Most of my adult life I’ve had itchy feet. Hydrocortisone cream helps a little, but the only real salve was to hit the road to see what’s out there. Having been raised in the east, this meant going west and avoiding interstates whenever possible, taking smaller roads to see what the next town looked like, to experience the middle of the country sprawling out with its rolling farmland, then flattening out with only distant grain elevators to interrupt the horizon, to catch the first glimpse of the Rockies and maybe to learn who lived out here and why.
“What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.” – Jack Kerouac, On The Road
In time I packed up and moved to northern New Mexico where I met my wife, then back east to Atlanta where she had her new job, then west again to Washington State for two years, back to Atlanta for seven, and finally up to South Thomaston where we could happily kick off our shoes and say, okay, we’ve done it, we’ve driven through every state, we’ve found new friends and met all kinds of fascinating people in different places, logged tens of thousands of miles that sadly don’t count toward free airline tickets, we’ve done it and we don’t have to keep doing it anymore. We’d chased storms on the high plains, hunted artifacts in the desert, searched for the perfect Mom-and-Pop steakhouse, eaten the best-ever green chile stew with a Pueblo family and it was time to come home to midcoast Maine (though we didn’t know it would be home till we got here) to take stock of it, catalog thousands of photographs, remember the best stories and start cooking.
With the possible exception of Italy, the food in this part of the world beats any other place I’ve lived or visited. Seafood of course, the freshest you can get, but also locally grown beef and chicken and lamb and sausage, fresh eggs, home-grown veggies, homemade pastries, home-canned sauces and pickles, State-of-Maine cheeses – the list goes on and on, and you’re all familiar with it – and everything is produced with plenty of hard work and pride in its quality. Simply enough, I’ve come to see Maine as a foodie’s paradise, whether you’re cooking at home or eating out. Where else in the U.S. are there so many locally owned cafes and diners and bistros, with relatively few franchise restaurants? It feels right that there are just four Olive Gardens in Maine, no Red Lobsters (I wonder why…), and only six Denny’s. This is all to the good – to have these and other chains overwhelmed by sturdy and enduring local restaurants whose food is immeasurably better, served with a smile, and adding nourishment to the local economy.
A few years ago when we lived near Atlanta, my wife and I self-published a cookbook, Favorite Feasts, featuring our favorite breakfast dishes, main courses, soups, stews and salads, breads, and holiday treats like egg nog and bourbon balls. Many of the recipes in the column start there, but there’s plenty more tucked away on the backs of envelopes stuffed between cookbooks on the shelf. The recipes are usually very simple, and are offered in hopes of livening things up a bit at your table with inspirations from different parts of the country – like green chile stew, fried corn meal mush (amazing!), and authentic Deep South gumbo.
But this column is actually more about instructive encounters we’ve had in our travels, knowing that we can learn so much, so easily, from so many different kinds of people – as long as they’re able to fog a mirror and their accents aren’t so thick as to render them inscrutable. I’ve always been outgoing with strangers, knowing how easy it is to get into a conversation that can entertain and enlighten both of us, and it is perhaps for this reason that my wife tells me I’m such a wide-open target for panhandlers and muggers. More about that later.
Back in the early 1980s, I had the pleasure of writing some original Downeast humor for the late Marshall Dodge, the “I” of “Bert and I,” for public television and radio. We spent several days shooting in and around Belfast, with Marshall adopting the character of Virgil Bliss, riding around on a handcart on the tracks of the Belfast & Moosehead Lake Railroad, running for president and delivering thunderous, lofty oratory to “crowds” of five or six people. When his “campaign” came a cropper, we switched to radio with “Virgil Bliss’s Daily Radio Almanac” (which would air on NPR), sending him around to different parts of the country to tell stories appropriate to a particular date. Marshall had decided that the Almanac should be sponsored by two of Virgil’s inventions – the Virgil Bliss Curvilinear Lightning Rod, and the Virgil Bliss Electrified Union Suit. It was with the latter that I had one of my happiest moments as a writer.
Marshall had drafted the Union Suit spot roughly like this: “I’m here to tell you about my new electrified union suit. You plug it in, just like a Hoover, and with a long extension cord you can spend hours at a time outdoors in perfect comfort in the coldest conditions. Many’s a time I’ve split and stacked chords of wood and stayed toasty and warm all day, for just pennies an hour.”
That was it so far. “I think it needs something at the end,” he said.
I agreed. And when I came up with a kicker line, Marshall just about split a gut with laughter, repeating it over and over.
“And when my wife wants to send me a wave of affection, she plugs me briefly into 220.”
There you have it. More to come.