Over a lunch of fish chowder, baked beans with hot dogs, brown bread, ployes and blueberry pie, there were a couple of dead giveaways.
First, I misidentified the red snapper hot dogs as “red hots” – those bitty, maraschino-colored, cinnamon-flavored hard candies.
Next, after basking in the praise for my “chowdah” from the six multi-generation Mainers seated at my dining room table, I confessed I’d been sorely tempted to add celery.
The animated conversation stopped cold. “No,” Larry Matthews Jr. said in a quiet, measured voice. “I. Just. Wouldn’t.” Matthews’ grandfather was a lobsterman, his great-great-grandmother was Micmac Indian; he himself grew up in Arundel and is the chef and owner of the elegant Back Bay Grill in Portland.
“And I kind of wanted to put carrots in the chowder, too,” I blundered on.
“Oooof!” Matthews Jr. said, with a sharp intake of breath.
“You dodged a bullet,” seventh-generation Mainer and Kennebunks born and reared Josh Bodwell chimed in. He is director of the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance and – more to the point here – the great-grandson of the man who founded Snow’s Clam Chowder. Which, by the way, is why I’d put chowder on my lunch menu in the first place. I like a challenge. Probably – certainly – foolhardy.
Three years and 43 days ago, I moved to Maine “from away.” The sum total of my previous ties to the state are these: a grandmother and later, a sister who regularly vacationed in Ogunquit. Also, a single wonderful summer I spent baking at Linekin Bay Resort in Boothbay Harbor when I was 20. My idea – timed to coincide with March 15, Maine Statehood Day – was to master a few classic Maine dishes, to invite a few classic Mainers to partake and grade (or perhaps guide) me on them, and then to insinuate myself into being “from here.”
When I called Maine culinary historian (and Connecticut-born) Sandy Oliver for advice on classic Maine foods, she predicted my scheme was doomed.
“And after you cook all that, they’ll still say you’re from away,” Oliver warned me bluntly. “That’s a birth condition. You can’t do a thing about that. Forget it.”
SEAFOOD, BERRIES AND BOTH MARJORIES
What to cook? I canvased my co-workers – the many French family names among them give away their Maine heritage. I asked two culinary historians who live in the state. I asked my neighbor, Lorelle Courtois, and invited her to lunch while I was at it. Her family drifted down to Maine from Canada four generations ago and her late husband’s aunt owned and cooked in the house I live in now. A Cape Elizabeth friend whose ancestors arrived on these shores in the 1600s and have wandered between Maine and New Hampshire ever since promptly ordered “a blueberry pie, please.”
I also consulted the two Marjories – Majorie Standish, who wrote a cooking column for this newspaper for 25 years and has been dubbed “the first lady of Maine cooking”; and Marjorie Mosser, author of the 1939 classic “Good Maine Food.”
Suggestions rolled in, from lobster stew and oyster casserole to New England boiled dinner and American chop suey. The list was heavily populated with blueberries and with pies, both savory and sweet. Mainers suggested some unfamiliar (to me, anyway) items for my table, too, for example, corned hake dinner and Quoddy River turkey, that last described to me in detail by Matthews Jr. as rehydrated salt cod on a bed of boiled, crushed potatoes topped with strips of crispy salt pork, drizzled with the pork fat and always served with a slice of onion, itself sprinkled with cider vinegar and white sugar. Honest-to-god.
More than a few emails from colleagues expressed some variation of this: “Beans, beans and more beans. I hate baked beans.”
Surprisingly, just two Mainers suggested venison, and no one mentioned Indian pudding, maple syrup or potatoes. (Potatoes? Oliver scoffed when I asked if she could explain their omission. “You don’t make ’em into a dish. You boil the damn things and put butter on them.”) And the sole person to suggest lobster mac ‘n’ cheese as a classic Maine dish was a food industry professional who – ayuh – moved here from out of state.
HOT DOGS FROM MASSACHUSETTS
The grocery shopping for my wannabe Mainer lunch reflected the new culinary Maine, which is to say I bought local. I already had Maine-grown and milled cornmeal and whole-wheat flour in my pantry.
But I went to Harbor Fish Market in Portland (“a Maine family owned and operated business for over 40 years,” the website touts) for the haddock. The clerk was weighing the large fillets ($9.99 per pound) when I mentioned I planned to make chowder. He looked at me kindly, as one might a not-overly-bright child, then returned the fillets to the case and switched to haddock pieces ($4.99 per pound). I colored beet red. Any dummy knows that thrift is the hallmark of Yankee cooking. A rookie mistake.
At Hannaford (“1883: Arthur Hannaford sells high-quality fruits & vegetables from a one-horse produce cart on the Portland, Maine, waterfront,” per their website), I picked up Maine-grown potatoes, State of Maine yellow-eyed beans, Smiling Hill cream and milk, frozen Maine wild blueberries, even Maine-made Bakewell Cream baking powder. As I drew a quart of Gifford’s old-fashioned vanilla ice cream for the pie from the freezer case, I paused to admire the Maine flavors (or at any rate, Maine-themed flavors) on the shelf beside it – Grape-Nuts, Camp Coffee, Fly Fishing Fudge… To my dismay, I failed to find Bangor-manufactured W.A. Bean red hot dogs and was forced to import my dogs from a certain state to the south. I justified this failing by reminding myself that until Maine achieved statehood exactly 197 years ago today, it was part of Massachusetts.
Back at home, I unpacked my groceries and pondered what to wear for my lunch. I settled on a favorite, well-worn, badly pilling L.L. Bean cardigan (as it turned out, I was too warm to ever don it). I looked forward to introducing my guests to my coon cat, my MAINE coon cat. I fretted that I didn’t own a bean pot.
My pedigreed Maine guests wouldn’t arrive for some 18 hours, yet already a desperate, needy air clung to me. I was like the girl at the seventh-grade dance trying so conspicuously hard to be liked that all the boys instinctively avoid her.
CAN’T STOP FIDDLING
Biddeford-based antiquitarian bookseller Don Lindgren, who specializes in cookbooks, emailed me a recipe for fish chowder from the 1886 “Three Hundred and Fifty Tried and Tested Formulas By the Ladies of the Second Congregational Church, Biddeford, Maine.” It instructed me to layer fish, potatoes, chopped onion and “flour dredged in so as not to lump” in rendered salt pork fat, to pour water over the whole lot and to boil for 15 minutes. At that point I was to add soaked-in-water Biddeford crackers and “sweet cream” and boil for 5 minutes more.
And at that point, I decided to dispense with authenticity for a chowder I’d actually want to serve my guests. I kept the salt pork (Does every bona fide Maine recipe start with “try out a piece of salt pork”?) My version also involved homemade fish stock, herbs (bay leaves, thyme, parsley and chives) and a lot less boiling. None, in fact.
I fooled around with the blueberry pie, too, which was based on a Standish recipe. Among other changes – I nixed the cinnamon, added lemon juice and zest to give the berries some spark, and brushed the crust with cream before sprinkling it with crunchy Demerara sugar.
As I chafed at the plainness of some of these recipes (confession: I added fresh thyme and cider vinegar to the baked beans) and cursed Puritan disdain for dancing, theater, fashion, alcohol and, apparently, deliciousness, I began to wish I’d come “from away” to some other place than Maine, say Provence or Normandy in France. In which case, I’d be in my kitchen attempting bouillabaisse or chicken with cream, apples and Calvados instead of pining for the modest addition of diced celery to my chowder. All the while, I was haunted by the words of Kenneth Roberts, a well-known Maine historical fiction writer and uncle to Marjorie Mosser.
“Good Maine Food,” he famously wrote in the book’s introduction, “ignores cookery that is namby-pamby, twiddly, cloying, fussy, messy and immature and emphasizes food that appeals to men and women whose tastes are sound and sturdy.”
I would never be a Mainer!
PAJAMAS AND PLOYES
We’ll skip over the part where the photographer arrived early and I was still in my pajamas. Having recently read a collection of stories by Sarah Orne Jewett populated by good-hearted, hospitable widows with neat little cottages who are able to produce simple, excellent dinners from a handful of ingredients at a moment’s notice, I felt slovenly to the extreme.
Minutes before the guests arrived, I threw on my clothes. (I wish I were kidding.) Elsie Maxwell came bearing a big bag of frozen strawberries from her farm and an Instagram-worthy Scandinavian almond cake she’d baked herself. The others were bearing – I hoped – strong opinions about Maine food. About my Maine food.
Matthews Jr. brought his dad, Larry Matthews Sr., whom Jr. had told me over the phone knew far more about Maine food than he did. I learned that guest Jen Goldman’s great-grandfather, Perley Ray, was of the Ray’s Sardines family in Milbridge; that Bodwell was a direct descendant of Joseph Bodwell, Maine’s 40th governor; and that Maxwell, whose grandparents came to Portland from Norway, married into a family that has farmed in Cape Elizabeth for six generations.
Over lunch, we evaluated my cooking. I was my own harshest critic: The beans were mushy, the edges of the blueberry pie too thick and the filling too thin, soupy really. My guests, however, praised the chowder (“perfect. No celery!” Matthews Jr.), the steamed brown bread (“wonderful, so fresh and flavorful,” Courtois) the pie (“outrageous! stellar crust!” Bodwell) and the beans (“just what I remember from my youth,” Matthews Sr.). Lesson learned: Mainers are exceptionally polite.
The ployes, I’m afraid, were deemed “interesting” at best. Lesson needed.
SO ABOUT THIS MAINE THING …
My original guest list included Maine humorist Tim Sample, who sent a polite RSVP saying he was unable to attend. As it turned out, I did not lack for comics.
Matthews Jr.: You know how to tell if you don’t have any friends in Maine?
Grodinsky: No. How?
Matthews Jr: You have to buy zucchini in the summer.
More jokes, more chowder and more laughter followed. “I just thought of another thing that makes a true Mainer,” Goldman, who works at Portland Trails, piped up after the chowder and in the midst of the beans. “If you can remember buying all of your school clothes at Porteous and Levinsky’s.”
A long trip down memory lane ensued. Almost as long as the discussion about Rapid Ray’s in Saco. Over lunch, this group of hitherto strangers, mostly, bonded over memories of growing up on Spam, fried bologna and tuna wiggle, the last made with canned fish, because you can sell the fresh catch, I was told. Maine food, my guests agreed, is frugal food.
Finally, I screwed up my courage and asked the $64,000 question, my voice quavering and rising in pitch with anxiety. “If you are from away but you master these dishes, can you, um, become a Mainer?”
Matthews Jr. tried to let me down gently. “It’s sort of like an understood asterisk. My father-in-law has been here, I don’t know, 35 years? A long time.”
“Not a Mainer,” Matthews Sr. interjected. The table erupted in laughter.
“But he is in every sense of the word. In attitude. In everything. He certainly is, but…” Matthews Jr. paused. “He’s from Connecticut.”
“Don’t you feel bad for them?” Bodwell said. “He made a choice to be here. He made a life decision. He gambled. He came. We just had the good luck.”
Peggy Grodinsky can be contacted at 791-6653 or at: