When Carol Ayoob was defending her thesis for a University of Maine master’s degree in February 2013, the chairman of her committee declared, “This is the first time I have been in a student’s thesis.” The three-member committee consisting of faculty members from Orono and Presque Isle was gathered in The Whole Potato Cafe and Commons on Main Street in Presque Isle, the product of three years of graduate work and many more years of gestation.
Opened in November 2012, The Whole Potato combines Ayoob’s interests in art, community and locally produced organic food — but it represents much more.
Ayoob, a native of Fort Fairfield, remains rooted in Aroostook County, where the potato has been the principal crop defining the culture as well as the economy. As she observed small farms disappearing into large agribusiness enterprises, she grew concerned about the effects of consolidation on the sense of community nourished by traditional agriculture.
“I thought I should know what happened to the 5,000 Aroostook County farms that have all but disappeared, down to approximately 300 today,” she wrote in the abstract of her thesis. “I am interested in making connections between food, land, art and the local economy.”
She set out to “examine how art could restore the region’s identity by strengthening the link between farming and community.” A singer, songwriter and musician, as well as an installation and performance artist, Ayoob envisioned a space where people of all ages could appreciate good food from the surrounding land but also engage in creative activity and entertainment.
“The land around us holds the most wealth for a community and is an extension of ‘downtown,'” she wrote. “The basis on which a false sense of community has emerged is, of course, box-store corporate consumerism, which has in fact disrupted the downtown landscape.”
She sees a similar artificiality in much of the food we buy. “We have to rally around real food or cheap, fake food is going to take over,” she said in an interview.
Describing her art practice as “collaborative community building,” she sought to create situations, spaces and scenarios that “challenge my rural community to reconsider what art is and what role it plays in community identity.”
Seasoned by a year and a half of relentless work, Ayoob’s vision remains clear; she sees more and more people recognizing how the restaurant is building community by making connections. She names the potato specials on her menu after the local farmers who furnish her food: The Houlette, The Doak, The O’Meara and others. Each month, a different local artist’s works adorn the walls. Musical performances feature local musicians, as well as the likes of The Mallett Brothers Band. Afro-Cuban drummer Michael Winfield conducted a drumming workshop, and mime artist Karen Montanaro performed for the restaurant’s first-year anniversary.
“It’s starting to be a gathering place, a place where people come to do more than just critique the food,” Ayoob said recently. “It’s starting to draw more interest in community.”
And the recognition is not just local.
Last month, Ayoob was baffled when she received an invitation to a gala “somewhere downstate,” which, of course, she could not leave the restaurant to attend. She had not received an earlier email announcing Down East Magazine selected The Whole Potato for their annual “Best in Maine” issue, which features the editors’ selections for the state’s best food, lodging, outdoor recreation and culture. She also would have been presented with an award.
In the July 2014 edition, Down East editors recommend readers seeking “The Best Ways to Eat a Potato” dine at The Whole Potato in Presque Isle. “A menu built around the trademark tuber of Aroostook County showcases the versatility of the humble spud and the abundance of local meat and produce available in [T]he County,” they write. “Not just a tater temple, [T]he Whole Potato hosts everything from canning clinics to art shows to hootenanny-style open mics.” Down East also reproduced the cafe’s menu in its March edition.
“It means a lot that they would consider us,” Ayoob said, praising the magazine for “appreciating the ingenuity in businesses that go beyond the status quo enough to create a culture around that kind of creativity, coming up with the ‘best cookie’, the ‘best iced coffee’, the ‘best special-occasion butter’ — and our ‘best ways to eat a potato.'”
Portland-based Maine magazine also spotlighted The Whole Potato in 2013, when Editor Susan Grisaldi visited Aroostook County for a regular feature titled 48 Hours.
“The restaurant oozes with vibe — a mixture of folk and blues music drifts around the space marked by exposed brick walls and colorful artwork,” she wrote.
Ayoob maintains the focus on local, organic farming is not nostalgia. “It’s moving ahead with a new economy based on collaboration, barter, cost sharing. It’s beyond entrepreneurship.
“It’s about community building,” she said, echoing her master’s thesis, in which she declared her desire to “improve the environment and people’s understanding of their place in it, and to provide spaces in which a new cultural identity within a sustainable local economy can flourish.”
Customers frequently tell Ayoob they wish there were a place like The Whole Potato where they live. But the comment she hears most frequently is “This is Portland.”
Her response? “Oh no, this is Presque Isle.”
For more information visit www.thewholepotato.com.
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.
Due to a copy editing error, a previous version of this story incorrectly listed Carol Ayoob’s hometown as Fort Kent.