Travel by the Book
As a Washington kid, the other three corners of the country have always fascinated me. San Diego, California, on my native west coast, was easy to get to. I’d knocked that off my bucket list by the time I was six, without even trying. Florida and Maine though, those proved harder to reach. I had to be satisfied with books, movies and episodes of Miami Vice for my travels there.
A voracious reader – and an equally enthusiastic traveler – as a child I hauled books about every conceivable locale home from our neighborhood Carnegie library. So of course I read about Maine.
For a sparsely populated place, there are a lot of books set in Maine. The state became legendary in my mind after years of reading about its rugged coastline, its pointed firs, and its hardy, taciturn locals who all wear sou’westers and when they speak, sound like old salts and say things like “Ah’yep.” Those Maine stories became lifelong favorites. I read them myself as a child, read them to my own children, and gave them to my grandchildren for Christmas and birthdays.
Then, in the summer of 2013, I finally wound up in a Maine coastal village that has a beautiful old library, and right next door, an equally old house that serves as the Friends of the Library used book store. I couldn’t wait to poke around in both, looking for copies of my favorite Maine books.
The Magical Land of McCloskey
The first of these is so iconic you can find it in every library and book store on earth. That is of course Blueberries for Sal, by Robert McCloskey, in which a little girl goes blueberry picking with her mother and a little bear goes blueberry picking with his mother and they all get mixed up with one another on Blueberry Hill. Everybody gets to eat all the blueberries they want.
A little less well known, One Morning in Maine, also by McCloskey, features the same little girl, a few years later, waking up on an island in Maine with a loose tooth, which she obsessively wiggles for her parents and the wildlife. Then she (loudly) and her baby sister (quietly) buckle on life-jackets and accompany their dad in the boat as he heads into town for provisions.
Another McCloskey story called Time of Wonder is more obscure, more Maine centric and for an older child who is now interested in how the coast really works and all the adventures that can be had there. Time of Wonder also follows a young girl (maybe Sal again) as she explores the rocky Maine seashore.
I Wanted to be Sal – I was Sal, Every Summer
I read Blueberries for Sal as a child, or my mother read it to me. Later I read it, One Morning in Maine, and Time of Wonder to my own children, and told them about my own similar adventures during childhood vacations on the rocky shore of British Columbia, Canada. Those summer trips were almost as magical as Sal’s idyllic life on the opposite remote coast.
At Haag Cove, in Pender Harbor, on B. C.’s Sunshine Coast, we stayed in rustic cabins surrounded by meadows and forests of firs, or perched atop boulder outcroppings beside the Straits of Georgia. We kids ran wild, paddled our air mattresses on the chilly waves, poked around in rocky tide pools, fished from the pier wearing life jackets much like Sal’s, jigged for herring, picked oysters out of the shallows and even found a real pearl in one.
In those days before rampant litigation, a small herd of shaggy, Highland cattle grazed unfenced at the center of the resort. One day one of them stepped languidly toward my little brother, Dale and we kids screamed as he ran, tripped, did a somersault, and bounced back up running without missing a step. The puzzled cow was only after a fresh tuft of grass, but as far as we were concerned he’d barely escaped death on those amazing horns.
Boothbay Book Hunt
I had Tom take me to shore in the dinghy and then walked a mile into the center of town, where the white-washed library sits on the hill, the hub around which locals and tourists circulate. And there, in the historic Boothbay Harbor Memorial Library, I found all the volumes I sought. Including one that had eluded me for years. I’d only read about this book and have never found a copy to read myself.
Years ago, before websites were the only purveyors or wisdom, I read about Mainstays of Maine in the magazine version of Writer’s Digest. In an article about the splendors of language, poet Judson Jerome described an evening spent in the home of a friend’s father. And for after dinner entertainment, rather than watching television, or streaming a Netflix movie, the older man read aloud from his old copy of Mainstays of Maine.
Imagine two twenty-something males sitting still, listening, entranced by a recipe. Because in essence, that’s what each of these essays is. Actually I don’t remember Jerome saying his friend was entranced but, as a writer, he himself was amazed and instructed by the author’s skill with words. And Jerome himself must have been a skillful writer too, because I’ve kept that essay of his, and the essay he wrote about, and the name of that book he wrote about, in the back of my mind for twenty years. So much so, that as soon as we dropped anchor, while everyone else was intent on finding the nearest lobster dinner, I was off to the library to look up that book, find out what word magician wrote it, and maybe, just maybe, sit down in a comfy chair and finally read that essay for myself.
Mainstays of Maine turned out to be by Robert P. Tristram Coffin, and is a book of essays about the traditional food and cooking of Maine and living off the bounty of the land. Not in a survivalist way, but in the way that used to be the norm, back when fishing, hunting, foraging and gardening were mainstays of everyone’s life, regardless of where they lived. It was published in the 1930’s.
The book had long ago been purged from the library system as old and out of date, but from a shelf that housed a special collection bequeathed by a public-spirited local, I took down a slim, old, hardbound volume with a hand-drawn cover. Angels sang as I sank into a cushy chair to read about Baked Ambrosia.
Simple Elegance – The Height of the Writer’s and Cook’s Art
With a title like that, you’d think perhaps this would be an essay about cooking something succulent, like blueberries, or a lobster. Though the book does include recipes for both, that’s not what I was after. I wanted to read the essay about catching, cooking and eating smelt.
You know the writing has to be really something if the reader gets excited about smelt.
You know the dish itself must be really something if the author titles that essay Baked Ambrosia.
But the essay is much more than instructions for cooking and eating a platter of smelts. It’s about catching the smelts, knowing when to catch smelts and knowing how to catch smelts, because you know the land so well. It’s about loving the taste of smelts because you love the land so well. It’s about one man’s ties to the land and foods of his childhood, a time when eating meant first catching, then cooking, the ingredients of your meal, yourself.
Once the smelts are properly caught, at the proper time of year, the recipe is simple. Just salt pork, some flour, fall caught smelt and half an hour in the oven. The procurement and preparation though, are poetry. And the outcome of this process sounds pretty good too.
“The salt and fat of the pork are married to the tender lean of the fish. The whole dish has become one single fabric of edible loveliness. The fish are crisp as toast, and they will crumble like powdered gold on your tongue.”
Inspired by Smelt
After reading that essay, and a few others, I slipped the book back into its space, hoping that someday, someone else would take it down again and like me, be transported to a time of wonder. Then, inspired to cook, but stuck in summer rather than fall smelting season, I headed for the market and bought a box of blueberries to make blueberry pancakes.
Though prepared in my tiny galley instead of a big rustic kitchen like in Sal’s Maine cabin, my pancakes were very good. But I’d never claim they tasted like spun gold.
As I cleaned the kitchen I picked up the empty blueberry box and saw a familiar red and white leaf logo. The berries were imported from Canada.
Well no wonder my dish fell short of paradise. I’d broken the spell of Maine.