Chowder is the quintessential dish to warm up working longshoremen: creamy broth, brimming with seafood, flavored with fat and filled with potatoes (never tomatoes — in 1939, the Maine State Legislature even considered a bill outlawing tomatoes in chowder).
Though chowder’s exact origins are controversial — some claim that it was brought over by the English and French, others say that it has native roots — its role as a mainstay in Maine’s culinary history is indisputable.
“Chowder was probably the first cooked dish by Europeans in Maine,” Oliver said. “It would have been prepared by the fishermen who came ashore to dry their cod.”
Seafood of all sorts can go into chowder, but cod once reigned supreme. When explorer John Cabot arrived on the Grand Banks in 1498, he saw so many cod that they could be fished “not only with nets but with fishing baskets.” Soon, salt cold was an essential product in the triangular trade between Europe, New England and the Caribbean.
“If it weren’t for the cod fish and how plentiful they were, you have to wonder how many settlers would have come in the first place,” Lindgren said.
Centuries of overfishing led to the collapse of cod populations, though, and they continue to be affected by climate change. Cod like cold water, and the Gulf of Maine water temperatures have risen by more than 3 degrees in the past decade — 99 percent faster than the rest of the oceans. Many fishermen avoid cod altogether because of low profits and strict federal quotas on the species.
Now, haddock tends to be the whitefish of choice, in part because of successful fisheries management. Haddock were overfished through the mid-1990s, and the stock nearly collapsed. Marine protected areas allowed the populations to rebound, and beginning in 1994, haddock became subject to daily quotas. The limits for haddock were lifted in 2003 but remain in place for cod.
Chowder changed in other ways from its original iterations — namely, with the addition of potatoes.
In the mid-20th century, Maine produced more potatoes than any other state in the nation, with fertile Aroostook County as its hub.
“We grew potatoes because we wanted them,” Oliver said. “We grew potatoes so we could put them in things like chowder.”
Over the past few decades, Maine’s role in national potato production has waned — it now ranks 10th among the states in potato production — but Aroostook County potato culture persists. Many former farmers and non-farmers schedule vacation time so they can help harvest, and some schools are still closed for Harvest Break. At least some of that harvest will end up in bowls of chowder.
6. Blueberry cake
Blueberry pie may be Maine’s state dessert, but blueberry cake is more prevalent throughout the state’s history.
“Blueberry pie [is present throughout] southern New England, but I didn’t bump into blueberry cake until I moved here,” Oliver said. “Blueberry cake is more unique to Maine than blueberry pie.”
Marjorie Standish, who published a canon of Maine cookbooks and wrote a popular column called “Cooking Down East” in the Portland-based Maine Sunday Telegram for 25 years, developed what is likely the best-known recipe for “melt-in-your-mouth” blueberry cake (and, she often said, one of her most popular recipes ever published).
Blueberry cake appears frequently in Maine’s historical community cookbooks. Standish herself admitted to getting her recipe from a church cookbook.
“Community cookbooks were popular in Maine and continue to be popular in Maine,” Lindgren said. “They are a significant portion of the [culinary] historical record.”
Of course, the cake must be made with wild, low-bush blueberries, one of Maine’s quirkiest and cash-iest crops. Wild blueberries are harvested every other year beginning the last week of July through Labor Day. Blueberry barrens cover tens of thousands of acres Down East. Wild blueberries bring millions of dollars to Maine’s economy every year.
Wild blueberries colonized Maine’s loamy soil after the last Ice Age’s glaciers receded. Native Americans burned over fields to encourage wild blueberry growth and used berries for flavoring food, healing ailments and preserving meat.
Wild blueberries were first harvested commercially in the 1840s and popularized during the Civil War, when canned wild blueberries were shipped to Union troops. With freezing and canning, Maine’s wild blueberries started making their way to tables across the country. In the 1950s, Maine was the largest producer of blueberries, both wild and cultivated, in the nation.
In the past few decades, though, advances in harvesting and cultivation decreased the price of wild blueberries, and oversupply of more easily produced and transported cultivated blueberries have eroded their popularity.
Even as the agricultural scene shifts, the joy of a fluffy slice of blueberry cake, whether for breakfast at a seaside inn or dessert at a clambake, persists.
7. Fiddlehead ferns
For centuries, Wabanaki women in Maine have spent cool mornings in April, May and early June harvesting fiddlehead ferns from the forest floor. The tender, twirled tips of immature ostrich ferns taste like a grassy, chewy asparagus and can only be harvested for a few weeks before they unfurl into woody fronds.
European settlers learned to keep an eye out for the fern, which was one of the first edible plants to pop up in spring.
“The French-Acadians learned [this foraging technique] from the native people,” Laskey said. “That’s been really part of Acadian culture, too.”
The Wabanaki called the fern “mahsus” or “máhsosi,” and the French-Acadians dubbed them
crosiers in reference a curled bishop’s staff. Eventually, though, English-speaking settlers found the ferns strikingly similar to spiraling scroll of a violin and began calling them fiddleheads.
Not all Mainers grew up fiddleheading with their families — in fact, foraged dandelion greens were likely a more popular dinner table fare — but fiddleheads are uniquely, natively Maine. Roadside stands selling foraged fiddleheads (fresh or pickled — take your pick) have long been set up by pickers, retailers and woodland owners looking to make an extra buck. In some areas, they are as surefire of a sign of spring as the ferns themselves.
Traditionally, fiddleheads are cleaned, boiled and served with butter and salt. With the local food movement and rise of foodie culture, Maine chefs are taking fiddlehead ferns to the next level: battered and fried, baked in cheesy calzones or mixed into Thai salads with shrimp and shallots.
Still, fiddleheads could become Maine’s next victim of overharvesting. Foragers follow some unwritten rules — only a few fiddleheads should be picked from each cluster, so some may reproduce and there are enough for the next picker — but with the fern’s rising popularity on fine dining tables, some foragers have been bending the rules to the point of breaking.
“It’s easy to overharvest wild foods,” Hayward said. “Foragers that are not completely responsible tend to take too much from a particular habitat.”
Historically, foraging Mainers have benefitted from the state’s long tradition of “permissive access,” or the assumption of permission to use unimproved private property if landowners haven’t posted otherwise. The state legislature has (so far, unsuccessfully) attempted to clamp down on the free-range culture, in part to help protect natural resources like fiddleheads.
“I don’t know what part of Mainers’ diets it will represent in the future,” Hayward said, “[but] foraged foods [like fiddleheads] are going to be important.”
This story was originally published in Bangor Metro’s January/February 2020 issue. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.