Besides lighthouses and Stephen King, what do we think of when we think of Maine? Food, right? We think of lobsters, of course, along with seafood in general, blueberries and potatoes, and maybe Moxie and whoopie pies. Maine is a state where the food we grow, harvest and make is completely intertwined with our identity.
Which is why Maine Fare, the three-day celebration of all foods Maine, set for Sept. 11-13 in Camden and Rockport, poses an important question this year — the year in which the organic and local foods movement has been in the national spotlight more than ever.
The question is: Can Maine feed itself?
That’s the topic of Friday afternoon’s free keynote panel, in which five leaders in Maine-grown food will discuss whether Maine’s farmers, growers, fishing folk and foragers could make enough food to feed all Mainers.
It’s also the spirit by which the whole festival is guided — from the assortment of smaller discussions about specific aspects of Maine food, to the chef-led cooking classes and meals at various locations. And then there’s the gala event, a tasting dinner set for 6 p.m. Friday at the Camden Yacht Club, which features 13 chefs from all over the state, each serving something raised or caught right here in Maine.
Among those featured will be Amanda Hallowell, chef at Supper at Nebo, the restaurant at the Nebo Lodge on North Haven. Hallowell makes a point of serving as much local food as possible at her restaurant. A North Haven native, she has personal as well as professional reasons for cooking with island-grown food.
“We get as much straight from the island as possible. Within that, we try to keep it as diverse and interesting as possible. One thing we’re really excited about is our locally raised oysters,” said Hallowell, referring to oyster farmer Adam Campbell, who has been raising the shellfish on the island since 2002. “It’s those startup companies that Maine is known for. These farmers bring us the little bits that they have, and we use it in our menu.”
Also contributing to the menu is Rich Hanson, who owns and operates both Cleonice in Ellsworth and Table in Blue Hill. Hanson, a James Beard Award nominee, is renowned statewide for his creative take on Maine foods.
A New York City native, he moved to Maine 12 years ago with his wife, master gardener Cary Hanson. In addition to their two restaurants, they now operate a farm in Bucksport, from which they source much of their meats and produce.
“In the time that I’ve been here, Maine-grown and -made foods have just exploded,” said Hanson. “There are artisanal cheeses everywhere. There are jams and jellies. There’s an amazing selection of meats. In Aroostook County, there’s Maine Pressed Oils, who make expeller-pressed canola and mustard seed oil. There’s wheat and spelt flour, and cornmeal from The County as well. They make tofu out in Madison. If you look hard enough, you can find just about anything.”
Hanson uses meat from A Wee Bit Farm in Orland and Mace’s Farm in Readfield, and dairy products from Sunset Acres Farm in Brooksville. He utilizes Crown O’ Maine Organic Cooperative for much of the menu items he serves at both Cleonice and Table — Crown O’ Maine gets the products, and then delivers them to stores and restaurants all over eastern and northern Maine. There are a wealth of small farms all over Maine, and groups like Crown O’ Maine and the southern Maine-based Get Real Maine find ways to distribute their goods.
“I always say that if we could get citrus and olives up here, we could secede from the country,” said Hanson. “Maine is far more diverse than we give it credit for.”
Hanson’s contributions to Maine Fare include beef short ribs braised in Moxie, a dish served at Table, and brasato of Scottish Highland veal over Aroostook County polenta, from Cleonice. Hallowell’s contribution to the Maine Fare dinner will be local crispy kale and local fried green tomatoes — a Maine spin on a traditionally southern dish. Hallowell gets her tomatoes from both North Haven and from Beth’s Farm Market in Warren, along with a handful of other types of vegetables, though she does try to use as much North Haven-grown produce as possible.
“The question at Maine Fare is ‘can Maine feed itself.’ I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a state besides California that produces more diverse food than Maine does,” said Hallowell. “We have all the seafood, cheese, meat and vegetables you could possible want. Maine has a heritage of feeding itself, and living off the land. And we think it tastes way better to eat what’s available right in your own town.”
Amanda Levesque, another chef featured at Maine Fare, runs a business quite different from many of the others at the event. El El Frijoles, her casual Mexican taqueria, or taco shop, located in Sargentville between Blue Hill and Deer Isle, offers up some of the best burritos and quesadillas in Maine. After moving to Maine from California with her husband, Levesque decided to bring the flavors of her home state and neighboring nation to her newly adopted home — and to put a Maine spin on it as well.
“Our intention was to try to take the ingredients of Maine and use them in Mexican food,” said Levesque, who for Maine Fare is making a local potato and goat cheese empanada with spicy curtido. “Living in California, we were buying food at farmers markets all the time. Moving out here, we didn’t want to change, although we knew it would be different and more challenging, with the shorter growing season.”
Undaunted, Levesque explored her options. Due to the nature of Mexican cuisine, there are some things she can’t find enough of, or at all — avocados, for example, many varieties of chiles and citrus. Meat also is hard for her — while she uses chorizo sausage from Smith’s Smokehouse in Monroe, large amounts of local chicken breast are scarce and prohibitively expensive, forcing her to use organic, high-quality chicken from out of state. Like Mainers, or Mexicans, she works with what she’s got.
“I go through 30 to 60 heads of cilantro per week. It’s hard for Maine farmers to keep up with that,” said Levesque. “But I’ve got potatoes, and cheeses, and certain kinds of produce. I use local halibut for fish tacos. I used mussels the other week, in a really spicy red pepper and tomato sauce, served with bread from local bakeries. I make blueberry agua fresca. There are creative ways to do it.”
There’s that nagging belief, however, that buying local and buying organic is just too expensive for the average consumer. Those options are out there for anyone, but when factory farm-raised beef costs dollars less per pound than local, grass-fed beef, the choice seems to pit conscience against the bottom line.
Both Hallowell and Hanson think it’s an overblown dilemma.
“People always say to me, ‘Oh, but regular meat and vegetables are so much cheaper.’ Well, is it really? I think there’s a huge misconception that it costs more to buy local,” said Hallowell. “I think if you go to a farmers market or farm stand, you’ll find that the food there is just as cheap as the grocery store. Yes, meat is more expensive. But what are you paying for? It’s quality versus quantity.”
Like Hallowell, Hanson believes it’s all about the perception that more poor-quality food for less money is better than very good food for a little bit more money.
“It’s all about people’s perceptions of value. Yes, a dollar hamburger from a fast-food joint is cheap. But you’re getting almost nothing from it, nutritionally or otherwise,” he said. “If you have a burger at a local restaurant made from locally raised, grass-fed beef, you’re getting all the nutritional benefits, you’re supporting local business, and you’re almost never going to get sick from it. Sure, it costs seven dollars instead of one. You get what you pay for. And the taste isn’t even in the same universe.”
Maine Fare, Sept. 11-13 in Camden and Rockport, kicks off with an organic gardeners lunch set for noon Friday at Brewster Point in Rockport. The keynote panel follows at 2 p.m., also at Brewster Point, and the gala tasting event is set for 6-9 p.m. at the Camden Yacht Club. Tickets for the gala event are $75 and benefit Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. On Saturday and Sunday there will be a number of panel discussions and cooking classes; for a full schedule, visit www.mainefare.com.