One of the “main” reasons I was anxious to visit Southern Maine recently was because I kept hearing about the great food in Portland.
Bon Appétit called it “The Foodiest Small Town in America,” while others in-the-know freely describe Portland as “a foodie’s paradise,” a major dining destination not only in New England but the entire Northeast.
Second only to San Francisco in restaurants per capita, the largest city in Maine may not be a major metropolis like New York or Boston, but when it comes to good food, it’s big on appeal, quality, and innovation. If you know Portland at all, you know it’s fertile ground for creative types, so it’s no surprise that cooking is enthusiastically celebrated and embraced as a fine art. It’s all about showcasing fresh local ingredients and maximizing the unique wealth of resources that circle the city (farms, apiaries, fishing grounds, dairies, smokehouses).
Not too long ago, I walked into this tiny chocolate shop in Kailua, Hawai’i:
I was anxious to try the award-winning artisanal bean-to-bar chocolate I’d heard so much about. (Did you know Hawai’i is the only state in the country where cacao can be grown?) I was greeted by this cute, friendly chocolate maker named Dave Elliott:
As he told me about the two lines of chocolate they make on site — one with cacao grown in Hamakua on the Big Island, the other with cacao sourced from Central America and the Caribbean, I spotted an interesting children’s picture book on the top shelf:
Grandma’s Chocolate? My kind of book! Dave told me the author, Mara Price, had recently done a presentation and signing at Madre Chocolate.
As soon as I returned home to Virginia (after taste testing several luscious bars — Coconut Milk and Caramelized Ginger, 70% Hamakua Dark, Triple Cacao, Passion Fruit, 70% Dominican Republic Dark), I contacted Mara and she graciously agreed to talk chocolate with us at Alphabet Soup.
I used to think I’d never want to be a sea captain’s wife. Waiting, always waiting for his ship to come in. Pacing, forever pacing the widow’s walk. Are those his sails I see on the horizon? Is another storm rolling in? Maybe he’ll bring me a cache of fragrant spices from the East Indies.
Well, all this was before I stayed at The Captain Jefferds Inn, one of several former sea captains’ mansions in Kennebunkport that’s been converted to a Bed & Breakfast. I guess those salty sea captains, engaged as they were in lucrative trade and shipbuilding, liked having tangible symbols of their wealth and status on full display in the community. It was good of them to provide their left-behind wives with a nice place to hang out in their absence, don’t you think?
Captain William Jefferds was especially lucky. Rather than having to build his own mansion, he and his wife Sarah received their beautiful Federal-style home as a wedding gift from Sarah’s father. It was built in 1804, and it wasn’t long before the pitter patter of twenty-two little feet echoed within its walls. I doubt Sarah was ever bored when William was out to sea. Come to think of it, with eleven children, it doesn’t sound like William was gone all that much.
You’re just in time for breakfast at the Inn at Tanglewood Hall. This charming 1880’s Victorian “cottage” in York Harbor is where Len and I spent our first two nights in Maine.
It was a good spot to celebrate our 35th wedding anniversary (obviously I was a child bride :)). During our early years as a couple in England we stayed at many, many B&B’s — everything from a farmhouse serving bacon so fresh it oinked when you bit into it, to a tiny room above Haworth’s Black Bull Pub, where Branwell Brontë pretty much drank himself to death.
No matter where it’s located, staying at a B&B is always an adventure — it feeds my interests in history, architecture, interior design, food and hospitality. With fond memories of our long ago stays in Yorkshire, it was good to fast forward to the Yorks in Maine.
It begins when you’re little and you read a picture book about bears and blueberries. You have no idea where Maine is and have never seen real blueberry bushes in person, but this story of mothers and cubs stays with you always.
As you grow up, you develop an eternal craving for lobster and blueberry pie. You eventually hook up with L.L. Bean, fly through Bangor airport on the way to Europe, and after you get married you hear interesting stories about “Maine people” from your in-laws in New Hampshire.
After starting a book and food blog, you notice there are lots of very cool author and artist types (in addition to Mr. McCloskey) associated with Maine: E.B. White, Barbara Cooney, Margaret Wise Brown, Gail Gibbons, Carrie Jones, Melissa Sweet, Cynthia Lord, Cathryn Falwell, Ashley Bryan, on and on.
Many friends who don’t actually live in Maine flock to the Southern Coast every summer and return refreshed and inspired with blueberry stains around their mouths and a decidedly dreamy look in their eyes.
So I asked myself — what is it about Maine that could spawn the likes of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow as well as Stephen King? Why are there more poets per capita in Maine than any other state? Is the lobster that good?
Moreover, how did I manage to reach near fossilization 29 years of age without ever having set foot on Maine soil . . . or sand? And what’s this I keep hearing about Portland being a foodie paradise?