we are glad to be part of a land
that remains so beautiful under it's green skin
of woods and open fields, that is glitteringly
bordered by thousands of miles,
of breaking waves, and that is lovely
too, with an unbroken tradition
of concerns, with the kind, enduring grace
of it's neighborliness.
-From Neighborliness by Kate Barnes
I love New England. I loved the idea of it before spending 4 years of college there; and my notions were not disappointed while living outside Boston- from the age of 18 to 22. I have quietly loved New England for a long time now. So I always try to steer family summer trips Northwards. All year long my affection sleeps, as I focus my passion on the City. But when Summer arrives my tenderness for New England stirs itself.
This adventure begins in Portland, Maine. Hub's Sis Deene is visiting from Israel with her husband and three boys, so we really wanted to present them with something grand and striking and American. The colonial architecture and aspect of the old port town was definitely something different for our Israeli cousins. As was the chilly summertime rain.
We brought my mom with us as well, because we wanted her to spend some time in this beautiful part of the country. Until this trip, her experience of New England was limited to the Comfort Inn, Waltham MA. I knew she'd love it- and she did. While the boys took a three hour boat trip, Mom, Girlette and I explored the shops and cafes around Congress street. And it was at a cafe called Paris in the Morning that I tried my first Whoopie Pie. It was maple pumpkin, and I've since come to realize that it was mini-sized. The cake part was soft and spongy and tasted like sweetly spiced pumpkin quick bread. The cream filling was subtle in it's maple-ness but undeniable in it's cream cheese-iness. Hmmm interesting, I thought to myself, more research was needed.
Mt. Desert Island Ice Cream on Exchange St. was also another delightful discovery. Flavors like Chocolate Wasabi, Thai Chili, and Sweetcorn made it apparent that this wasn't your Gramma’s ice creamerie. I decided on the Fig. And I can really say that I've never had anything like it before. The ice cream had a deep caramelly sweetness to it and the chopped dried figs interspersed throughout my generous sized scoop provided a pleasing texture and reinforced the sweet figgy taste of the ice cream. I was off to a wicked good stahht!
The afternoon spent with Les Kiddos (six in all) at the fantastic Portland Children's Museum provided me with plenty of time to review in my mind the wonderful taste discoveries I had just enjoyed. A simple plan was hatched: I was to sample as many Whoopie Pies as I could handle during our stay in Maine, in the hope that I’d be inspired to concoct my own version for the cookbook. The fig ice cream was shelved mentally in my Possible Truffle Flavor file.
Get ready for the revelation of the Century: Travelling in a group of eleven is difficult, especially, when more than half of the group is under the age of ten. Notions of fine dining and elegant sight-seeing are hurled out the window. After a dinner at Denny's whose memory I wish I could surgically remove from my brain, I knew that I would have to sneak away every now and again, to maintain my sanity as well as make any delicious discoveries.
My mother kindly granted Hub and I a date night opportunity, which we eagerly spent at Becky's Diner on Commercial St . Becky's is a very ordinary looking diner, but what is contained between the laminated pages of a very ordinary looking diner menu explains the attention it recieved from Bon Appetit. Our waitress was a plain spoken Yankee girl, who described the specials with an economy of words and evenness in expression- that still managed to convey the scrumptiousness of the items. Hub decided on the broiled haddock and I had the fishcakes. As we waited for our food, I studied my fellow diners. Locals and tourists, a few Hipsters thrown into the mix (Portland has a strong hipster element- kind of like a Brooklyn up North feel). New England thriftiness was exhibited by the single piece of bread we each recieved as we waited for our dishes.
The food was....mouthwatering. It was delicious. It was a joy to eat. From the moment I took the first forkfull until I walked out the door, I was smiling. I was as happy as a kid enjoying her favorite birthday meal. I could not stop eating until every scrap was gone. The cole slaw was crunchy and sweet, the fries were crispy and well- seasoned. Every part of our meal was marvellous. Our astute waitress capably steered us in the right dessert direction. And she had the good sense to make a fresh pot of coffee for us to enjoy with our Blueberry Cream Cheese Layer Cake. A die-hard sweet tooth can always sense what a fellow sweet tooth needs. With a lightness in my heart and a belly full of good food, my fondness for New England was reconfirmed.
One of the things that I really appreciate about New England is the plain-spoken character of it's people. They speak simply. They use less words. There is an editing that occurs in their daily vernacular. There is a reserve to their attitude. This kind of stoicism makes my exuberant verbosity seem frivolous and even over-the-top. But I'm OK with it. I'm not a Yankee. I’m not a Maineahh.
After Portland we went up to the Moosehead Lake region where Hub’s bro, his wife and 2 kids joined us for three days of camping in the rain. It wasn’t so bad, it was actually fun in a rustic, once-in-a-lifetime, roughing it kinda way. The campground was just outside the town of Greenville, and believe me when I say that I took every and any opportunity to make runs into town. Be it for paper plates, milk, or to do laundry at Wishy Washy. And it was on one of these laundry runs that I made another great discovery: Northwoods Gourmet Girl. This little gem is located across the street from the Laundromat. Unable to watch our clothes tumbling for another second, I did a little investigating.
The room is large with clean lines and is on the spare side. I sat at the bar and exhaled gratefully. All was quiet and calm, the lighting was soothing, my sneakers were drying, and I was alone. No one was asking me for anything, there was no crying, whining, fighting or shouting. And I now know what to serve with my Krab Kakes: roasted corn, tomato and pepper salsa and a spicy remoulade. And then there was the dessert… a blueberry cobbler that felt like it was beamed down to me directly from God. A soft cakey biscuit sandwiched pleasantly between warm, syrupy and deep dark violet blueberries and a scoop of slowly melting vanilla ice cream in a fine dusting of cinnamon. Surely this must be a gift from God when you’re damp, cold, and cranky after dealing all day and night with damp, cold, and cranky kids.
Upon further investigation I learned that this was the same Gourmet Girl whose bottles of homemade ketchup and jams grace the shelves of the high end kitchen supply store in Portland where I spent an hour and about $60 in (Tupelo honey, Dishing Up Maine cookbook, and assorted gourmet chocolates). My prediction: Gourmet Girl will be as big and wide ranging as Stonewall Kitchen in a few years. Except she’ll be for the Hipster Foodie. Who can resist an ingredient list that includes TLC?
After camping, we moved on to the Sunset Cabins in Rockwood. Never before has a bed been appreciated as audibly and by so many. Flushing toilets as well. The cabin’s kitchen beckoned and I responded by broiling up some salmon and haddock. We enjoyed our fish and the variety of salads I assembled (pasta, garden, and Asian cole slaw) while sitting at picnic tables in front of beautiful Moosehead Lake.
By this time in our trip there were several conclusions I was able to make about Whoopie Pies. Wicked Whoopie Pies are my over-the-counter choice. It has a good cream-to-cake ratio, and is not overly sweet. My favorite flavor is the vanilla chocolate chip. I did not like the peanut butter one that the competition makes.
It’s hardly surprising that the best Whoopie Pies are homemade. The Maple Whoopie I had in Portland was a great intro to this regional treat. I had a tightly saran wrapped Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Whoopie at Jamo’s General Store in Greenville, that was also darn good. Sadly, I do not think I will be whooping it up at next month’s dental appointment.
We climbed Mt. Kineo, the lot of us (minus a grown up or two and a kid or two). It rained and we kept on going. We kept on climbing through tantrums, tussles, and terror until we reached the top. I was very proud of us.
On Sunday we packed up the cars and crossed the border into Canada. S’ long Maine, Bonjour Quebec! This time I was shameless in my desire to learn more French. I broke my teeth at Subway when ordering our 6-pouce sandwiches. I perservered at the Hotel Jardin in Veille Quebec while checking in as my Mari (aka Le Hub) found parking. I ordered my vin blanc at Portofino the Family-style restaurant that was smart enough to give us our own room and isolate us from civilized company. I hissed “Arret!” (and about another half a dozen angry epithets) as my Kiddlers had epic melt-downs in a couple very public spaces. Hub, Deene, sis-in-law Mishtophe, and I clinked “Salut” after everyone was at last, quietly sleeping. Not fluent yet, not by a long shot- but a little more suave.
We went through Vermont on the way home. Vermont is my all-time favorite state. Burlington is just such a great town. The amount of young people and the vibrancy of it’s food scene really makes it gleam. Tried to get into American Flatbread but it was packed three deep at the bar on a gloomy Monday night (rain, rain go away…).
Our drive home the next morning in clear and gentle sunshine showed the green pastures and sloping fields that hem the country road in their most beautiful light. The Vermont countryside is soft and rolling and wonderfully green. It is in contrast to the craggy and rugged Maine landscape where forests of pine trees line the road for miles and miles on end. Both states are natural beauties, but one is more severe and ascetic. The other lush and curved.
“I love her valleys broad and fair,
The pathless wood, the gleaming lake,
The bold and rocky bastions, where
The billows of the ocean breaks: “
From New England by Albert Laighton