried in the grass on Dix. There’s a sandy beach nearby and anyone with a dog, like Hofer and Polshek, can easily row or paddle their pet to shore.
Three days a week until Labor Day, thanks to Harvey and her business, Mainstay Provisions, founded in her living room in 2012, there has been a floating restaurant at the anchorage as well. Harvey sells whole lobster bakes for $50 a pop or items a la carte. (Those peach glazed tartlets go for $6.50.) She dreamed up the business out of a mix of happenstance, industry and longing. A family friend, Dale Young, had turned up with Mainstay, a North Haven launch built on Vinalhaven in 1962, after he found it sitting in an old boatyard, in dire need of being rehabbed. He fixed it up and let her borrow the boat in the summer of 2011, right around the time she found out her father was dying. Bob Harvey was a lobsterman whose family had at one time owned most of Andrews Island and had raised her and her brother there. One of his last expeditions was on Mainstay.
The launch had instantly felt like Harvey’s. She had to have her and not just on loan. For one thing, there was the coincidence of the name: Her great-great aunt Ellena Fredette, the woman who had taught her how to make pie and fudge and lived to be 99, owned a home in the Owls Head village of Ash Point called Mainstay; at one point in the late 1800s it had been a boarding house and the sign still hung. (Harvey wonders, did some of those boarders ever work on Dix or High, cutting granite?)
Then there was the feeling that she was at a turning point in her life. A Skidmore College graduate – she majored in English – who had waitressed her way from Rockland to Camden and back again, Harvey was looking for more stability and more chances to be off the grid at the new camp she had built with her father and brother on Andrews a few years before. It was meant to be the place where her father would grow old, and instead he’d died at 60. She couldn’t get over what a shame that was.
TIME OF WONDER
“I had sat on this deck for years wondering how I could stay out here,” Harvey said, nursing her 3-month-old baby, Maizie (the reason she’s cut back her service from seven days to Thursday through Saturday this season). Harvey refinanced her home in Owls Head to raise the $5,000 to buy Mainstay. She’d heard about boats elsewhere selling food on the water (there’s a floating raw bar on Cuttyhunk Island in Massachusetts) and here she was, looking from her front windows at a harbor often filled with 30 boats on a weekend night in July and August. She could see the masts.
Some of those sailors had to be sick of eating whatever they’d purchased on the mainland. Some of those people would appreciate “Auntie” Ellena’s pies. Harvey could make salads from the garden. She would never wear pantyhose, one of the gloomier prospects that had driven her from New York City after college. She could waitress barefoot, which is the way she prefers to be anyway. And she’d be working from the beloved island where she spent her first 10 years, homeschooled by her mother, watching the beach heather bloom, the summers come and go and her dad’s original little house fall apart.
Replacing that decaying camp is what gave her the idea she could handle cooking for a crowd as well as she could serve one. Her father was a finish carpenter as well as lobsterman and he had encountered a group of Amish builders from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, putting up a pre-built house in Cushing. They got the idea to rebuild the camp using the same builders, who brought the pieces of the house up on a barge and erected it over the course of a weekend – “a long weekend” Harvey remembers. The crew of 30 camped on the island and they needed to be fed; Harvey had some experience cooking at the Good Tern Co-op in Rockland, so she said she’d do it. The next summer when some homeowners on Dix Island noticed the neat little house on Andrews, they decided to use the same team to build a couple of guest cottages. Harvey was hired as the caterer for that crew, too. “It was just crazy how much food they consumed,” she said. That accomplishment bolstered her confidence to start Mainstay Provisions.
So did the lessons in creativity in the kitchen and elsewhere she’d learned from her mother, Sue Hufnagel, growing up on Andrews. You live on an island, you learn “how to make something out of nothing,” Harvey said. “Part of being on island is using what you have.”
What can go wrong when you’re cooking for people on boats? Weather, obviously, and not just rain. “If it’s windy they don’t want you up against their boat,” Harvey says. “Even though I have bumpers.” She needs to pack just the right amount of food since there is no kitchen to run back to (although her vegetable garden is on nearly deer-free Dix and she’s been known to stop off for a head of kale or some such when she needs greens in a pinch). Then there’s assessing the mood. Not everyone wants someone pulling up to interrupt their private time, so Harvey makes a point of doing a slow chug through the harbor first, going out to the far reaches and working her way back. That way customers can hail her if they please. Other strategies: Mainstay’s controls are on the starboard side so she sets the food up on the port side, giving boaters a chance to see what she’s got.
She’s friendly but not pushy. Her first customers on a recent, dazzlingly sunny Saturday were an older couple in a powerboat. The woman beckoned to Harvey. “What have you got for dessert?” she shouted. Harvey sold them a couple of pies, cheerily asking what they had on the grill. Chicken. “Smells good,” she said, pushing off and heading to the next boat, where again, a regular customer was practically shaking with anticipation (these pies are enough to make you want to buy a boat). “I’ve been sitting here all afternoon waiting for you!” said Dot Campbell.
This summer, Harvey started taking reservations; with the baby she’s looking to simplify and work only when she knows she’ll have customers. But since the first summer, she hasn’t advertised, or felt the need to. “This is a very popular place to spend the night,” she said. “Last summer, I had more business than I needed.”
The first summer though, she did advertise, in a manner of speaking – a few flyers in Rockland and on the community barn on Dix Island so that the 10 households on that island understood what she was up to in their harbor. One of the people who saw the notice (and her phone number) was Scott Erskine, someone she’d known on nodding acquaintance only. His 1940s fishing camp just happens to face the Harvey house on Anderson Island. They became friends. And then on a work night, Mainstay’s prop got hung up on a lobster buoy and she needed someone to bring her a knife and a t-shirt to dive in. She called Erskine and he obliged. “He decided it was on after that,” she said. Now they have a baby daughter and his son, Noah, 14, who has 40 trap tags, supplies Harvey with lobsters and helps her pack and unpack the boat whenever he can.
Both of them are urging her to raise her prices. That $50 gets you a lobster, steamers, corn, drawn butter, a biscuit, side salad (or, say, sautéed kale with garlic), a dessert and even a cheese platter to start. Those hand pies are $5, a biscuit $1.50.
“I really struggle with that,” Harvey said. “Inflation hasn’t hit my brain yet. I would never spend $5 on a piece of pie.”
“Maybe not on the mainland,” Erskine told her. But he gently points out that the dining room for her restaurant is far from the mainland. Moreover, this is a captive customer base. And a very pleased one.
As demonstrated by the Hofer-Polshek party. On round one, they had purchased steamers, a pair of lobsters and some desserts – “one of those blueberry calzones” Polshek had joked. They looked more than satisfied when she pulled away; they could have been stoned teenagers in a candy store. Because really, how often does someone come alongside your boat and offer you a peach tartlet?
But as Harvey steered Mainstay away from her last customer and toward home, there was a shout from Adeline. They needed one more pie.
For breakfast. Or so they claimed.