Of Food & Fiddles
At the Maine Fiddle Camp in Montville, music isn't the only thing on the menu.
I blame Mr. Cobb, my elementary-school band teacher, for the fact that I was peeling potatoes in the kitchen at Maine Fiddle Camp instead of, say, practicing Irish jigs with auburn-haired maidens under a colorful tent. Mr. Cobb never liked me or my saxophone playing, the latter of which was understandable. I took up the instrument on the mistaken assumption that it couldn't be much harder to master than the kazoo, which I felt produced a similar tone. When it came time for the annual holiday concert, Old Man Cobb cruelly assigned me a solo on "Good King Wenceslas" that Coltrane would have found challenging. I blew it, and my career as a musician was over.
But not my love of music. [Click here to hear music from the camp. For the rest of this story, see the April 2008 issue of Down East.]So it was that I found myself, for the second summer in a row, attending Maine Fiddle Camp with my wife, Sarah (who is learning fiddle), and our son, Whit, a journeyman cellist. Now in its fourteenth year, Maine's fiddle gathering takes place in August at an Oddfellows camp in Montville, on the reedy shore of True's Pond. There, during each of two one-week sessions, more than two hundred musicians of all ages forget about important things like the mortgage and Manny Ramirez to do nothing but play music. They play on fiddles, guitars, cellos, banjos, mandolins, pianos, and pipes, in groups large and small, from beginning to advanced. By day the camp breaks up into workshops led by staff members, and evenings are devoted to lively concerts and dances under several tents.
All that would be enough for me - but there was more. Maine Fiddle Camp is also legendary for its food, which happens to be another passion of mine. Although there are better known fiddle camps around the country, the Maine event is famed as by far the most delicious. "Some have good food, but this is the best," says Lissa Schneckenburger, a Vermont-based fiddler and recording artist who has taught at more than a dozen music camps.
The food at Maine Fiddle Camp is not particularly fancy or gourmet. What makes it special is that it's mostly Maine grown, mostly organic, and made from scratch daily. Even the tempeh - a food I thought I didn't like until fiddle camp - is crafted on site from raw soybeans.
But the defining characteristic of the menu is less the food than the process: everything from the breakfast granola to the stir-fried chicken is prepared by an army of camper volunteers, which explains why the entire week costs just three hundred dollars including all meals and workshops. Camp director Doug Protsik, of Woolwich, explains that keeping costs down is important, but more to the point is the collective spirit inspired by the program. "The food reflects the philosophy of the whole camp," he says. "This is a community of musicians, working and playing together, and helping each other." In effect, by rejecting institutional cafeteria food, Maine Fiddle Camp has created a new institutional model.
Even an army of citizen chefs needs generals, and the brass in the fiddle camp kitchen consists of a remarkable duo under the name Second Breakfast - business partners Tim Johnson, of Brunswick, and Marada Cook, of Grand Isle in Aroostook County. Tim and Marada are professional in the sense that they are paid, and caterers in the sense that they show up with sacks of flour and stacks of sheet pans, but compared to conventional caterers, they are what pepper is to salt. They bring no brigades of canap`-passing college students, just a cultivated network of farmers and fishermen who deliver positively the best Maine has to offer. In fact, Marada is herself an organic farmer as well as a fiddler; Tim has worked as a clam digger and is also a luthier - that is, one who makes and repairs string instruments. Together their lack of pretense, multiple skills, and reverence for what really matters when it comes to food seem to me a particularly Maine way of approaching the question of how to feed 220 hungry musicians. So it was with enthusiasm that I hooked up with Tim in the kitchen on Sunday afternoon as camp got under way.
Tim greets me warmly, and we set to work unloading fifty-pound sacks of organic potatoes from a truck that had rolled down from the County. Tim is forty-four and of compact build, with a mischievous grin and a conspiratorial eyebrow arch that suggests he might have been a kid who got into charming sorts of trouble. His catering van is a de-commissioned ambulance that he has converted into a refrigerator truck, and he is perfectly happy with any resulting confusion on the road. "The alternating blinking high-beams are very effective," he says.
Marada makes only a brief appearance today - she had a baby two weeks earlier - and for now Tim seems to exist on a molecular level - a blur passing through the screen door, assigning jobs like mincing half a gallon of garlic, making yogurt, shredding cheddar cheese, and preparing fourteen trays of granola for tomorrow's breakfast. "I don't do much food prep in advance," he says as we arrange propane flat-top grills, ovens, and stainless steel prep tables under a large party tent behind the kitchen. (The indoor kitchen, which isn't large enough for all the volunteers, serves mainly as a staging area for serving up the buffet-style meals.) "Mainly because I just like my food really fresh."
Like the chocolate pastries that fiddle camp is famous for. On Monday morning Tim hands me an eleven-pound block of Belgian chocolate that needs to be chopped. As he rolls out short dough on a nearby maple table, he talks about the art of managing volunteers. "I can't boss these workers around, but I have to make sure things are done right and food is handled safely," he says.
I wander up front to help Marada, who is baking focaccia while her baby boy dozes in a sling around her shoulder. (Her partner, Ryan, is also helping in the kitchen. Tim also has a partner and a young boy, who are not at camp.) Marada, 25, is tall and fair with a striking mane of curly red hair. She looks like one of those heroic farmwomen in a Soviet mural, and it doesn't take much to get her going on agriculture. "We buy flour made from wheat grown in Maine," she says. It comes from a co-op that includes her father's organic farm in Aroostook County, which she now manages. "I try to get as much as possible from local farms. Most of the farmers I work with buy their seeds from Johnny's and Fedco, so the money stays in Maine."
Both she and Tim are instinctive and physical cooks: they stab at food, toss handfuls of herbs, pounce like cats on balls of dough. Marada is like Pollock with a pastry brush, drizzling bold swipes of rosemary-infused olive oil over focaccia loaves before launching them like an Olympian into blazing ovens; in her hands, flour stands no chance.
Several of us stay up until after midnight helping Tim start the fermentation culture for the tempeh - a tricky process that requires absolute sterility. The work is hard and focused, but we're hardly alone as half the camp is still up jamming on fiddles. Tuesday morning I show up at six to de-breast fifty chickens from a farm in Warren. Other volunteers have been hard at work on breakfast since before five - pouring omelets, flipping blueberry pancakes, and brewing vats of coffee, which smell pretty good after five hours' sleep.
The camp rings with string music as workshops gather for the morning session. Enjoyable as it is to hack away at poultry to the strains of "Oh Susanna," I feel a bit like Cinderella, toiling in the scullery while everyone else is having a gay time. When I hear about a beginner's workshop in the stand-up bass - hey, it's only got four strings, how hard could it be? - I steal away for an hour.
The workshop is taught by Corey DiMario, the gangly and cheerful bassist for the hip string band Crooked Still. Corey apparently travels nowhere without a few extra basses, and a dozen or so of us novices take turns wielding the monsters and getting comfortable with what Corey calls "the sheer physicality of the instrument." To be a bassist, he instructs, you don't have to be big: "Mostly you have to be the person willing to lug the thing to gigs." I like Corey's attitude, but it turns out that playing bass is easily as difficult as the saxophone. By Wednesday I am back where I belong, facing the stove.
With wet feet. It is raining gushers today, and the rain cascades in plumes off the kitchen tent, pooling in an evil brown moat around our workspace. Not much else is going well either. My shoulders ache from standing for days. The flow of fresh volunteers has slowed, and we're behind on lunch. It's nearly noon, and campers are heading for the dining hall. Meals can't be late; there's a schedule to keep. Two hundred hungry people staring at you can be a little scary, even if you are holding a sharp knife. I try to write that down in my notebook, but my pen is clogged with chocolate.
During the afternoon concert Tim mounts the main stage and makes a plea for more volunteers. The appeal works; on Thursday the kitchen is mobbed with eager helpers, and my main task is keeping little kids an arm's length away from the mussels I'm saut`ing in white wine, pan after pan.
Friday is the last day of camp, and I'm amazed that genuinely talented musicians are treating the core kitchen crew like we're rock stars. I need to return my rented camper in the morning, and driving back to camp along Route 3 in Palermo, I notice a farm stand with gladiolas for sale. I stop and pick up a bunch for Marada. Back at camp I head for the back door of the kitchen with my flowers, when, totally unbeknownst to me - and I know this kind of thing only happens in movies but you'll have to trust me - the entire camp parades in through the front door playing "The Britches Full of Stitches" in unison. They have come to thank us, without words. The camp dining hall is small, and a couple of hundred fiddles make a lot of sound, and the music rises to a din so loud that talk is impossible and all we can do is stand with our jaws agape and listen to the tribute, and watch tears streak down Marada's face as she clutches her flowers like a diva at curtain call.
Weeks after fiddle camp I find myself still humming that song. I'm also using my cookbooks a lot less, instead trusting my instincts and tossing around the spices. I know I'll be back at fiddle camp next year, working in the kitchen, and maybe even trying my hand at another instrument. Could the pennywhistle be that hard?
IF YOU GO:
The camps this year are June 13 - 15; August 3 - 8; and August 10 - 15. 207-443-5411. www.mainefiddle.org To hear recordings from past camps, visit DownEast.com.
- By: Max Alexander