Thinking Cookbooks: Maine Cooking

“What would you do if you found out you had one year to live?” my brother asked. It was August, and we were, as usual, in the sunny yellow kitchen of the family cottage on Isle au Haut. I rolled back and forth in the creaky white rocking chair and said, immediately, “I’d be here.”

Every year, when I drive back to Brooklyn, I can almost feel a bump in the road as I cross the border from Maine into New Hampshire, the jolt of leaving “Vacationland” and re-entering reality.  Fortunately, when I returned to Brooklyn to start graduate school last month, there were two cookbooks— Sandy Oliver’s Maine Home Cooking: 175 Recipes from Down East Kitchens (Downeast 2012) and Kathy Gunst’s Notes from a Maine Kitchen: Seasonally Inspired Recipes (Downeast 2011) — waiting on my kitchen table

In my mind the state of Maine is a map of memory. Growing up, we spent Thanksgivings near Augusta with the Franklin side of the family, Brooklyn Jews whose parents had gone back to the land in the late 50s in search of a heartier life and an outlet for their pro-labor politics. Each November as we drove north through the frosted back roads, my country mouse mother moved closer to my city boy father as New York disappeared in the rearview. No sooner had we arrived at cousin Bonnie’s clapboard house than we kids were shoved out the door to play while the grown ups talked family, politics and baseball over dinner preparations. That never happened at home, neither the languid conversation nor the collective preparation of meals. At Bonnie’s, my family was knitted together by the games of football, the wood smoke, and the debates over how best to use a turkey carcass, the lines of real difference between our family members was temporarily made invisible by the strong tie of a shared past.

We visited my mother’s WASP parents on Isle au Haut—a small spit of rock and pine in Penobscot Bay— each summer. Days were a predictable succession of breakfast on the porch, lunch picnics, long swims in the pond, tennis and ice cream. Gram and Bump had cocktail parties in the boathouse before dinner. Those were glorious weeks, wrapped up in the security of the generations, my mom mollified by the ocean air and lack of work. My brother, Pete, and I spent hours hunting crabs under rockweed, tearing around on our bikes and picking out penny candy at the Island Store.

As a teenager, I canoed the glassy lakes near Canada and after college, I lived in Portland for a year. Like my fellow sojourners, all students at Salt — a sort of storytelling bootcamp– I was figuring out what to do with my life, or at least next. It was a new sort or rockweed hunt, instead of crabs, we were hunting for a different life, an antidote to the milquetoast jobs and news of a bad economy in which we had been steeped. Knowing that the Atlantic was right there next to me and that there was family I could call—to spend the night when I was traveling to report a story, , or just to remind myself that I still had a family, however shrunken by the passing of generations and fractured by contentions it had become—made Maine feel like my own, a safe haven.

Maine is the scent of balsam, ocean brine and moss. It’s the certainty of family and the ache of loss when the rug’s been pulled out from beneath you too soon. It’s a place where I become a softer, kinder version of myself. It’s also where I most like to cook and eat.

Most of my Maine eating has been basic stuff, chowders, boiled lobster, lots of dishes inspired by fresh blueberries, apples and potatoes. But there’s always a kink. Campbell’s cream of mushroom makes a regular appearance and Crisco still plays heavily in baking. A well-loved Isle au Haut cook mixes cheddar in with her lobster for an autumn casserole. And I’ve overheard a lot of opining about the proper way to prepare a pan of baked beans or venison jerky. The local cooking is much like the basic Maine personality—reliable, salt-crusted Yankee with a distrust of fancy footwear, unweathered skin, Boston, and change. I like my people the same way I like my meals: honest, a tad irrational and a little offbeat.

Sitting squarely on my kitchen table in Brooklyn, Sandy Oliver’s book keeps Old Maine alive. Oliver, the founder of Food History News, lives on Isleboro and has spent most of her career studying New England’s food history. She created a cooking program in living history museums, a notion that is now common, but began with the groundbreaking fireplace cookery course she taught in the 1980’s at the Mystic Seaport Museum. She wrote Saltwater Foodways, Food in Colonial and Federal America, and co-authored Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving History and Recipes. But Maine Home Cooking is about Maine kitchens in the here and now.

In her introduction, Oliver writes how people don’t cook anymore. “But,” she writes, “I notice they’re feeding their families and they look reasonably healthy to me.”

As the “Taste Buds” columnist for the Bangor Daily News, Oliver has been helping Mainers expand their kitchen savvy for several years. She has also collected their recipes. Maine Home Cooking is a compilation of more than a hundred of these recipes and their stories, dishes , along with selections from Oliver’s own kitchen.

The book begins with dinner from old time Down Easters—finnan haddie (a dish of smoked haddock), needhams (a coconut confection bound with potatoes and dipped in chocolate) and tourtiere (a meat pie with Quebecois roots) and “Homey Favorites”, a section on potatoes—mashed, baked, stuffed and scalloped—as well as skillet suppers like kedgeree, a dish of leftover rice, boiled eggs, cooked fish and cream sauce. These are the recipes of past generations’ rugged and hungry folk marked by their resourcefulness, resilience and stubborn can-doism. Normally dishes like these would arouse my curiosity rather than my appetite, but on a recent gray and grumpy morning when I was stuck in a Manhattan cubicle, imagining these dishes carried me back to days spent parsing Gram’s stained recipe cards on Isle au Haut.

Oliver’s recipes are true to her own staunch Maine-ness.  “I do my food shopping in my garden in the summer and in my cellar in the winter,” she writes, and offers well-practiced formula for the sorts of blueberry pie, spice cake, and superb brownies that say church coffee hour on Isle au Haut.

Oliver’s recipes—a summer dessert of strawberries, sour cream and brown sugar, and a summer tomato cheese pie, for instance— match her battle cry of “frugality, using leftovers, and not eating junk.” But with recipes for fish tacos, braised fennel and kale chips she also nods to the state’s evolving tastes.Even so, Oliver is as traditional as wooden lobster traps and local paper mills. They resonate with the nostalgia that, since the death of my parents and grandparents in quick succession, has leapt from the mothball-scented closets that are still filled with Gram’s wool cardigans and my Bumpa’s absurd checkered suits in the island cottage. Oliver’s Maine, like the one I feel has slipped between my fingers, is the state that beckoned Robert McCloskey and E.B. White from their urban existences to their flannel-clad writing lives, where they wrote Blueberries for Sal and Home-Coming, odes to their adopted state that are fixed in a Maine that’s fast disappearing.

When she moved there in the 1980’s, Kathy Gunst fell for the same lure, but today, she’s all about the New, cosmopolitan Maine. As much as she, an ex-New Yorker herself, prizes an honest day’s work, Gunst is less concerned with Puritanical modesty and hoeing the hard row.

A former editor at Food and Wine, Gunst and her husband John moved to Maine from New York City in the 80s. They bought an old farmhouse south of Portland. Her cooking is informed both by the love of simple life and knowing her way around the highest echelons of cuisine.It’s Maine fare—eggs and roast chicken, tarts and four seasons worth of salads. There’s lots of seafood, instructions for which Gunst tends to dispatch with the dispassion of a lifelong sternman; how to clean, gut and fry whole fish and kill a lobster with one swift stab to the brain. And she, like Oliver, extols the virtues of eating from one’s own garden. But Gunst renders everything exceptional, like a rich dark chocolate tart sprinkled with Maine sea salt and a story of a painstaking search for delicate flavor of spring ramps. Unabashed hedonism like Gunst’s was unknown (or at least kept quiet) in the old Maine, it’s a defining ethos of the new wave.

Gunst’s romping, chatty essays make me want to pull up a chair at her table. She bursts from the pages with a winking chutzpah. “The sense of serenity I get from living in Maine has not changed over the years. Neither has the strong sense that this is a place where people really care about community, about one another, and about maintaining a quality of life that is fading fast in America.” That soulfulness we transplants were sniffing out in Portland? She’s living it.

Author of thirteen cookbooks, including a handful for the Maine-based company Stonewall Kitchen, food correspondent for WBUR’s Here and Now and the author of the “Notes from a Maine Kitchen” blog for Downeast, Gunst can’t stop celebrating Maine’s food and emerging food culture. She talks about the rise of winter farmer’s markets in the state, the chefs who ice fish through interminable winters, and community canning parties she hosts for neighbors on summer’s muggiest days.

Whirling us through a year in Maine, Gunst reminds us that each turn of the calendar offers something new, something awe inducing, something we should pause to appreciate.

She loves her garden, her family, her dog. But she celebrates that life with no pretense of perfection. Her husband may spend his spring months sugaring maples and she may have easy access to the best lobster on the planet, but Gunst is not impervious to the interminable winters, mosquitoes in August or deeply rutted roads. Reading her on the subway home to Brooklyn, I was right at her kitchen table.

I’m not sure when I’ll be back in Maine, but until then I can wade through both the old and the new at my Brooklyn stove with Oliver and Gunst, all that’s come before stitching itself to the promise of the future. They’re the best kind of kitchen friends, the ones who impart their lived wisdom that making a practice of cooking and eating well—with a lot of care but not too much fuss, at a table surrounded by stories and friends— makes a strong foundation for a good life.

As the sign at the border bridge always reminds me it’s, The Way Life Should Be.