My favorite aspect of long, physical journeys is the food. On a multiday outdoor adventure, eating becomes everything. At home I might eye a bowl of soggy noodles, dashed with only olive oil and cayenne pepper, with indifference.
But on my kayaking journey along the Maine coast this summer, such a meal becomes an ambrosial delicacy.
Despite my love of cooking, I must confess that on camping trips I’m not much of a chef. I often prefer to spend my afternoons on Maine islands aimlessly wandering around the shoreline observing wildlife rather than huddled over a camp stove.
Most of my culinary creations on the Maine Island Trail have a distinct Latin influence. I spent several years living in Mexico and South America after college, an experience that made tortillas, avocados and salsas the backbone of my cooking style.
Most nights this summer, I’ve subsisted on fish tacos made from corn tortillas that I stuff with sardines, vegetables, olive oil and hot sauce. Days spent paddling on the frigid Maine waters turn my kayak’s storage compartments into minirefrigeration units. The temperature inside isn’t cool enough for raw chicken to keep. But I have found that tortillas will last for up to five days, proving an invaluable food resource for someone who loves to camp, but avoids cooking while doing it.
After spending most of July and August kayak-touring around the islands in Blue Hill and Penobscot bays, I headed Down East. By this time, I had begun tiring of my fish taco diet, and my cravings for an authentic Mexican meal ran strong.
Luckily, I had come to just the right place. My journey Down East began in Milbridge, a small fishing and farming community that is arguably home to the best Mexican food, and one of the most diverse rural communities in the state.
“Migrant workers, mainly from Mexico and Honduras, arrived in Milbridge about 15 years ago,” explained Ian Yaffe, executive director of Hand in Hand, a Milbridge-based organization better known by its Spanish translation, Mano en Mano, which helps ensure all community members, including migrant workers, have access to education and housing.
“Milbridge is the hub of a unique phenomenon because there was seasonal work in the blueberry and seafood processing industries,” said Yaffe. “The arrival of immigrants who chose to settle here permanently helped fill labor gaps, and over time have made Milbridge the third most diverse place in Maine after Portland and Lewiston.”
I caught up with Yaffe as I drove Down East to continue my journey on the other side of the rough waters off Schoodic Point. For weeks, I had anticipated stopping here to sample the Mexican fare served out of a truck by locals that I had heard rumors and rave reviews about for years.
“You won’t find that truck here now,” Yaffe told me. “It’s peak blueberry season and they’re out in the fields serving hungry rakers.”
So with vague directions, I set off for Deblois, my kayak bouncing around on my truck while my mouth watered. After a short drive, I passed through a security checkpoint into the Wyman blueberry grounds. A series of blue bunk houses, where migrants sleep, trailed away into the distance. It is in places like these that much of large-scale American agricultural production occurs.
In the center of a field, I found the small truck where a local Mexican family served up real Mexican cuisine. I ordered a whole plate of tacos and a torta, a grilled Mexican sandwich of meat, cheese, vegetables and salsa. A menu on bright magenta paper hung tacked to the truck. A nearby television blasted Latin dance videos. Electrical cords streaked over the ground. Except for the large American charcoal grills, this was a near perfect replica of a Mexican roadside cantina.
“We’re having goat later tonight,” a smiling Mexican man told me while I ate.
“Really?” I exclaimed with excitement. “I don’t think that I’ve ever eaten goat outside of Mexico.”
“I know,” he said, laughing. “They don’t usually eat it in Maine.”
With a full belly, I drove to McClellan Park, a dramatic expanse of coast on the south side of Milbridge. The campground-picnic area is a place where paddlers can camp in a spot whose beauty rivals nearby Mount Desert and is free of the summer crowds. For years, I had wanted to see the lesser-explored Maine coast east of Bar Harbor, and my visit to the blueberry fields only increased my curiosity.
The next morning, my kayak loaded with avocados and tortillas, I paddled back out to sea. My journey Down East had begun.