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The whole issue of Maine food has become a touchy subject for me because the food in Maine has changed so dramatically over the years.
I still remember the first letter I got from a curious reader, years ago, asking about “Maine cuisine.” I don't have the letter in front of me at the moment, so excuse me as I try to remember the gist of it. The letter went something like: “John, we're from Connecticut on our first visit to Maine and would like to experience real Maine cuisine and thought you might know where we should go for that experience.”
I can't remember my exact answer, but I'm sure I went on about the fact that Maine has some of the freshest seafood on the planet as well as some of the finest seafood restaurants in the world, so I would be hard-pressed to name a few places at the risk of offending many more. There are just too many!
It has always been my feeling that in summer, what with our fresh-dug clams, home-grown mussels and world-famous lobster, along with our sweet corn and wild blueberries, Maine foods can compete with any food available anywhere in the world –including Canada.
Along the same lines, I also remember the first time I got a letter asking where one should go for some good Mexican take-out around these parts. Now, back in the good old days if someone had asked me about a good Mexican restaurant I would have sent them up Route 26 to Bethel and then told them to take Route 2 to Rumford and before they got there they'd run right into Mexico. Once there they'd find up there that one restaurant is as good as another. In fact restaurants in Mexico are about the same as restaurants in Rumford.
At that point in my life I had no idea that these people were talking about the country known as Mexico. I had no idea that there were restaurants that claimed to feature foods from a country thousands of miles from the border of Maine; a country about as far from Maine as you could get and still be on the North American continent.
Back then most folks thought the only way a Mexican restaurant would be built in Maine was with a large federal grant, since no profit-seeking entrepreneur would risk the capital needed to build Maine's first Mexican restaurant. Yet somehow the first Mexican did get built here in Maine without the use of federal grants and many Mainers took to the cuisine like ducks to water.
I was not among those enthusiastic Mainers since I was never partial to food known to be hot and spicy. Having descended from Celtic and Anglo-Saxon stock I have – either fortunately or unfortunately — inherited a preference for the least-flavored foods of both those cultures. To me, pepper is a spice that is too over the top for my tastes. I even have some issues with salt!
I've always liked sitting down to a meal that includes Maine-grown boiled onions and yams and lots of fresh boiled turnips. Tell me you're serving Maine-caught herring or haddock or boiled salt mackerel or glazed salmon and I'll be there. I was raised by a mother who prepared and proudly served things like creamed finnan haddie, and baked cod and flounder. My grandmother wouldn't come to visit unless she brought pickled watermelon rinds, rhubarb relish, pickled onions, pickled string beans or red cabbage, green tomatoes and pickled herring.
Let me know as soon as they start serving these delicacies in Maine's Mexican restaurants and you wont have to call me twice – I'll be there!
John McDonald is a humorist and storyteller who performs regularly
throughout New England. John’s e-mail address is mainestoryteller@yahoo.com.
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