I started working the food beat at the Portland Press Herald sometime between 2004 and 2005, just after Sam Hayward won the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Northeast, a first for Maine. I didn’t know it at the time, but the food scene in Portland was like a rocket smoking on the launch pad, ready to take off. For me? Lucky timing.

Photo by Yoon S. Byun

As my full-time food writing career here comes to a close – by the time you read this, I will have packed up my grandmother’s set of cast-iron skillets and we’ll both be back with family in Tennessee – I have been inundated with memories. One of my first big features, if not the first, was coverage of a wine dinner at Cinque Terre, which opened in Portland in 2001. Chef Lee Skawinski and his staff had been invited to cook at the James Beard House in New York City, and were planning a dry run. I turned down the restaurant’s invitation for a seat at a table; instead, I asked if I could hang out in the kitchen.

I described the scene in my story like this: “In the kitchen, white soup bowls rattle. … Scott Paquette, a line chef, is at the blisteringly hot grill, watching shrimp sizzle in a pan drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil. Skawinski spoons a taste of the tomato base from a steaming pot before ladling it into bowls.”

Occasionally one of the cooks slipped me a small plate here, a bite of something there, so I could taste what the customers in the dining room were being served – and the cooks knew I was probably hungry. It wasn’t the full dining room, multi-course experience, but this behind-the-scenes view was much more interesting and fun.

Meredith Goad John Ewing

Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time in Maine kitchens, especially in the beginning of my stint as a food reporter, when I was first getting to know local chefs. Those kitchen hang-outs, when I was usually watching the chef make something delicious, remain some of my fondest memories. Casual chats when you’re not facing down a deadline are a great way to learn about someone – what’s important to them, what motivates them – and to establish some trust. Occasionally, I’d even get a good tip on another story.

Back then, the national press wasn’t paying inordinate attention to Maine restaurants and the food they were making. But over the next 10 years or so, young chefs from big-city restaurants started arriving in Portland, looking for cheaper rents and a place where they could get creative and experiment a little. More than one chef has compared that early scene to a kind of culinary Wild West, where anything goes. They usually say that with a nostalgic look in their eyes, pining for those days of free expression and wide-open opportunity.

Today, Maine’s tally of James Beard Foundation “Best Chef: Northeast” awards numbers five, representing seven chefs. A couple of other local chefs have landed on Food & Wine’s annual list of Best New Chefs, and in 2018 the city itself was named Restaurant City of the Year by Bon Appetit. There are so many good restaurants here that, even with the struggles of the pandemic, deciding where to go for dinner on any particular night can actually feel frustrating. That’s a good problem to have.

I have to give a shout-out to the editors at this newspaper, who recognized that the restaurant industry in Portland was fast becoming a major economic force worthy of serious coverage from the news and business desks, not only from features pages. At a time when many medium-sized newspapers were cutting food coverage and dropping restaurant criticism altogether (or assigning one lonely, stressed-out reporter to do it all), the Press Herald actually increased coverage and hired a food editor.

Now for the fun stuff. Ever since I decided that it was time to leave, random memories and observations have been popping into my head. Here are a few:

Meredith Goad, left, judges an apple pie baking contest in 2005. Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

Portland restaurant I most wanted to visit before I left, but couldn’t because it’s still closed for the pandemic: Hugo’s.

Maine foods I will keep buying after I’m gone: Fresh Maine seafood, especially scallops and Maine oysters. Real maple syrup. Beans and grains from Maine Grains. Sweet Grass Farm’s Back River Gin (if I can find it in Tennessee). Old-fashioned malted milk balls from Harbor Candy Shop in Ogunquit. When it comes to lobster, I’m all set. Believe it or not, a Cousins Maine Lobster food truck is based just 10 miles from my new home.

Long-gone restaurants I still miss: Alberta’s, the bohemian cafe on Pleasant Street, where Press Herald reporters used to go for lunch. The Merry Table in the Old Port, where I could eat crepes and practice my French with strangers. The Opera House Restaurant in Bar Harbor, where the service was fantastic and the opera playlist came to your table with the menu.

Best beer memory: My first Oxbow farmhouse pale ale, when the brewery was just starting out about a decade ago.

Most intimidating interview: My first interview with Anthony Bourdain. I interviewed him several times over the years and I was always nervous, but his private persona was gentle and kind, and we had really engaging conversations about food. Not to mention it impressed me that he still did phone interviews with individual journalists. The closest I ever got to Gordon Ramsay was a group phone interview where I got to ask him only one question.

Hugo’s chef Rob Evans plates (fabulous!) shrimp risotto at the restaurant in 2006. File photo

Best Maine food memories: Blueberries from the Portland Farmers Market in August. Judging the Chili and Chowder Challenge every year in the middle of winter.  Taking my out-of-town family to dinner at Fore Street. Duckfat fries and the way the smell lingers in your car when you get a takeout order. Sitting in the Miccuci’s parking lot, eating baker Steve Lanzalatta’s luna bread, hot out of the oven, before the rest of the world discovered it.

French onion soup and a charcuterie platter I shared with my brother one cold, windy September day at Petite Jacqueline. Thursday night gatherings of local reporters and editors at Gritty’s in the Old Port. Learning how to make the best shrimp risotto with James Beard Award winner Rob Evans in the kitchen at Hugo’s. I went on to make it myself at home several times – it really is amazing, and since I’ll have time on my hands soon, at least that’s what I hope, I plan to make it again later this winter.

Sunday brunches at Cafe Uffa on the West End, where El Corazon is now. Summer brunch at The Good Table in Cape Elizabeth before heading to Two Lights State Park with a blanket and a good book. Learning about kale from a farmer at the Portland Farmers Market before kale became a thing.

Best high without drinking or smoking anything: When I first met Rod Mitchell, the founder of Browne Trading Co., he took me on a tour of the caviar room and kept handing me spoonfuls of caviar to taste as he tried to educate me a little. By the time I got back to the newsroom, I was useless. Is there such a thing as being high on caviar? Yep.

Restaurant dish I will always remember: The braised Tuscan black kale with a six-minute egg, crispy pancetta, and kombu butter on charred multigrain bread at Bresca, which closed in 2013. As I ate it, I marveled that something so simple could be so delicious.

A 2012 wine tasting with Portland native and winemaker Michael Terrien at Browne Trading Company. Gordon Chibroski / Staff Photographer

Best wine memory: I have three. One, discovering Lebanese wines during a stellar meal at chef Carmen Gonzalez’s former restaurant in The Danforth Inn. Two, ordering a bottle of Terrien Chardonnay to share with my sister at Fore Street in 2012. (Michael Terrien, one of the makers behind Bluet sparkling blueberry wine, received a lot of national attention for his 2007 chardonnay, which was sold in some of the best restaurants in the country, including Per Se, Daniel, and Eleven Madison Park.) The best thing about a bottle of good wine is sharing it with someone you care about. That brings me to three: Someone gave me a great bottle of red wine. It was all the more enjoyable because I shared it with my mother and watched her drink it – and ask me to refill her glass, more than once. I always tease her about her penchant for cheap boxed wine, but until then had no luck convincing her to broaden her tastes. I thought her head was going to explode with pleasure.

Most difficult thing I ever ate in Maine: Crispy calf brains at Evangeline prepared by Erik Desjarlais, a great chef I trusted to make anything taste good. (His first restaurant, Bandol, was amazing.) I split the dish with a friend and couldn’t finish my portion – not because they weren’t done well, but because I couldn’t get it out of my head what I was eating.

The story I never got to write (but not for lack of trying): A profile of Portland restaurateur Dana Street, who doesn’t like talking to the media. I’ve been told by people who know him better than I do that it’s nothing personal.

The Napoleon from European Bakery in Falmouth. Photo by Meredith Goad

Baked goods I will pine for: The morning buns (without nuts) at Standard Baking Co. in Portland. The apple spice molasses cookie at Scratch Baking Co. The Napoleon at European Bakery in Falmouth.

Things I will not miss: People who ask me for restaurant recommendations, then refuse to tell me what kinds of food they like, or what kind of budget constraints they’re under. People who google Holy Donut, see my phone number on a story, and call to see if I’m open. Cold, dark Maine winters when I eat too much mac-n-cheese. Getting mail that’s meant for the other Portland, and having to give PR people a geography lesson when they follow up, wondering why I haven’t replied. Constant deadlines.

Most memorable near miss: Clark Frasier and Mark Gaier, the chefs who owned Arrows in Ogunquit, held a 25th anniversary gala in 2013, which I was lucky enough to attend and where I met other famous chefs such as Jeremiah Tower and Patricia Yeo, who made lobster spring rolls and pan-roasted steelhead trout. The following week, Frasier and Gaier closed the restaurant for the season and announced they would not be reopening. Little did I know at that gala that it would be the last time I’d be able to enjoy Arrows’ terrific food and service.

Special thanks to: Jessica Sueltenfuss, who during the pandemic served as my drive-thru therapist at the Otherside Diner’s take-out window. I’ve eaten so many of the diner’s cheddar-and-spinach omelets I sometimes worry I will turn into a chicken.

A long-ago (2002) participant in the children’s parade at the Common Ground Fair in Unity. Photo by Fred Field

Memory that always makes me smile: The parade at the Common Ground Fair where the children dress up like vegetables.

A few of the people I’ve met with really interesting stories: Joann Grohman of Carthage, who wrote the homesteading classic, “Keeping a Family Cow.” Somcha Sriweawnetr, a Thai chef who helped keep five Americans safe during the 1979 hostage crisis in Iran, and later quietly opened a restaurant in Rangeley.

Jonathan Cartwright, then-executive chef at the White Barn Inn, competes in an Iron Chef-style competition at Sea Road School in Kennebunk in 2012 against Ellen Demmons, the food services director for RSU 21. The secret ingredient, announced at the competition’s start, was sweet potatoes, and the school’s fourth-graders were the judges. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Random stories that were fun to report and write: Master chef Jonathan Cartwright (then of the White Barn Inn) competing, Iron Chef-style, with the local elementary school lunch lady. (No spoilers here: You’ll have to read the story to find out who won.) Spending a long afternoon with the goats at Creeping Thyme Farm in Buxton.

Story my colleagues still tease me about: An essay on the (temporary) demise of the Twinkie.

Pet peeves: Press releases that use the word “curate” to describe thoughtfully putting together a collection of food or wine or products to sell. (Sorry, you are not cataloguing items from an ancient Egyptian tomb.) The word “eatery” (insert eye-roll emoji here), which I only use when backed into a corner.

Restaurants/pubs that are “a good bang for the buck”: Someone asked me this at my final online event last month, but I never had the chance to answer. It’s a good question, useful to readers who enjoy good food but lack big bank accounts. Off the top of my head: Thoroughfare in Yarmouth; Baharat, RiRa, The Thirsty Pig, Bao Bao Dumpling House, and Tipo, all in Portland; and The Good Table in Cape Elizabeth. Don’t be offended if I didn’t include your favorite. I’m sure there are many more that aren’t immediately coming to mind, so add yours to the comments below this column.

The Cheese Iron co-owner Vince Maniaci, in 2006, who with his wife, Jill Dutton, always had excellent suggestions about which cheeses to eat and serve. John Patriquin/Staff photographer

Food people I will miss: Dinners with my dear friend Pat Brown, a retired food editor, whom I have missed terribly during the pandemic. Vince Maniaci and Jill Dutton at The Cheese Iron in Scarborough, who opened the first serious cheese shop here and always gave me great recommendations. Sandy Oliver, who taught me a lot about Maine food history, and Nancy Harmon Jenkins, who taught me a lot about olive oil. Sam Hayward, who generously spent hours with me and my then-colleague Mary Pols, teaching us about the history and evolution of Maine restaurants.

The most important food people I will miss are you, our food-loving readers. Thank you for all of your kind words over the years (not to mention all the nice notes you have sent me since I announced I was leaving) and for continuing to subscribe to a daily newspaper at a time when they are so very needed to cut through all the noise. My (now former) colleagues here at the Press Herald are some of the smartest, hardest-working, passionate people I’ve ever met. You are lucky to have them watching your backs.

Au revoir, Portland. I’ll miss sitting at your table.

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