Midcoast Liveratti

Maine’s most exclusive party is a BYOOB (Bring Your Own Onions and Bacon) affair.

By Sandy Oliver
Midcoast Liveratti

Illustrated by Christine Mitchell Adams.

People sidle up to Babs in the grocery store, telling her confidentially and hopefully, “I like liver and onions too.” If they’re lucky, then Babs (this is not her real name) will put them on the waiting list for a coveted invitation to what may be the most exclusive dinner party on the midcoast: Liver and Onions, familiarly known as L&O. For a new person to advance to the L&O guest list, a current participant has to move away, decline to attend, or die, and that doesn’t happen very often.

Twice a summer, Babs rearranges her sprawling living area, bringing in tables and chairs to accommodate roughly two-dozen diners and arranges a bar out on the deck, which has a spectacular view of Penobscot Bay. The L&O crowd consists of liver aficionados, often one of a duo, the other half of which is overjoyed to be left at home. Says one guest, “I have to take my clothes off in the mudroom and put them in the washer when I go home, because my wife doesn’t want the smell of fried liver in the house.”

This rare opportunity to gather among kindred spirits obsessed with calf’s liver doesn’t come without responsibilities. L&O depends on participants to bring all the food except the calf’s liver, which Babs provides. The invitation specifies each guest’s duty: “Mashed potatoes for 10.” “A pound of bacon.” “Six to eight sliced onions.” “One bag of frozen green peas.” “Dessert for 10.” These assignments are for life.

Guests do the cooking too, at the gas stove or one of three or four electric frying pans that Babs unpacks for the occasion and deploys around her kitchen. The first time I attended, she said, “I’m putting an apron on you.” If I was already thrilled to be invited, there are no words to describe becoming one of the five or six chosen cooks.

While everyone else mills around on the deck, drinks in hand, or sneaks into the kitchen to swipe a piece of bacon from under swaddling paper towels, we cooks take our duty seriously. Equipped with a pair of tongs, a gin and tonic, and a pan with the dial set to 350 degrees, I open a package of bacon and start bringing it to a fine crispness. Next, I dump onions into the bacon fat, raising a glorious cloud of fragrant steam, cooking them until they are perfectly soft and golden. My glasses fog up in the greasy haze. (One time, all those electric frying pans working at once blew a fuse, so the gents trooped down into the cellar to ponder the switch box. Power restored, we resumed frying.)

I have to take my clothes off in the mudroom when I go home, because my wife doesn’t want the smell of fried liver in the house.

When Babs sees that the bacon is done and drained and the onions meltingly perfect, she musters the mashed potatoes, puts out peas and salad, and distributes the frozen slabs of liver. We aim for medium-rare, slightly pink inside.

Babs alerts the congregants to line up for their allotment — no dawdling, or the liver will be overcooked — and we load each plate with a generous portion of liver, heaped with onions and garnished with strips of bacon. Each diner serves himself mashed potatoes, peas, and salad.

Deprived of liver and onions at home, attendees are extra happy to be there. They probably don’t need entertainment in addition to good food, but Babs has a game organizer who devises post-dinner, inter-table amusements, and diners participate good-naturedly.

It was on a July weekend several years ago that Babs first collected a handful of her liver-loving friends for the inaugural L&O. It went over so well that more people came the next year, and even more thereafter. Clearly, a second night was in order. Now there’s an L&O I in July and an L&O II in September. Some claim — spuriously — that one is much more fun than the other. L&O is even the subject of an ode penned by one who brings mashed potatoes — but I will not share it, because it names names and reveals the location and Babs doesn’t want any party crashers.

In truth, you don’t need to know who and where, or pine for an invitation. You can make your own L&O. I did. All I had to do was tell friends what a great time I had at a liver and onions party, and those who love the stuff evinced envy and immediately formed themselves into a guest list. I turned to Babs for advice on quantities. “For 10 people, I’m guessing eight to 10 onions, sliced. Two pans, so that’s two packages of bacon — one package per pan. And three boxes of calf’s liver (four pieces per box).” Don’t forget to ask guests to bring mashed potatoes and peas; add a salad and guarantee a dessert. And that’s it: your recipe for a stinking good time.

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Sandy Oliver

Sandy Oliver, who lives on Islesboro, is a food historian and the author of Maine Home Cooking and Food in Colonial and Federal America.