July 23, 2018
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Castine’s Harry Kaiserian is Chef de “Kwisine”

By Todd R. Nelson, Special to the BDN
Updated:

Castine’s Harry Kaiserian toured the world in the Navy, discovering great food in the process. He brought it all home to kitchen, classroom, and column.


Cmdr. Harry Kaiserian, U.S. Navy (Ret.), is preparing dinner for close friends, his ingredients arrayed on his marble countertop. The menu: creamy gazpacho andaluz to start. Then, an original dish he calls “Italian lobster Downeast”: lobster out of the shell, sautéed with butter and garlic with Italian white wine, cream, parmesan cheese, and Ritz crackers. Dessert: dark chocolate banana pie with rum-infused whipped cream. For Kaiserian, life is one of passion for cooking as an act of care, community, and archiving culinary memories.

The 79-year-old spent 26 years in a naval career of assignments in Italy, Greece, and South Korea; on destroyers; at the Naval War College and Joint Chiefs of Staff; and at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center. He was a professor of naval science, then registrar, at the Maine Maritime Academy in Castine. He’s written a newspaper food column since 1987 and taught classes on phyllo for local school kids. He is a Wilson Museum board member and a vice president of the Senior College in Belfast.

He’s anything but retired. Much of his activity harkens back to early intentions to be a teacher. However, before that came cooking. It is his original passion and what most locals think of when they hear his name.

“Everybody in my family cooks,” said Kaiserian. “My grandmother was a good cook. My mother hated to cook, but was a good cook. My father cooked. That’s the thing: the men in the family cooked. My father promised my mother that she would never have to cook because he had a restaurant. Us kids would say, ‘Mom, can we have some Jello?’ She’d say, ‘You know where it is.’ So, I made pudding, Jello, even cake mixes, all the time.”

Kaiserian is second-generation American. His mother’s family came to the U.S. when her father, a bodyguard for the Persian ambassador in the early 1900s, preferred his prospects in New Jersey to the Turkish-Armenian region. Kaiserian’s father, Harry Sr., had opened a restaurant in Asbury Park, N.J., when he began courting Kaiserian’s mother, Alice: “I understand you have a daughter,” Harry Sr. told Alice’s father. “I’d like to marry her.” Owning a restaurant clinched it—and the promise of no cooking. It was in this restaurant atmosphere that Kaiserian and his brothers were raised.

For the junior Kaiserian, cooking grew experimental and rewarding when he joined the Boy Scouts.

“I read the scout manual about cooking over a campfire,” he said. “Everyone else showed up with a six pack of hot dogs. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner they put them on a stick, burned them black, and ate them. My first meal was sweet potato, a couple pieces of Spam, crushed pineapple, and ginger wrapped in aluminum foil and baked in the campfire coals—delicious. The next morning, I finished the pineapple, then made bacon and eggs and biscuits.”

The scoutmaster simply conferred the cooking merit badge. “You don’t have to do anything else,” he said. “And would you mind cooking for me? I’ll put you in charge of the campfire and give you an assistant to get firewood.”

“I didn’t have to dig latrines or put up tents,” said Kaiserian. “I learned that I could do something with food that made other people happy.”

Kaiserian majored in secondary education and social studies at Monmouth University, where he met his wife, Berna. On graduation in 1961, there were scant job openings, except for elementary math teachers—the Sputnik effect. He settled for 7-8th grade social studies, with language arts thrown in. After a year, he redirected toward the Navy. By 1962, the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis, he was on a destroyer escort patrolling off Havana: “Exactly 3 miles…and an inch.”

An international naval career and culinary exploration blended well. The Kaiserians lived in Newport; Washington, D.C.; Italy; Greece; Great Lakes, Ill.

“We used to go to Le Vichyssoise [a restaurant in Lakemoor, Ill.],” said Kaiserian. “It was always packed. An hour and a half drive from Chicago, people flew in, rented a car, drove up for dinner.” It’s not unlike favorite Maine destination restaurants he cites: Aragosta, Primo, and The Lost Kitchen. Kaiserian follows the local scene. “Dining is not a spectator sport,” as he says in the introduction to his cookbook.

Life in Greece was about the little souvlaki wagons and markets. In Italy, he had more Italian friends whose home cooking was a tutorial. Although his single year stint in South Korea included a papal visit, the shooting down of Korean Airlines flight 007 by the Russians, and the assassination of the South Korean cabinet in Burma, Kaiserian found time for friendship over food.

“The first week I was there,” he said, “the armed forces newspaper advertised for people to have lunch with groups of Koreans for a week and teach English. At the end of the week my five middle school teachers didn’t want it to end. So, every other Friday we got together, alternating Korean and American food. They loved my spaghetti and meatballs.”

In 1984, Kaiserian came to MMA in Castine and began his Castine Patriot food column, “K’s Kwisine.” Having just lost the food editor, the paper’s owner offered Kaiserian the chance to do whatever he wanted. He had a fresh plan.

“I did not want to just publish recipes. I wanted to save my aunts’ recipes,” he said. “When [my aunts] died, their recipes went with them. None of their children cooked their food. Family favorites became my theme. What must Aunt Nellie bring to every family reunion? It’s oral history, with recipes written nowhere else but my column.” It turned into a book, “The Best of K’s Kwisine: A Food Columnist’s Favorite Recipes from Maine and the Rest of the World.”

For ten years now, Kaiserian has taught at Belfast Senior College, an extension of the University of Maine at Augusta. In The Role of Food in Film and Literature class, he said, “I treat food as a star or supporting actor in films or novels and ask, ‘Why is it there?’” In The Evolution of the American Palette class, students examine how eating habits have changed since 1900 and imagine the future.

Kaiserian ends every column with a quote. His recent “Harry’s Shrimp and Asparagus Pasta” column ended with Betty Fussell: “Like someone you love—man, woman, or child—the subject of food is inexhaustible and infinitely rewarding because it links all of our individual and shared pasts to our communal present. In the fracturing of America we need linkage. As Mas Masumoto, that admirable peach farmer turned food writer, has said, ‘With food, you’re never alone.’”

It’s epigrammatic of Kaiserian’s life-long passion, and of tonight’s foodie crossroads at Chez Kaiserian. No Spam in sight.


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