FOOD HISTORY: THE TASTE OF WHO WE ARE

words SANDY GARSON

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Last summer, the biggest news out of the Democratic National Convention was the roll call of states because, oddly enough, tiny Rhode Island got the biggest share of public attention. As much of the news media merrily noted, it came into the roll call as “the calamari comeback state” with an outstretched plate of fried squid offered by one of its celebrity chefs.

That night Rhode Island calamari joined Georgia peaches, Wisconsin cheese, Idaho potatoes, Maryland crab, San Francisco sourdough and Philly cheesesteaks as a food that specifies political identity. Just like Maine lobster—a food so emblematic of our state’s image, Maine even went to the U.S. Supreme Court to defend it.

Back in the 1970s, when lobster had become known as the food of royalty, expensive restaurants all over the world and everyone gourmet, a war broke out between Maine, which has 3,000 miles of coastline from which lobsters are fished, and New Hampshire, which has just 18 miles of coastline with fishing centered around Portsmouth. And as we all know, the boundary between the two states runs through the Piscataqua River that divides them and runs into the ocean at Portsmouth, hence that city’s name. Capitalizing on the newly classy phrase “Maine lobster,” New Hampshire lobstermen marketed their catch that way. Their rationale was that their lobsters were fished “in the Gulf of Maine” so therefore they were “Maine lobster.”

The State of Maine so vigorously objected to having its identity usurped like that, it sued the State of New Hampshire in the U.S. Supreme Court. What provoked this war were conservation measures and laws Maine had instituted around 1973–74, starting with the “never on Sunday” ban on catching lobsters on Sundays during the summertime and not taking out of the water female lobsters so they could be left to add to the supply.

The new measures also sought to set quality standards. They regulated the size of lobsters that could be marketed, instituting that little ruler lobstermen carry to measure the distance from the rear of the eye socket to the end of the carapace. A legal lobster has a carapace or body shell length between 3¼ inches and 5 inches. Lacking such laws, N.H. lobstermen needed no rulers, had no quality standards and were free to sell ungainly and tough meat, even five-pound lobsters, as “Maine lobster.” This was thought to reflect so badly on the state of Maine, it sparked the aforementioned lawsuit, in which Maine claimed a bona fide “Maine lobster” could only be one fished by a lobsterman licensed in Maine and thus subject to its conservation and quality rules in a boat licensed in Maine from a port within Maine. People from the other bank of the Piscataqua River were not Mainers, the suit argued. The court ruled for Maine, making the words “Maine lobster” into the equivalent of an appellation controlee like the wine terroirs of France, or a trademark or a brand.

Food identity is a big deal because what’s on our plate is often more about our pride in preparing it than nutrition we get from eating it. Just think about the barbecue battles between the people of North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas, each claiming theirs the authentic and best barbecue in the world. They are not about to let their state identity slip off the menu. So, if you go eat at Terlingua on Washington Avenue in Portland, the menu will tell you you’re getting Texas BBQ. If you go to Salvage BBQ on Congress Street you will get St. Louis ribs. If you go to Wilson County Barbecue down on Hanover and Kennebec streets, you get whole-hog North Carolina barbecue. In Bath, Beale Street serves Tennessee style.

Maine may no longer be known for the luxurious Kennebec salmon or the potato, but we are still identified with blueberries, maple syrup and clam chowder (the name taken from the original Acadian iron stockpot called a chaudiere) and, of course, lobster. We may not have our own style of barbecue, but we are the heirs of our area’s Native people and keep their tradition of fire-pit cooking alive with the clambake, lobster bake and bean hole supper—all of which contribute thousands of tourist dollars to the state’s economy.

Even sweeter are whoopie pies—first created in Lewiston at Labadie’s Bakery between 1918 and 1925—which Mainers who leave the state and tourists who come into it continue to mail order because you can’t get them anywhere else. (The name is said to have originated from the working men who found these treats in their lunch boxes and shouted “Whoopie!”)

We even have our own food historians. Mildred Gordon Brown Schrumpf, always known as Brownie, spent 70 years codifying, teaching and promoting distinct Maine food. Her 43-year-long cooking column for the Bangor Daily News made her a legend. She collected recipes from friends and neighbors and published two cookbooks, The Flavor of Maine and Memories from Brownie’s Kitchen. She was so relentless in keeping Maine identity in Maine food that near the end of her column-writing career she severely criticized a recipe for baked beans with powdered mustard, summer savory, cumin, coriander, maple syrup and brandy. “True, many Maine homemakers use some of the ingredients,” she wrote. “But supper goers, especially summer visitors, look forward to the typical pot of beans baked with salt pork, salt, pepper and maybe an onion or an apple buried in the bottom of the bean pot.”

Our historian today is Sandy Oliver of Islesboro. She can tell you the history of hardtack and how to cook foraged fiddleheads.

What’s not so well known but should be a point of food identity pride is that Portland, Maine, has the oldest continuous farmers’ market in the United States. Back in 1768, a location was officially sanctioned in the Town Hall for farmers to gather close to the busy harbor with their meat and produce instead of peddling it house-to-house, pier-to-pier, in pushcarts.

Food is so deep in human identity that immigrants more often than not bring their recipes and foodstuffs with them, and open restaurants as their first step into the local economy. By looking at a restaurant map, you can tell which nationalities settled where. It’s easy to find a traditional Irish meal of corned beef, cabbage and potatoes on St. Patrick’s Day in Portland, Bath and Bangor. Portland, Augusta and Bangor were centers of Italian red sauce restaurants where you could reliably get spaghetti with meatballs or eggplant parmigiana—the distinctive food of immigrants from Southern Italy. Look at the names on the signs of the pre-boom Portland: DeMillo’s, Maria’s, Amato’s, Micucci’s, Roma.

You can reliably get traditional Quebecois cooking—tourtieres and poutine—in Biddeford and Lewiston. You can eat Jewish deli in Portland and Bangor, where our former U.S. Senator William Cohen’s father was a bagel baker. You can go to Portland’s annual Greek Festival at the Greek Orthodox Church and stuff yourself on feta cheese, stuffed grape leaves and dishes made by women from Saco and Biddeford. It’s fun to note, at least back in the ’60s and ’70s, in general stores up and down the coast of Maine, if you wanted what’s called elsewhere a hoagie or a hero or a sub, what that long roll filled with salami and bologna and cheese was called was an I-talian because the locals perceived it as having been made by Italian immigrants Downeast.

Nowadays, we have Somali-run “halal” groceries, Vietnamese noodle houses and Japanese sushi bars. And we have what’s called “fusion food,” the marriage of cultures that produces offspring like Korean tacos, which one Portland food truck advertises as Seoul Food; the sushi corn dog and the spanakopita lasagna. Not to be outdone or outdated, Maine has stepped up to the plate with seafood pizzas and lobster mac and cheese, ensuring the eat goes on.

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This reminder that we are what we eat comes from decades of research put together for what has been Sandy Garson's popular multi-week USM Senior College class (aka OLLI) titled Food, the Secret Sauce of History. It begins with the harnessing of fire, yeast fungi and bacteria that separated us humans from other animals, then examines food as the cause and result of recorded history (ultimately Maine was discovered because southern European Catholics needed to eat fish for Lent), food as religion, medicine, commerce, art and, as you see here, identity.

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