Updated: Apr 25, 2022
By Dean L. Lunt
While walking across the Syracuse University campus on a spring day in the 1980s, I pointed out some dandelions to friends and told them my family picked the attached greens and ate them every year. My friends, many from New York and New Jersey, didn’t really believe me. I was already saddled with some strange “Maine ideas,” but picking weeds off a lawn to eat rather than blasting them with Round-Up seemed a bridge too far.
So, I did what any red-blooded Mainer would do—set about to prove them wrong. I dashed about the edges of the central New York campus to gather greens. At my apartment I cleaned and cooked them. I changed out the salted water a couple of times to make the greens less bitter and I tossed in chunks of salt pork to “grease them up," as my grandmother would say (It was code for "fat adds flavor."). And then I served them. I am not saying my rural Maine dish touched off a new food craze, but everyone tried them and no one died. I proved my point, although In hindsight, the point might have been: we eat odd stuff.
Some traditional or heritage Maine foods are interesting, especially the foods, often born of poverty or necessity, passed down by the old-timers. In all honesty, some of that cuisine, as the old joke goes, seems to be based on a dare instead of good taste. Even those uniquely Maine foods that have emerged into pop culture staples like Moxie and bright red hot dogs can be a bit much for some people.
One of my favorite local niche foods is dried fish—essentially fish jerky, for want of a better description. My wife and daughters are appalled at the thought of chewing on dried fish strips (let alone the odor). So too were college and work friends who visited Frenchboro. While their more modern disdain is based on seeing neatly bagged, store-bought dried fish, they unquestionably could have made a stronger case in the era when fishermen dried their own. They took the cod (and sometimes cusk) often caught as a by-catch, cleaned them, and hung them by the tails off boat lines or threw them inside drying wooden lobster traps that served as makeshift flakes. The slatted trap lathes kept seagulls at bay and the fishermen sprinkled pepper on the drying fish to keep flies away. I can only imagine family reaction if they watched an uncle grab a dried fish skin off the workbench, shoo away some flies, brush off some dust, pick out a dead worm or two, and go to town eating.
When visiting my grandparents during college vacations, my grandfather would often smile and say, "I got something for ya," and then go to the small closet under the stairs where he always kept some dried fish (still on the skin). He knew this was not something I would find in a campus dining hall.
During my island childhood, dried cod was not merely a snack, it formed the core of a meal dating back decades or centuries—strips of dried cod, baked potatoes, and stewed tomatoes. When cod was king in the 1800s, fish was dried and salted to make it easier to transport and preserve (when it reached its destination, it was often reconstituted with water as the basis for a variety of meals.) Flakes, essentially drying racks, were a common sight in Maine coastal villages. Locally, storage of dried fish helped Maine coastal folks eat during the long winter. The odd part with me, and I admit to this fully, is that other than dried fish, I don’t eat any fish—at all. I can’t stand it. Go figure.
It was not the only local treat gathered by hand. I also spent hours collecting dulse (a purplish seaweed) off island shores each spring. I hung the dulse on the clothesline to dry, a common sight in the old days. Once dried, the dark seaweed was a delicious salty snack. My favorite green is one we locally call goose grass (elsewhere more commonly known as goose tongue). Goose grass sprouts through cracks in the ledges and rocks on coastal shorelines and is typically ai its peak harvest around the Fourth of July. During Independence Day picnics on small islands in Blue Hill Bay, my Grandmother Lunt (Gram Vivian) filled bread bags (always Country Kitchen) with goose grass to take home.
An essential condiment to complement goose grass (and dandelion greens) is vinegar, also a household staple. We sliced cucumbers, added salt and pepper, and soaked them in a bowl of vinegar to snack on. We did the same with sliced beets and onions, which were marinated together in vinegar to serve as a side dish. We also added vinegar to ham and pot roast, poured it into beef stew, and sprinkled it on French fries. Heck, we even gargled with a mixture of warm water, vinegar, and salt to soothe a sore throat. I still put vinegar on a burn to reduce pain and promote healing. It’s a damn miracle food!
A good deal of old school coastal Maine cuisine can be traced to English roots or developed out of need during hardscrabble times. Gram Vivian and my dad frequently enjoyed crackers and milk as a meal, long after they needed to eat it for monetary reasons. They swore by the old Royal Lunch Milk Crackers as the base. You would just break the crackers in two, sprinkle on sugar, pour in some milk and voila! a classic seacoast meal born of the sea and poverty. I am sure it has some ties to hardtack. Other childhood food staples that I will not touch today include fried bologna sandwiches, white rice and raisins, Cream of Chicken Soup mixed with rice, and Vienna sausage sandwiches. To make a Vienna sausage sandwich, you had to pull those little devils out of the congealed fat that encased them, slice them in two, and place them on white bread with mustard—soooooo healthy.
My Grandfather Lunt, God bless him, was a true child of the Depression who ate anything. He was known for just eating fat. He ate chicken skin. Liver and onions. The heart, neck, and gizzard of a Thanksgiving turkey. Fish eggs, which he called “fish spawns,” that he cut out of fish while cleaning it. He ate raw scallops while shucking them. I could go on and on. My brother and I still laugh about the day he walked into the cellar of his abandoned childhood house, grabbed a jar of homemade pickles so old that the pickles had turned mushy and black, and ate them. He just unscrewed the top, stuck his fat fisherman fingers into the Ball Mason jar, pulled out a black pickle, and munched it down. “Hmm, some good,” he’d proclaim and cackle.
When my Aunt Ella was in her eighties and nineties, she lived in a senior apartment in Ellsworth. Every time I visited her, she would pull me in close and say in her aging, raspy voice, "Next time you come, bring me a mess of fried fish heads." Fried fish heads are exactly what the name states: the discarded whole heads of fish (after cleaning the fish) tossed into a fry pan.
My Grandmother Morris waxed poetically about her love of spruce gum as a child. I can identify it and have tried it, but it is basically just tree pitch, dried up in a ball and stuck on the bark of a spruce tree. You typically spent the first few minutes of chewing just spitting out small pieces of bark and probably some moss. It was not a successful rival to Bubble Yum.
My dad continues some food traditions. In addition to crackers and milk, he might gnaw on pickled pigs’ feet, which are flat-out gross, and Kipper Snacks (flavored sardines), which are even more gross. Somehow my great nieces enjoy these small fish. They actually asked for them. It’s bewildering. One of my dad's common lunches was elbow macaroni, with butter, salt, and ketchup, which he poured on straight from the bottle as a poor man's marinara sauce. He loved it.
I certainly understand the older generation’s tastes. They were born on the coast and born poor and worked hard simply to not go hungry. As a result, they didn't waste much. Any leftover food was put into the "ice box" and soon found its way into some type of island hash that, as I remember it, was basically created from anything found left in the fridge. Neither me nor my older brother are big fans of leftovers. Meanwhile, the uneatable vegetable scraps or "otts" were gathered and added to a backyard compost pile for the garden.
It's a marvel how hard they worked to eat and what they ate to not go hungry. They knew when the winds were right you dropped everything to go duck hunting. They picked berries and greens and nature’s bounty to jar or preserve for a long winter or starve. I used to marvel at the effort my uncles would spend shooting, plucking, and cleaning a duck to eat. Unfortunately, that effort might be followed by the godawful tasting and smelling dish known locally as birds and dumplings. Few things on a stovetop smell more foul than wild sea duck, usually eider or coot. When forced to sit at the table for such a meal as a child, I wouldn’t touch the greasy dark duck meat, but I did need to eat something so I scraped every bit of moisture off those dumplings (so they were no longer contaminated by duck broth!) and just ate the dry dough inside.
I was not born a child of the Depression, I am a much pickier eater than my ancestors, and although born on the coast, my taste as an adult runs hard toward a good steak, lean meats, and fresh vegetables. If my grandfather were alive today, he would be horrified that I buy boneless, skinless chicken breasts (no thighs!) and throw a New York Strip on the grill with barely a scrid of gristle to be found. I can hear him now. “All the flavor is in the fat! What’s wrong with you! Is that what they taught you at college?” And then he would stalk off to eat some chicken skin and black pickles. Mmmmm, some good!
Dean L. Lunt, the founder and editor-in-chief of Islandport Press, is the author of four books, including the upcoming Voices off the Ocean and a revised edition of Hauling by Hand: The Life and Times of a Maine Island, which is coming this fall. He grew up in the island fishing village of Frenchboro, where his family and ancestors have lived for more than two hundred years. Click here to see the Maine books published by Islandport Press.