Posted on Fri, October 05, 2012 by Slow Food USA
Written by Michael Sanders, co-founder of Portland, ME’s Slow Food chapter
People “from away”—out-of-staters—often ask me, What’s up with Maine? How has such a cold and far away place grown such a vibrant food scene replete with farmers, fishermen, crazy-mad chefs and their restaurants, and farmers’ markets?
The answer is not so simple. First, Maine is a land of surprises. It has a coastline longer than England’s, more organic farms per capita than California, and a terrifyingly short growing season of just 125 precious frost-free days. Making the most of what we can wrest from the soil or fish from the sea or forage from the woods, this is what Mainers have always done, a rich tradition that, today, feeds the state’s vibrant and ever-evolving food scene, from our farmers’ market to our dinner and restaurant tables.
Three forces have come together to launch Maine into the forefront of the good food movement. First, there are the producers, those hard-working men and women who are the local and organic movement’s first responders, pioneers of everything from seed-saving to rare-breed husbandry to sustainable winter shrimping to resurrected estuarine clam, mussel, and oyster operations to innovative cheesemaking. They work their niches, from one end of the state to the other, inland to the Canadian border, and out into the Gulf of Maine.
Second, we have the chefs who are the passionate preachers of this new religion, happily as varied as their cuisines, each interpreting, innovating, reinventing as they serve themselves of the rich palette of flavors provided by Maine’s diverse terroir.
Finally, there are what Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini calls “the co-producers”. That’s us, the consumers, who agree to support the producers and chefs for what they mean to our lives. Healthy food produced by our neighbors in an ethical way and sold at a fair price—and delicious!
Is it an accident that this triumvirate of forces has come together so significantly in Maine rather than, say, far wealthier Connecticut? I don’t think so, for Maine is also an “edge” state, like Oregon or Idaho, all places of large area and little population and no metropolis, and consequently, all generally left to their own devices by the rest of the country which seems to race ever faster forward while we’re still scraping the mud off our boots. That mud might be from the garden out back, or from the clam flats at low tide, or perhaps the woods, for Maine is also one of the most forested of all the states.
The good thing about being left alone and changing slowly is that, in this 21st century, our small corner of the country seems to have come to a startling realization: we have held on to more of our traditions, or, at least, have lost fewer, destroyed less landscape, and wiped out fewer ways of life in the rush to progress than most of our neighbors. Our traditional foods—heirloom vegetables, dried beans, apple varieties, and seafood dishes, even the ways we cook, whether the beanpot or Dutch oven or cast iron pan, these things have not been lost to the ages but here are experiencing a popularity that only grows each year.
I have lived in the same modest midcoast town for two decades now, and in that time have seen the arrival of bagels and baristas, a health foods store, and organic and all-natural food in the supermarket. More astoundingly, today, we can boast of three weekly outdoor farmers’ markets, and one venue every Saturday morning in winter in an old mill space on the Androscoggin River. In February, you can buy there, among other things: free-range chickens and eggs, organic beef, pork, rabbit, and turkey, a rainbow of beets, turnips, potatoes, and other root vegetables, cheeses and yogurts, fresh-baked bread and pastry and pies, local roasted coffee, jams, pickles, and preserves. We have a lobsterman and clammer, a mussel gatherer, and a fish coop selling haddock, crab, Maine shrimp, and other Gulf of Maine fishes.
While what’s available attests to the cleverness of our producers and the support of their customers, what impresses me is the warmth, the chatter, the buzz as a community comes together around its food at a time of year when the urge is to hibernate. My neighbors stamp the snow off their boots at the entrance, then pick up a cup of coffee and wander, reusable bags in hand, meeting friends, tasting, discussing their discoveries, pointing out a face new or old. There are mothers feeding babies, toddlers underfoot, and fiddlers sawing away in a far corner. It reminds me of every country market I have ever seen in France, Italy, Spain, Russia, Ukraine, Austria, and Hungary, markets that always used to make my wife and I wonder, on our return, why can’t we have this at home? And now, at last, we do.
Come visit! If you can’t, we offer a taste of Maine in the recipes in our books, with signed copies (and free shipping) at http://www.tableartsmedia.com .