It's growing season again in Maine and among the sprouts are signs, ads and texts urging us to be local: eat local food, buy locally grown food, support your local farm. The crowing is loud and insistent, but what does it actually mean? Does it matter? What is “local” eating around here?
The honest answer is the foods of the Native inhabitants, the Wabanaki people, who have lived off this land for centuries. They have done it well and we owe them for our special treats. Wild blueberries, bog cranberries, fiddleheads, sunflower tubers misnamed (by Samuel de Champlain) Jerusalem artichokes or, lately, sunchokes. And lobster, clams, oysters, mussels, mackerel, cornmeal, maple syrup, alewives, corn not on the cob and beans that can be dried, venison, wild turkey, duck and duck eggs, rabbit, bear and freshwater fish—these are local Maine foods. Some of them even came to define us as a state.
The Native people used parts of the sassafras tree—sassafras root is the origin of root beer. In autumn, they harvested acorns and pounded them into a very nutritious flour that is making a comeback. Our pot-free clambakes down in the soil in seaweed and our bean hole suppers come to us from the Native people and are local to this land. Even though we have substituted molasses for maple syrup on our baking beans, the basic recipe and technique is still the same. So is their Stone Age way of catching lobsters: A stone weight in a trap submerged by rope hasn’t really changed despite all the glamorous technology in the world.
Local food was the only food—and thus so critical,
the Wabanaki named places to help others find it.
Androscoggin means fish curing spot, Passamaquoddy
means abundance of pollock, Medomak means place
of many alewives, Oquossic means slender blue trout. This is like European and Mediterranean people naming places to indicate available salt: All those English towns that end in “wich” mean: salt here. Malaga, the famous Spanish port/resort, is named for the ancient Phoenician word for salt. And of course there’s Salzburg, Salinas, LaSalle, Moselle and Salsomaggiore.
Maine Natives ate the salmon that spawned up our major rivers and we used to do that too. The requisite piece of salmon on our traditional July 4th dinner plate used to be so famously local it was known in Boston and New York restaurants as Kennebec salmon—that is, until the river was too dammed and polluted for the fish to spawn.
Those new potatoes on that typical July 4th plate beside the salmon, those Maine potatoes once famously part of our state’s identity, come from the Inca people in the mountains of Peru. As we are just discovering, they grew many different sizes and colors, all of them so nutritious and delicious that we’re growing them here now. Purple potatoes, blue potatoes, yellow potatoes, pink potatoes along with “local” varieties called Kennebecs and Katadins. There was a Maine farmer back in the 1990s who came to his nearest farmers’ market with about 15 different kinds. Among them was an Austrian pink and a Russian banana, giving you an idea of where they were “local.”
Those peas next to the potatoes on the July 4th plate? Maybe you did get them from your local farmer because they ripen just in time for the celebration, but they actually come from south Asia. That took a lot of doing. English botanists and the American Thomas Jefferson, who was a curious farmer before he was a politician, set themselves to taking the protein-rich Indian split pea and breeding, rebreeding until those tiny peas swelled into the chickpea size pea we know today. That’s why they are usually labeled English peas, or shelling peas, or garden peas. You can see in the French petit pois, little peas, what must have been the halfway point.
Those strawberries on your shortcake
for the holiday dessert took a lot of
doing too but here’s the good news:
They started out here, a small wild
woodland berry along America’s northeastern coast. It was red and heart shaped and spread via underground runners and birds dropping its seeds. Its cousins grew all over the planet. They were known to the ancient Romans. The first ships back to Europe in the early 1600s transported some of these wild red berries and the French took to planting them alongside similar tiny woodland berries from the Alpine region—what we call the alpine or wild strawberry, which continuously bears fruit during summer. Then a Frenchman who was really into this found in Chile a much larger red heart-shaped berry. It’s thought that planting all these together and cross pollinating produced what we know and love as the fat juicy strawberry. European settlers brought this familiar now-cultivated strawberry back to America in the 1700s. So what’s on your July 4th strawberry shortcake is and isn’t native/local.
Nobody can say that about the whipped cream on top. The dairy industry that’s become iconic in New England—think Vermont—is not native. There were no dairy cows, or any cows, on this continent before the British brought them here so they could have milk. This is the same way that the Spaniards shipped their beef cattle to Mexico and the Southwest so they could eat steak. Ranching comes from Spain where cattle ranches are known as fincas. Native Americans ate bison/buffalo.
Now we know the French who came to our part of the New World were mostly Breton sailors and Brittany with its abutting province Normandy has always been the dairy center of France. So the French (who do love their cheese, cream and butter) likely had a cow or two up there in Canada and here in Acadia. We know the fishermen used to have huge iron cauldrons known as chaudieres, which translates as hot pots, into which they would throw whatever they were going to eat—fish, dried corn, potatoes—along with water to cook it and then add milk to enhance the color, texture and nutrition. And their chaudiere suppers gave us our word and beloved now local dish: “chowder.”
As Howard Johnson’s proved, other folks like our local food too. Just as we like theirs. Reciprocity has been going on for millennia. We eat mostly transplants. Go to your local farmers’ market this week and check out the homemade breads. Maybe their grains came from the burgeoning farms around Skowhegan but wheat—the domesticated grass—is native to what was ancient Mesopotamia, now Iraq, whose people still bake a variety of breads with it. You were able to see this at what used to be Ameera Bakery on Forest Avenue in Portland. Their idea of bread is different from, say, high-rise raisin pecan loaf or olive bread. Wheat plants were brought to our continent by missionary Spanish friars along with olives and grapes. They needed wheat for communion wafers just as they also needed wine for communion and oil for lamps and anointing. That’s how California got to be the center of olive oil and wine production.
You may be waiting for Thanksgiving to be as American as apple pie and make one from our cornucopia of Maine apples, but this fruit and its tree are local to the mountains of Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. We’d call that the crabapple but it’s the ancestor of our Fujis and Honeycrisps and Cortlands, etc. It’s a hardy, flexible plant that’s been transplanted over half the earth with fruits—red, yellow, green—getting bigger and bigger. It was likely English colonists who brought apple seeds to Maine and the East Coast of the United States. Most famously they were spread all over the interior by a man who entered history as Johnny Appleseed. He didn’t do it for the pie. Apples were heavily planted in America for cider, hard cider, not because everyone wanted to get drunk, but because water was never safe to drink. The human body needs liquid and since alcohol kills bacteria, it was in demand for safe drinks.
Ironically, Prohibition put an end to all the hard cider and stills, leaving homesteads and farms with piles of apples. That’s when the image of the once-maligned fruit thought of as the root of all evil—think Snow White and Eve in Eden, not only drunken men—was polished up by marketers to be fit for the teacher and as American as pie. Maine produces lots of apples—heritage and nouveau sold as local.
And so it goes, the food network. Carrots?
From Afghanistan. Broccoli? Italy. Rhubarb?
It grows wild in Mongolia, where it was
discovered by Northern Chinese to have
medicinal benefits, but it should be said a Mainer was first to import it. Chilies? From Mexico and Central America. Chicken? It was domesticated in Southeast Asia from a small wild bird and wasn’t particularly popular around here until World War II when it was the only meat not rationed and people could raise chicks in their backyard.
You may think of Italy when you think of tomatoes or maybe Spanish gazpacho, but the fruit is native to central Mexico. (Tomatoes are legally a fruit because the seeds are inside.) We call it almost exactly what the locals did: in Nahuatl it’s a tomatl. The conquistadores liked it so much they took seeds back to Spain where it became tomate. It did not become popular. It became terrifying, like COVID-19 virus. For one thing, it was in the nightshade family, which includes the poisonous belladonna. For another, people were dying from eating it. Turns out its high acid content caused the lead in their pots to leach into their dinner. Lead poisoning was killing them. It really wasn’t until mid-19th century when the Neapolitans crushed it and slathered it on their flatbread—no pot!—to make pizza that the world finally went bananas for tomatoes.
Now that gourmets have discovered the ultimate Italian tomato sauce is made from San Marzano tomatoes, everybody is growing this variety of plum tomato everywhere. But actually, the real San Marzano tomatoes, the truly local ones, come from about 150 acres outside of Naples around the small town of San Marzano, whose volcanic soil and climate put the famous flavor in them. They are not the same San Marzano tomato offered at your local farmers’ market.
Terroir will do that. Think of wine. Think of the Maine strawberry. Terroir has made it truly local, by which I mean unique. You can buy all those fat oversized California strawberries you want, but you won’t get any flavor from any of them. You need the rocky, mineral laden, weather-challenged soil of Maine to bring out the best in strawberries. And you can’t say a Maine lobster is anything like the spiny lobsters of Northern Europe. So in the end, local matters!