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From the Editor

03/21/2019

 By Dean Lunt, Editor-in-Chief

 Editor's Note first appeared in Islandport Magazine, Spring 2019.

In the late 1980s, I was walking across the Syracuse University campus one spring day and pointed out some dandelions to friends and reminisced about my grandmother picking the greens to eat. My friends didn’t believe me. I already had some strange “Maine ideas” but eating weeds picked off the lawn seemed a bridge too far.

So, I did what any good Mainer would do. I dashed around the campus to pick a mess of greens. I cleaned and cooked them. I changed out the water (makes them less bitter) and added the requisite salt pork to “grease them up.” I am not saying they were a smash, but I proved my point. Which in hindsight I guess was: we eat strange stuff. 

Traditional Maine foods can be interesting, especially those foods passed down by the old-timers, but they are part of the heritage. Although, if I am being honest, a chunk of it, as the old joke goes, seems more based on a dare than good taste. 

My favorite local food is dried fish—essentially fish jerky, for want of a better description. My wife and daughters are more than a bit put off by the idea of chewing on dried fish strips. While their disdain is based on neatly bagged, store-bought dried fish, they might have had a real case in the days when fishermen dried their own. They caught them, cleaned them, and then 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 the gulls at bay, and the fishermen sprinkled on pepper in an attempt to keep the flies off as the fish dried. I am not sure how the family would have reacted to watching a great uncle grab a dried fish skin off the workbench, shoo away the flies, brush the dust off the meat, pick out a few dead worms, and then go to town eating. Actually, I probably do know. 

But in my childhood island home, dried cod was not just a snack, it was part of a meal that dated back centuries: strips of dried cod, baked potatoes, and stewed tomatoes was a common supper. The odd part with me, and I admit this fully, is that other than dried fish, I don’t eat any fish—at all. I can’t stand it. Go figure. 

I also spent time as a youth picking dulse (a purplish type of seaweed) off island shores each spring and hanging it on the clothesline to dry, a common sight in the old days. And my favorite green is what locally we call goosegrass greens (elsewhere called goose tongue or shore greens). Goosegrass grows among the ledges and rocks on coastal shorelines and is typically ready to harvest around the Fourth of July. My Grandmother Lunt picked bags of it to eat. Both dulse and goosegrass were a special treat. 

A good deal of coastal Maine tastes can be traced to English roots or were spawned out of necessity in hard times. For example, vinegar has always been a household staple. We sliced up cucumbers, added salt and pepper, and soaked them in a bowl of vinegar to snack on. We did the same with pickled beets and sliced onions to serve with meals. We added vinegar to all types of greens, put it on ham and pot roast, poured it into beef stew, 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. It’s a miracle food! And very English. 

My Grandmother Lunt and my dad frequently enjoyed crackers and milk as a meal. They swore by the old Royal Lunch Milk Crackers as the base. Just break them up slightly, sprinkle on a little sugar, and pour in some milk and voila!  a classic seacoast meal. 

Other childhood foods that I do not touch today included fried bologna sandwiches, white rice and raisins, 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. So healthy. 

Once you move beyond my pickier tastes and generation, food gets dicier. My Grandfather Lunt, God bless him, was a true child of the Great Depression who ate anything. He was known for just eating fat. Chicken skin. The heart, neck, and gizzards of a turkey. Fried fish heads. Fish eggs or “spawns.” I could go on and on. My brother and I still  laugh at the thought of him walking into the cellar of his abandoned childhood house, grabbing a jar of homemade pickles so old that the pickles had turned black, and eating them. He just unscrewed the top, stuck his fat fisherman fingers in the jar, pulled out a black pickle, and ate it. “Hmm, some good,” he’d proclaim. 

Meanwhile, my Grandmother Morris always talked about her love of spruce gum. I can identify it and have even tried it, but really it was only tree resin, similar to pitch, dried up in a ball on the outside of a spruce tree. You typically spent the first few minutes chewing, just spitting out small pieces of bark and probably some moss. 

My dad continues some food traditions. He always gnawed on pickled pigs’ feet, which are flat-out gross, and Kipper Snacks (flavored sardines). Somehow my greatnieces eat these sardines like candy. They actually ask for them. It’s bewildering. 

For the most part, I understand the older generation’s tastes. These people were born on the coast and born poor and worked hard simply to not go hungry. They knew when the winds were right you had to drop everything to go duck hunting. They had to pick the berries and the greens and nature’s bounty to jar for a long winter or starve. For them, eating was work and you didn’t waste any food. I used to marvel at the effort my uncles would spend shooting, plucking, and cleaning a duck to eat. Unfortunately, that effort was followed by the godawful tasting and smelling concoction known as birds and dumplings. Few things cooking on a stovetop smell more foul than wild sea duck, usually eider or coots. When forced to sit at the table for such a meal as a child, I wouldn’t touch the greasy duck meat, but I needed something to eat, so I scraped every bit of moisture off those dumplings (so they were no longer contaminated by duck broth!) and ate the dry dough inside. 

If my grandfather were alive today, he would be horrified that I buy boneless, skinless chicken breasts or throw lean strip steak on the grill, 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!” And then he would stalk off to find some chicken skin and black pickles. Some good!