North by East
The Language of Lobster
In Europe, Christmas dinner includes the distinctive taste of Maine.
Lobsters are pretty much summer food in Maine, but each December Bill Atwood, president of Atwood Lobster in Spruce Head, and other lobster dealers in the state send millions of pounds of Maine's favorite sea bug to Europe. In Paris, Milan, and Madrid, grilled or sauteed lobster has become a traditional Christmas dish, like Thanksgiving turkey is over here.
"Every December we get a two-week spike in orders to Europe that you wouldn't believe," Atwood says. Although overseas markets are now a year-round business for Atwood, who operates the largest lobster company in Maine, he remembers the days back in the early 1980s when a consortium of local lobster dealers would pack seventy thousand to ninety thousand pounds of lobster aboard chartered planes flying out of Bangor bound for supermarkets in Paris and Brussels.
The business began when catches of Scottish lobsters, which are quite similar to the Maine variety, went into decline. First Canadian and then American lobster dealers stepped in to fill the vacuum in France and Belgium, which have a strong tradition of serving elaborate seafood feasts at Christmas. These days the Christmas market includes Italy, Spain, Portugal, and other countries.
Although Scottish catches have rebounded, the market is still large enough to absorb five million pounds or more of American crustaceans each Christmas, plus even more from Canada. "We ship almost a million pounds every December all by ourselves, and we're not the largest American dealer," Atwood notes. Kristen Millar at the Maine Lobster Promotion Council puts the value of the European Christmas lobster market at $45 million.
Ironically, because lobsters from the Maritime Provinces were the first to cross the Atlantic to France, Maine bugs were long known as Canadian lobsters. "We've built up our profile in recent years," Atwood says. "It helps that we can ship lobsters there between July and October, when the Canadian season is closed."
Cooking a lobster in Europe goes well beyond just boiling or steaming. "You see a lot of grilled lobster over there," Atwood says, "especially in Italy. One of the best lobsters I've had in my life was in Calais, France, split down the middle and served with a sauce that tasted more like lobster than the lobster did. It cost seventy dollars, but it was worth it."
Maine in the Media
We get discovered — again.
We should be used to this by now. Each summer the national media goes through a new rediscovery of Maine. Writers get all giggly over our plethora of pine trees and picturesque fishermen. Photographers can't get enough of our lobster traps and islands.
Take Vogue magazine, for example. A recent issue featured a fashion spread of a waifish young lady seemingly addicted to plaids surrounded by stalwart lobstermen in slickers and sou'wester hats. Shot in Port Clyde, just a short haul from our Rockport offices, we heard that the locals who were lured into posing with the teenaged model got quite a chuckle out of it. The model, as it turned out, quickly shed her death mask make-up and tartans to go bowling and shopping with their daughters, and by all reports she had a heckuva good time.
Then there was the Men's Health item urging readers to avoid the crowds and take a schooner cruise along the Maine coast in autumn. The magazine waxed poetic about sailing past "pristine wilderness isles" such as Vinalhaven and Matinicus and pausing for a shorefront lobster bake.
"I don't think anyone out here ever saw that," observes Steve Heddericg, one of the thousand or so year-round residents amid Vinalhaven's wilderness. "You know, I've see this phenomenon for years, the flurry of articles about Maine that pop up in the national press. I always figure writers who vacation up here think if they write something they can claim part of the trip on their taxes or something."
All the articles, from the now-institutionalized New York Times piece musing on L.L. Bean's lack of a lock on its front door to the insidery Gourmet tip about the woman on Swans Island with the perfect lobster bisque recipe, have a common theme, though. They celebrate a place that they see as still authentic in a larger world full of artifice and concrete. It's as if Maine is the last real place on earth, a Down East Brigadoon full of salty characters and undeveloped shorefront. And the great part is, they're right.
That's not a bad reputation to have.
Competitors hop on Oakhurst Dairy's hormone-free milk bandwagon.
Back in 2003, Stan Bennett of Oakhurst Dairy in Portland was busy playing David to pharmaceutical Goliath Monsanto, which had sued to stop Oakhurst from advertising that its milk is free from artificial growth hormones. Oakhurst's policy, which had been in effect for nearly a decade, was good news for Maine dairy farmers, who continue to be paid a premium for supplying the company with hormone-free milk. But it was bad news for Monsanto, which produces the hormones and didn't appreciate a little dairy in Maine implying that there was something wrong with them.
The case was settled three years ago this month when Oakhurst agreed to add a statement to its labels noting that the FDA has found no significant difference in milk from cows treated with artificial growth hormones. And Bennett thought that was that.
Recently, though, two large dairies announced that they'd follow in Oakhurst's footsteps. Dallas, Texas-based Dean Foods, which sells milk under the Garelick brand name locally, and Chelsea, Massachusetts-based H.P. Hood said they're now requiring that farmers supply them with milk from cows that haven't been treated with the hormones.
"I guess imitation is the most sincere form of flattery," says Bennett, who seems nonplussed by the fact that the big guys have decided Oakhurst's policy is worth copying. "We think it's a great opportunity to remind folks here in Maine that we were the first dairy to take this position; we never used artificial growth hormones in our milk, and we never will."
Now if only Dean Foods and Hood would chip in on those legal bills. . . .
A Warming Trend
Enjoy that ice while you can.
Maine lakes used to be pretty dependable in the winter; they froze early, thawed late, and offered great fishing and skating. Glenn Hodgkins, who grew up on the shore of Sebago Lake west of Portland, remembers watching the annual freeze-thaw cycle. These days, Hodgkins works for the U.S. Geological Survey office in Augusta, and he says folks better enjoy those frozen lakes while they can this winter, because they're thawing a lot earlier than they once did.
Hodgkins is the lead researcher in a study of 150 years of ice-out data collected for twenty-two lakes in Maine and seven others in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. He discovered that ice-outs now come nine days earlier in northern and western Maine than they did in the nineteenth century, and open water arrives a full sixteen days earlier in southern Maine.
"The genesis of this goes back more than ten years ago, when one of my coworkers, Ivan Jones, came across a bunch of ice-out dates written on the wall of an old cabin in northern Maine," Hodgkins explains. "We started looking for more, and we found a man in Portland, Charles Fobes, who had been gathering information since the 1940s on ice-out dates for various lakes."
Other information came from power companies, paper mills, and municipal records. "Maine is incredibly rich in data because the rivers and lakes were so important to the state's industries in the past," he adds. "We found more long-term — more than a hundred years — data for Maine and New England than had been previously known for all of North America. Sebago Lake alone, we found information going back to 1807."
Hodgkins says he was surprised at the data's consistency across so many different lakes, from Sebago in the south to Eagle Lake in Aroostook County. The difference between northern and western Maine lakes and those in southern Maine is attributable to the snow cover, he explains. "A spell of warm weather will melt through four inches of snow on Sebago a lot sooner than it will melt two feet of snow on Moosehead," he offers.
Hodgkins and his coworkers used the data to estimate how much air temperatures had changed over the intervening years. "Temperatures increased 2.6 degrees Fahrenheit between 1850 and 2000," he concludes. Much of the change has occurred in the past thirty to forty years, when graphs of ice-out dates show a precipitous drop. Hodgkins says research on river ice-out dates and spring snowmelt runoff in Maine also supports the lakes' data.
What is causing the shift? "That's the question everyone asks," Hodgkins says with a laugh. He's not prepared to say anything officially. "There's a change taking place, definitely," he allows. And Maine's ice skaters and fishermen had best adapt.
Some warranties are better than others in Maine.
It's one of Murphy's Laws — any item bought with a warranty will fail the day after the manufacturer's warranty expires. Except in Maine.
Well, the item may still fail, but the warranty may not, because Maine is one of only ten states that have an implied warranty in their Uniform Commercial Code (UCC). It holds manufacturers and retailers responsible for many of their products for up to four years after purchase, rather than the one or two years most manufacturers offer.
"If you buy an item for household use, the law says it can't be seriously defective, and if it is, the seller has to fix it for free," explains Jim McKenna, an assistant attorney general in the consumer protection division of the Maine Attorney Generals Office. Because the UCC has a four-year statute of limitations, "the consumer has an implied warranty for up to four years," McKenna says.
The law doesn't give the consumer a flat money-back guarantee, he emphasizes. "The older an item is, the harder it is to prove it was defective when it was bought," he cautions. And there is a difference between a manufacturer's defect "and something that simply wore out from heavy use," he notes. An added factor with personal computers is their portability and potential for being damaged. "You have to prove the item was defective and you didn't abuse it," McKenna says. The consumer also has to prove he or she has owned the item for less than four years — so save those Christmas receipts.
The warranty applies only to goods bought in Maine. McKenna can't estimate how often consumers invoke it in dealing with retailers, but he knows that his office's mediation service "handles a lot of implied warranty complaints." Still, it's a consumer benefit that remains largely unknown to many consumers — and to businesses, for that matter. But knowing about it may make those new Christmas presents just a little more enjoyable.
Make Room, Make Room!
Self-storage facilities are the new sheds.
The shed is dead. For centuries the shed attached to the far end of the farmhouse was the ultimate storage room, the place where Mainers tossed old furniture, unneeded crockery, and broken buckets. Without sheds, the Maine antiques industry would never have taken off. But modern homes don't have sheds. Or attics. Some don't even have basements. And garages are supposed to hold vehicles.
That doesn't mean that Mainers suddenly don't have stuff to store. These days they rent shed space from people like Rhonda Hallett-Pope, the director of the Maine Self-Storage Association. In the past decade the long, low rows of garage-type storage units have become an ubiquitous sight in even the most rural parts of Maine. Pope has a list of 278 self-storage facilities in Maine, and she knows it's far from complete. Indeed, self-storage units seem to be proliferating even faster than the cultch Mainers collect to put in them.
Pope, who owns Adams Park Storage in Sanford, says Maine is unique for the number of small, mom-and-pop storage operations that make up the bulk of the industry here. "Nationally you see a lot of franchise operations or chains dominating the business, especially in the larger markets," she says.
National statistics claim that 9 percent of all households have a member who rents a self-storage unit, but Pope suspects the number is lower in Maine simply because the state has an older housing stock made up of homes with attics and other storage spaces. "A lot of newer houses don't have a lot of storage," she notes, "and then you have all the apartment and condominium and mobile home dwellers who need someplace to store their extra belongings."
Although some small businesses use self-storage units for excess inventory and old records, Pope says most of her customers are homeowners who need a place for their unneeded stuff — off-season clothes, boats in winter and snowmobiles in summer, the dishes that only come out during the holidays. "A lot of them are changing their situation — moving, starting a new job, going through a divorce, getting married, just people in flux," she says. A garage-sized space at her facility costs ninety-eight dollars a month to rent, she adds, although rates vary widely across the state.
"People will always have more stuff than they have room for," Pope offers. "We give them the room."
Perhaps the shed hasn't died. Perhaps it's adapted. Someone leave a note for antiques dealers in 2150.