In the Maine Kitchen
A Culinary Conversation in Five Acts
- By: Kathleen Fleury
- Photography by: Benjamin Magro
Cast of Cooks:
Sandy: A noted food historian, Sandra Oliver is a topnotch home cook. Award-winning author of Saltwater Foodways and Food in Colonial and Federal America, Sandy writes a weekly recipe column for the Bangor Daily News. In her not-so-plentiful spare time, she tends to her garden, farmhouse, and two pigs at her year-round home on Islesboro. She contributed a new foreword and recipe notes to the updated edition of Marjorie Mosser’s Good Maine Food.
Melissa: A James Beard Award-winning chef, Melissa Kelly opened Primo Restaurant in Rockland in 1999. Now with sister restaurants in Tucson and Orlando and a book, Mediterranean Women Stay Slim, Too, Melissa is a nationally acclaimed chef at the forefront of the local and seasonal food movement. She provided nearly twenty new recipes, recipe notes, and a foreword to the new edition of Marjorie Standish’s Cooking Down East.
A Friday morning in late fall in the kitchen of Primo Restaurant in Rockland. The two women have gathered at Primo, along with an editor and photographer, to discuss their recent involvement in updating two classic Maine cookbooks. Melissa is simultaneously preparing for the night’s dinner service. Thus, several pots simmer on the massive stovetop — locally harvested elderberries, a steaming brew of tomatoes, a large vat of what will become fresh ricotta cheese. Over the course of the conversation, Melissa strains the cheese and dollops it on toasted crusty bread that she then drizzles with freshly harvested honey from the restaurant’s own hives for the group to sample. The women cover many topics over two hours, but throughout there is an overwhelming sense of a shared sensibility: a palpable reverence for Maine culinary traditions and for thoughtful, sustainable cooking.
On Traditional Maine Food
Sandy: Maine, interestingly enough, has often been a poor state. We were a poor district of Massachusetts for a long time. There’s a lot of poverty in this state. There’s a lot of hard-times cookery. But like peasant cookery, it’s actually extraordinarily wholesome because you don’t get the refined stuff. So we draw on that basic tradition, layering over with a little bit of hardscrabble and you get a pretty vigorous tradition. Not terribly interesting sometimes, though.
Melissa [interjecting]: But super fresh. We have seafood, we have the beans, and the potatoes. We have a good growing season, really.
Sandy: We really do, actually. Good grains, you know, and beans. There’s nothing wrong with that food. It’s good food. It’s never been very stylish. Maine food got turned around in the very late 1800s to early 1900s when the rusticators started coming to our state and snickered at our foodways. So Mainers had to clean up their act a little bit, maybe put on a little style. But lots of Mainers found that they could just rest on their tradition. Good stuff like codfish cakes and baked beans —
Melissa [interjecting]: Finnan haddie.
Sandy: Yeah, finnan haddie. Good trout. Good plain stuff. And people were charmed by it. They had this sense of being connected to the past.
Melissa: I think Mainers are ingenius, too, with the smoking, and the curing and using all of those things in your food . . . the canning. Later in the year it gives you little sparks here and there, even if it was kind of plain and boring.
Sandy: That’s right.
On Cooking from Their Gardens
Sandy*: That damn garden just drives my cookery all summer long. I don’t have any choice at all. If there are beans, you eat the damn beans. If you’ve got broccoli, I’m sorry you don’t feel like broccoli, that’s what you’re going to eat today. Unless I can find a way to put it away and make it good for another month, there’s no choice. Because I allow it to, it pushes my cookery. It makes me say, “Okay, well, we can’t do broccoli quite the same way as two nights ago. What else can I possibly do with this?” It makes me think and work and try things. And I kind of like that — I get really irritated with it. But there it is, right on my tail.
Melissa**: It also forces you to be seasonal to the moment, and to eat food at its peak freshness, peak vitamin-richness that wasn’t stored or shipped or sitting on a shelf for a week. You’re getting every single benefit you possibly can from your food.
Sandy: And the flavor! People just don’t know what food really can taste like! I can’t tell you how many of our CSA [community supported agriculture] customers this summer said, “Oh, that cabbage was so good.” They’ve never had good cabbage before. They think there’s something special about my cabbage. It’s special because it’s fresh! They’re eating it two days after it’s been cut. You’re eating fresh food, that’s what it should taste like. It’s a whole different experience.
*Sandy has more than eighty-three different varieties of vegetables in her garden on Islesboro. She runs a small CSA.
** Melissa has close to two acres of gardens and several greenhouses at Primo. She has no idea how many vegetables she grows, but to put it in perspective, she has more than forty different kinds of tomatoes alone.
On Eating the Whole Animal
Melissa: I think chefs are getting back to [eating the whole animal] and people are getting back to it with the whole sustainable agriculture and farmers’ market movement. People are buying locally and supporting small farms. So maybe they go in with neighbors and buy half a cow. For the restaurant I buy whole lamb, sides of beef, whole veal, pigs. When you buy a whole product you have a different connection to your food versus going to a supermarket and getting something on a Styrofoam packaged wrapped up. A lot of people today don’t even equate where that came from, not even that it’s an animal.
Sandy [nodding]: That’s right.
Melissa: Some people say, “It’s so expensive to eat local, grass-fed beef.” And I say, not if you know how to cook. Because you take all those little goodies and make something very special rather than putting a big prime rib on the plate.
Sandy: It shows a lot of respect. I mean, if you’re going to raise your own animals, or if you’re going to buy locally, to eat the whole creature shows a lot of respect for it, and its life.
Melissa [earnestly]: . . . the ultimate thanks.
Sandy: It really is.
Melissa: Celebrate it. Make the most of it.
Sandy: And besides that, I think one of the things that a lot of us have just completely forgotten, or overlooked, is that all the different parts of the creature have different nutrients. In past times, people were able to absorb these nutrients by eating all these different parts. People craved liver in a way that none of us are ever going to crave liver. People looked for livers. They just [pause] wanted to eat it so badly.
Melissa: The body needed it.
Sandy [nodding]: Their bodies needed it. And they were listening to their bodies. We just take supplements. We don’t eat the whole animal.
On Raising Pigs to Eat
Melissa [Standing beneath a house-cured leg of pork hanging from the ceiling]: Our pigs this year are so friendly.
[Sandy lets out a squeal of delight.]
Melissa: We got them from Olde Sow Farm.
Sandy: I really wish people would commit to pig breeding. Jaime [Sandy’s husband] had to go two hours inland to find pigs.
Melissa: Do you get them every year?
Sandy: We try to.
Melissa: The biggest pig we had last year was sixty pounds heavier than the others. He was like 340 pounds. One of his legs was forty pounds.
On Revisiting Classic Cookbooks
Sandy: Marjorie Standish’s book has legs. When I’m writing my column for the Bangor Daily News, and I ask for a recipe for blueberry muffins, people send me the recipes copied out of her book [Perfect Blueberry Muffins]. It’s just what people think it is.
Melissa: I like her classics like the Melt-in-Your-Mouth Blueberry Cake. I like the fun of Nuts and Bolts. I’m mesmerized by the Sterno recipe [Broiled Cocktail Frankfurters].
Sandy: The Standish book really captures Maine food in the twentieth century very well. Marjorie Mosser’s book helps us understand our longing for some lost traditions.
Melissa: Because when traditions and culture seem to be lost as time goes on, you can look back and revisit, it might spark something in you to bring it back —
Sandy: Yeah, that’s right.
Melissa: — to keep it alive.
Sandy: That’s right.
Melissa: That’s why I cook.
Sandy: The past is actually full of a lot of really great ideas. I’ve talked to lots of modern chefs who just think basil sorbet is such a big whoop. It was done four hundred years ago, something of the sort.
Melissa: Nobody’s reinventing the wheel.
Sandy: Nobody’s reinventing anything.
[Melissa laughs quietly.]
Sandy: But you can get reinspired —
Melissa [affirmingly]: Absolutely.
Sandy: — by old recipes.
Melissa: I totally do. I love to keep a foot in the past and a foot in the future, to take an old recipe and just update it. Like a lot of Standish’s recipes were taking margarine. I use butter. Or olive oil. Or lots of fresh herbs instead of Accent seasoning which was all the rage back then. It is to me such a timeline in food.
Sandy: You get the basic structure of the dish, the classic dish. Then you can mess with it.
Melissa: Yeah, bring it up to today.
Sandy: It’s like interior decorating a perfectly good old house.
Easiest Chicken Casserole
1 (5-ounce) jar chicken or 1 1/2 to 2 cups cooked chicken
1 no. 2 can Chinese noodles
1 small can evaporated milk
1 can cream of mushroom soup
1 can chicken and rice soup
1 cup diced celery
Preheat oven to 300°F. Cut chicken into small pieces, mix with noodles, undiluted evaporated milk, mushroom soup, chicken with rice soup, and the diced celery. No seasoning needed. Turn into buttered casserole (use a 6 1/2-by-10-inch glass baking dish). Top mixture with buttered crumbs. Bake very slowly for 1 1/2hours. This slow baking is important, so do not hurry it.
Melissa’s Recipe Chicken and Rice
This recipe of Marjorie’s (Easiest Chicken Casserole) epitomizes the sign of the times. I think this is when we first started to go wrong with our food and started using all of this prepared foods, canned products instead of fresh, from-scratch food. It seemed to be mostly about convenience. Today many of us are going back to the old ways, using fresh, local products and cooking meals from scratch. It is more time consuming, but the results are truly worth it.
4 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups chicken stock
1 pint heavy cream
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
salt and freshly ground white pepper
2 cups cooked chicken meat, pulled from the bone, or 6 chicken thighs, seasoned with salt and pepper, and roasted in a 400°F oven for 25 minute, then sliced.
Heat a saucepot over medium heat. Add the butter and melt. Stir in the flour and cook until incorporated. Slowly whisk in the chicken stock, stirring until it comes to a boil. Turn down to a medium-low heat and continue to cook for 10 minutes. Add the cream and cook for another 10 minutes. Add the cheese and fresh herbs and then season with salt and pepper to taste.
Mix in the cooked chicken and serve over rice. Serves 4 to 6.
variation: *Add diced cooked vegetables, 1/2 cup each of carrot, celery, peas, and broccoli.
Excerpted from the new edition of Cooking Down East by Marjorie Standish, Down East Books, Camden, Maine; 254 pages, $27.95. www.DownEast.com
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup molasses
1/2 cup sour milk
2 tablespoons melted butter
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
3/4 teaspoon soda
5 teaspoons baking powder
5 cups sifted flour
Beat egg; gradually add sugar, molasses, milk, and butter. Add mixed and sifted dry ingredients, stirring until well mixed. Turn out on floured board and roll 1/4 inch thick. Cut with floured doughnut cutter and fry in hot deep fat, until a golden brown. Drain on brown paper and sugar.
“Molasses to sweeten doughnuts hearkens to Maine’s past when molasses was more affordable than white sugar. This recipe will yield a gingerbread-flavored doughnut. Molasses doughnuts are now a rare item in doughnut shops, more’s the pity.” —Sandra Oliver
Excerpted from the new edition of Good Maine Food by Marjorie Mosser, Down East Books, Camden, Maine; 472 pages; $29.95. www.DownEast.com
- By: Kathleen Fleury
- Photography by: Benjamin Magro