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Home » PEOPLE AND PLACES in ME » MAINE (all topics) » The Other Maine
Dried Chamomile Tea, Packed in an Airtight Jar, for Winter-Long Brews
The Other Maine

Northern Delights

By Alex Seise | October 26, 2011

When it comes to eating, Aroostook County is Maine’s black sheep. It simply doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the state.

The First Blueberry Crop

After all, ask anyone what type of cuisine they would expect from the state of Maine. Many would daydream about the coastal delicacies of lobster, clams and briny fish from the cool Atlantic. Others would pine for fresh blueberries and the host of baked goods they inspire, from pies to muffins and pancakes. And other mouths would water still at the prospects of freshly hunted game and syrupy maple products, the bounties of the wilderness.

In the Other Maine, though, many of these heralded icons of Maine’s culinary geography are but bleary chatter muttered by someone from away.

This far north, even the corner grocer advertises sides of beef for sale to be frozen for the long winter season. Canning isn’t simply a quaint pastime; it’s a way of living and eating during the cold, dark months. Even pumpkins, normally placed on doorsteps as autumnal décor, are sliced, cooked and incorporated into recipes long before Thanksgiving.

Many of my adventures into the traditional cuisine of Aroostook County have been through my neighbor, Claudette, and her family. You see, this far north, family is as much an ingredient in the kitchen as sugar or spice. Meals are made with love and passion to be shared over a hearty conversation. The kitchen is the centerpiece of any home; where there is food, friendly smiles are never far behind.

Pickled Beets Ready to Serve

One evening a few months back, David and I enjoyed a traditional Acadian dinner at her home. Surrounded by friends, we indulged in all-day beans, which Claudette had cooked from the early hours of the morning through dinnertime. The dish was heavy with generous cuts of pork and the bite of perfectly simmered legumes. On the side, “red” hot dogs (a heavily dyed favorite among Mainers, from DownEast all the way up to Allagash), boiled fiddleheads and fluffy buckwheat ployes rounded out the evening’s fare.

As in many Acadian meals, the focus was on seasonal, local ingredients and traditional recipes. From salted shallots to pickled beets, a tremendous amount of Acadians’ diets depend on the fruits of their own labor during the spring and summer seasons; this is not a place where supermarket dependency runs deep.

Further south, outside the Saint John Valley, the cuisine tends to become less regionalized. The focus on fresh produce direct from the fields is still prevalent. However, the area lacks a single distinct local culinary tradition. Caught between the French influence of the Valley and the maritime gastronomy of the rocky coast, the region caters to many tastes, dipping into both of its neighbors for culinary inspiration.

Though most of the cuisine of Northern Maine is hearty and pleasing to the palate, like anywhere, there are certainly acquired tastes to be found. There are also recipes that sound exotic until you’ve tasted them.

A Warm Batch of Homemade Ployes, Ready for Melted Butter and Brown Sugar!

When David’s mother and sister visited last month, we took them to one of the area’s restaurants to enjoy a meal out. On the menu, the specialty poutine appetizer called out to them, so we ordered a dish to share.

“This is it?” David’s mother said, looking at the plate with a puzzled face after our server placed it down. “It’s French fries with some mozzarella and a jar of Franco-American gravy poured over the top!”

True, the allure of traditional poutine, which many say should always be made with crispy fries, cheese curds and homemade gravy, can be lost a bit too easily. Perhaps it was the quick prep in a busy kitchen on a bustling afternoon, but the plate simply didn’t dazzle.

Fortunately, we haven’t had many negative food moments here in Aroostook County. In fact, our interactions with the culinary landscape have been, for the most part, downright rosy.

This past September, as we harvested the last of our fresh herbs from the garden and planted a row of blueberry bushes for next spring’s berry harvest, it suddenly struck us that we were embarking on a quintessential leg of the Northern Maine culinary journey.

Harvesting from the earth is as much part of the prep work as slicing, dicing, blanching and stewing. And when you know the whole story about what you’re eating, there’s a certain je-ne-sais-quoi about the experience. It’s a delightful, wonderful sentiment that pleases the palate and tickles the taste buds, and it’s something that Northern Mainers shrug off as nothing out of the ordinary.

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