Most days, the Bronx – New York City’s poorest borough and home to the Yankees and hip-hop – feels a world away from summer here in idyllic, though (it must be said) still mostly white-bread, midcoast Maine. But it turns out our lives are more interconnected than we realize.

We are again hosting our Fresh Air Fund “daughter” at our Brunswick home for a week packed with food and farms. Gabriella Heugas, “our” little girl from the Bronx, will turn 7 next month. After the inherent culture shock of her first visit to Maine last summer, Gabby’s return felt as comfortable as a cousin’s from the get-go.

She had no qualms about leaving her mother’s Bronx apartment and boarding the Port Authority bus that the Fresh Air Fund chartered to ferry Gabby and dozens of her peers to the eager host families awaiting their late-afternoon arrival in Yarmouth.

We anchored our week together in pursuit of delicious, healthy, local food. Gabby embraced vegetables, salad, even seafood, and she preferred drinking water to Coke, with none of the reticence of last summer. Pizza is still our New Yorker’s favorite food. Few Maine kids would disagree.

At a kids concert on the Brunswick Town Mall the night Gabby arrived, we picnicked on Micucci’s Sicilian slices, garnished with basil (she requested) fresh from my garden. She loved sesame oil-slicked snap peas, just-dug new potatoes and plain, juicy leaves of quick-before-it-bolts romaine lettuce from Topsham’s Whatley Farm.

On her first full day, Gabby and I went out to lunch to celebrate her return. We dined at the affordable yet reliably locavore Schoolhouse Cafe. Its farm-sourced lunches satisfied discriminating diners at the Harpswell Coastal Academy charter school just down the road, and our Gabby, too. Entering the quaint eatery, she was jolted back to her P.S. 340 in Kingsbridge, the Bronx. “There’s my teacher!” Gabby exclaimed, gesturing among the half-dozen still lunching, toward a woman who dropped her fork and knife in response, because she was, in fact, Katy Mendez, a first-grade teacher who’d recently wrapped up the year teaching Gabby and 31 other charges.

After our meal, including a glazed strawberry pie with whipped cream to-go, we paid a brief visit to Mendez at her family’s oceanfront South Harpswell home. Gabby shooed away bees and flies as we walked the four acres of overgrown gardens, picking black-eyed Susans and wild beach rugosa roses where Mendez’s late grandfather, Dr. Currier McEwen, bred and hybridized renowned Siberian iris cultivars in his retirement. At New York University, he was a prominent rheumatologist, and here, an esteemed gardener until his death at age 101. Small world.

Mendez, who has taught 11 years in the trenches (compare that to the two I survived after college as an NYC Teaching Fellow at a northeast Bronx high school), made us feel Gabby’s stays in Maine might have an impact. “Although she does struggle in school at times, one thing that sets her apart from many of her classmates is a broader knowledge base, and vocabulary to go with it, of food, nature and gardening,” she emailed me.

Gabby’s thirst for this knowledge is more insatiable this summer. “You could go to culinary school, come back to Maine and open a Puerto Rican/Dominican restaurant,” I tell our budding chef, who occupies our play kitchen much more than my 4-year-old Theo. “Does your school have a garden? You and Ms. Mendez could start one.”

We Google the GrowNYC list of community gardens and the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx. After all, the Bronx was founded in 1636 as a farmstead. Flowers, the magenta calla lilies I cut for her and the peppery backyard nasturtiums she sampled, Gabby’s first edible flowers, also left an imprint.

Gabby loves meat, but prefers not to think of cuddly creatures as its source. She fed the pigs weeds plucked near the u-pick snow peas at Crystal Spring Farm camp in Brunswick, but shuddered when I pointed out the meat hooks in the CSA pickup shed where butchers once hung sides of beef. Also in Brunswick, she relished carnitas tacos and chips made of green plantain and cassava, chased with coconut milk-limeade at El Camino, and invented a new tuna salad-flank steak “surf and turf” combo sandwich at Local Market.

I insisted she try lobster after wimping out last year. We went to Erica’s Seafood in Harpswell, our favorite (BYOB) lobster joint. Gabby freaked out. “I wanna hot dog!” she declared, after visiting the tank’s crawling sea spiders. “They’re alive! I thought they were going to be dead.” An already-dead lobster roll, which even McDonald’s in Maine now serves, seemed preferable. And when Gabby tried a morsel of my young soft shell’s sweet meat, dipped in drawn Kate’s Homemade Butter, she demanded more. Peer pressure works: Picky Theo gnawed on its suckers, following her lead.

Grateful Gabby is more fun to feed than my son. She pours on the hot sauce, preferring the sweet, fermented Korean version from Kittery’s Sonmat Foods to reliable Mexican Cholula. Her mother’s fiance, who supplied the recipe for the oxtails we braised together last summer, encourages Gabby’s love of picante plates.

She doused hot sauce on shreds of plain Mainely Poultry chicken. I boiled the whole chicken with sweet potatoes, rice and greens to feed Julia, the adopted Mexican street dog we’ve been taking care of for a Bowdoin colleague. Gabby had a hard time accepting a dog would eat “people food” this delicious.

The chicken bones, pizza crust, cantaloupe rind and veggie peelings I repeatedly emptied into our Garbage to Garden compost bin confused Gabby. “That smells disgusting, Laura!” Recycling food scraps didn’t make sense to her. That anything good could come of poop, that manure was also “recycled” as fertilizer shocked but then seemed second nature to Gabby by the week’s end.

Food also helped Gabby and my Theo bond. They picked summer’s first raspberries and lowbush blueberries in the backyard together, fighting over the ripe ones. They breakfasted on green smoothies and snacked on Borealis rolls, the anadama for Gabby, who found the wheat-cornmeal-molasses combo a revelation. They both like free-choice eating at our standby Bowdoin College dining hall. Ice cream remains a shared pleasure.

After a week of indulging, while floating for hours in Great Pond and chilling with a peppermint oil-infused mister given out at a Maine Yoga Kids camp session, I thought we should focus on giving back. “What’s that food for?” Gabby asked about a hunger drive box at the gym where we went to my Zumba class.

I signed us up to deliver surplus produce from a Brunswick market to Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program. We would also prepare a version of the salad (below left) for 20 residents at Tedford Housing emergency shelter in Brunswick. Somehow, though it’s exhausting to take on a second child, especially one as energetic as Gabby, participating in the Fresh Air Fund inspires me to do more.

GABBY’S RAZZ-MATAZZ-BERRY GREEN SALAD

Studding salads with seasonal fruit, such as Maine berries (or dried fruit in the off-season) can prod reluctant kids to eat their greens. Blending more berries into the salad dressing, or infusing them into vinegar used to make the salad dressing, only sweetens the deal. Our Fresh Air Fund guest Gabby and I picked our overgrown garden’s first ripe raspberries her first morning back in Maine – what fortuitous timing. By the week’s end, we planned to make this salad, freely adapted from “Healthy Cooking for Kids” by Shelly Null.

Serves 4

FOR THE DRESSING:

¼ cup Dijon mustard

2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

1 to 2 tablespoons minced shallot or garlic

6 raspberries, fresh or frozen

1 tablespoon maple syrup or honey

½ cup canola or other salad oil

Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

FOR THE SALAD:

1 large head Bibb or Romaine lettuce (about ½ pound)

1 large bell pepper, cored, seeded and thinly sliced

¼ cup chopped red onion

¼ cup crumbled goat cheese (Gabby likes York Hill Farm’s chevre)

2 large carrots, grated

1 small beet, peeled and grated

1 1/3 cup fresh raspberries

2 tablespoons sesame or sunflower seeds, optional

To prepare the dressing, combine 1/4 cup water with the mustard, vinegar, allium, raspberries and syrup or honey in a blender and puree. With the motor running, slowly add the oil until emulsified.

Season to taste with sea salt and freshly ground pepper.

To take the salad on a picnic, pour the dressing into the bottom of a portable salad container.

To make the salad, trim the base of lettuce and discard any bruised outer leaves. Use the tender inner leaves, keeping the small leaves whole and cutting the larger outer leaves crosswise into halves or thirds.

Wash and dry greens in a salad spinner.

Layer the prepared salad ingredients on top of dressing in the portable container. Layer heavier, heartier bell pepper and red onion, then the goat cheese, shredded carrots and beet, finally the lettuce and delicate raspberries.

Sprinkle with the seeds, if you like.

When you are ready to eat the salad, carefully toss and divvy up among 4 plates.

Laura McCandlish is a Brunswick-based food writer and radio producer. Follow her on [email protected] and read her blog at baltimoregon.com.


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