Think about what it takes to make your favorite food. Not the ingredients, but the farms that produced them, the trade routes that brought them, the recipe to prepare them (was it from Grandma or that diner down the road?) in that just-so way.
Food tells a story about the culture, economy, environment and history of a place.
“Food is the easiest way to get inside another culture,” said Nancy Harmon Jenkins, a food writer and cookbook author based in Camden. “Trying to parcel out what people are eating and why they’re eating it is a good indication of what’s going on.”
We are what we eat — and ate. Though Maine has only recently emerged as a culinary hub, food has been a central (essential, rather) part of life in Maine since the first people stepped foot on the land.
“Maine has nourished people for 13,000 years,” said Tilly Laskey, curator at the Maine Historical Society. “It was food that brought people to Maine. They were following the resources.”
Even to the casual diner, a few things stand out right away about food in Maine: the use of wild fare from the sea and forest, the stick-to-your-bones heartiness, the Puritanical adherence to simple spicing and the back-to-the-land commitment to farm-fresh ingredients.
Certain dishes, though, stand above the rest. These are the foods that were shaped by the industries, the natural resources and the people that made Maine what it is today.
1. Bean hole beans
Living up to its moniker as the “Pine Tree State,” Maine has a rich history of logging. English explorers first cut and used trees on Monhegan Island in the early 17th century. Before gaining statehood in 1820, Maine was part of the Massachusetts territory and supplied pines for ships’ masts in England’s navy. By 1830, Bangor was the world’s largest lumber shipping port, and in the winter, when frozen waterways made for easy timber transport, Maine’s woods were filled with logging camps.
Loggers needed to eat, and one of the simplest, heartiest meals for camp owners could prepare for workers in the woods was bean hole beans, cooked with a cast iron pot over a hot bed of coals in a stone-lined pit covered in soil, often overnight. The logging industry adopted the practice from Native Americans, who prepared beans with bear grease and maple syrup in subterranean, deerskin-covered clay pots.
“It was a very common food in lumber,” said Pamela Dean, volunteer coordinator for the bean hole beans demonstration at the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association’s Common Ground Fair. “There are songs about it. The workers didn’t have to wait for cooks to haul food, they’d just dig up the beans and they’d be hot and ready.”
The main ingredients — dried beans, usually heirlooms such as Yellow Eye, molasses (“Maine was very much part of the triangle trade, and molasses was coming from the Caribbean to ports in Maine,” said Don Lindgren, owner of Rabelais Inc, a bookstore in Biddeford focused on rare books about food, wine, gardening and farming) and salt pork — were portable and did not require refrigeration.
Though the golden age of lumber in Maine has passed, bean hole beans are still prepared for fundraisers, camping trips, family reunions and events such as the Common Ground Fair.
“It’s like barbecue in the South,” Dean said. “It’s been picked up a lot by civic groups and church groups who do it for fundraising. That is a rural tradition.”
Over time, industries moved indoors and the classic recipe found a saucy, oven-cooked cousin in baked beans. As industrialization progressed, too, dried beans were soon replaced with their canned, pre-made counterparts. The B&M Beans canning factory in Portland helped bring Maine’s bean tradition to the masses in the state and beyond.
“Maine one of the states where [both commercial and domestic] canning and preserving became a big deal,” Lindgren said. “The canning industry is partly responsible for spreading Maine’s bounty.”
2. Lobster rolls
Lobster rolls are arguably the most iconic food in Maine.
“You cannot talk about Maine without talking about a lobster roll,” Jenkins said.
Lobstering has been an enormous industry in Maine for more than a century and a half. Eighty percent of America’s lobsters are hauled in from Maine waters, generating hundreds of millions of dollars for the state economy.
Maine also has a long legacy of forward-thinking lobster fishery management. In the late 1800s, lobsters were perilously overfished, as canned lobster meat rose in popularity during the decades before. The first laws protecting breeding females were passed by the state legislature in 1872, and a size restriction to protect juvenile lobsters followed in 1879. The regulations have continued to expand and evolve over the past 120 years.
Traditional Maine lobster rolls are prepared cold with tail, knuckle and claw meat and mayonnaise on a split top bun (in contrast to the hot, buttered “Connecticut-style” lobster roll).
Sandy Oliver, food historian and columnist for the Bangor Daily News, said that before trains, planes and modern refrigeration zipped chilled fresh Maine lobsters across the country, owners of lobster pounds (dammed-off salt water coves where lobsters were harvested before traps gained popularity) needed to quickly sell lobsters before they were past their prime.
“If it looks like you’re going to lose [your lobsters], you’re going to cook them,” Oliver said. “A lobster roll is one way to move some cooked meat along. If you cook it and wait to turn over the product, it would be cold, so you can’t use butter because it’s going to congeal.”
Summer tourists in Maine that stopped at lobster shacks along their road trips made lobster rolls a definitive Maine treat.
“People came to visit from all over the world, and it was a driving vacation,” Lindgren said. “It’s a foodstuff that’s tied to motortouristing, and that is a big part of what built Maine’s economy in the 20th century.”
Now, lobster rolls are ubiquitous in Maine. Chefs even experiment with the iconic food. McLaughlin’s at the Marina in Hampden serves a lobster BLT in the summer. El El Frijoles in Sargentville has a spicy lobster taco. Eventide Oyster Co. in Portland makes their lobster “rolls” in steamed Chinese buns.
“Once something is truly iconic, people want to mess with it around the edges,” Lindgren said.
When Britain conquered Canada in the mid-1700s, French-Acadians fled into the unsettled forestland of northern Maine along the St. John River Valley. They brought their language, crops and food — including ployes.
Ployes are spongy crepes made of buckwheat flour, water and a pinch of salt. They are simple, but versatile. They can be sweetened with fruit, cream and maple syrup, dipped in hearty stews, used in lieu of bread for sandwiches or eaten plain. Sometimes, ployes are topped with cretons, a French-Acadian pork spread similar to pate.
Maine was once the breadbasket of America, according to Lindgren, until westward expansion brought grain production to the vast midwest. The stone walls that once surrounded farms still run through thick forests today.
The French brought buckwheat — a misnomer, as the grain-like seeds are more closely related to rhubarb — to the St. John River Valley in the 1780s. The crop was popularized among the Madawaska Settlement in the mid-1800s, when pests and blights threatened other grain crops. By 1850, buckwheat represented about 40 percent of all grain production in the Valley, and hearty ployes were a staple food for the area’s farmers.
The tradition began to die, though.
“In the early 1970s, the ploye was a thing of the past,” Janice Bouchard, owner of Bouchard Family Farms, said in a 2009 interview published in the Bangor Daily News. “No one was growing buckwheat anymore.”
The revival of ployes is a direct result of efforts in northern Maine to promote awareness and pride in the Acadian way of life. In 2003, Queen Elizabeth II issued a royal proclamation apologizing for the forced deportation of French-Acadians, stirring renewed interest in the culture. Changing diet trends have also sparked the ployes resurgence.
“Ployes have come up in the world because they’re gluten-free,” Laskey said. “I see them a lot here in southern Maine where they weren’t before.”
Now, the Bouchard Family Farm ployes mix is sold in grocery stores around the state. Every summer for almost two decades, the Greater Fort Kent Chamber of Commerce has held a Ploye Festival alongside other annual celebrations of local culture. Buckwheat, too, is making a comeback are an agricultural product.
“Now that different kinds of buckwheat are being grown in Maine, I look forward to seeing ployes more and more,” said Sam Hayward, owner and chef at Fore Street Grill in Portland.
4. Italian sandwiches
You heard it here first, if you hadn’t heard it before: the American “Italian” sandwich — a soft hoagie roll stacked with salty deli meat, American cheese, tomatoes, onions, peppers, pickles and olives, doused in oil and vinegar — was allegedly invented in Portland.
Legend has it that in 1903, baker Giovanni Amato was selling bread from his street cart when hungry dockworkers asked him to add meat, cheese and vegetables to his rolls. Amato was inspired and opened a sandwich shop in his name. Shops selling similar sandwiches proliferated across the state.
Amato was an Italian immigrant, and he was not alone in Portland. Italians came to Maine to work in granite quarries, construction and other working class jobs. In Portland, they settled around India Street (where Amato’s still stands) and transformed the strip into Maine’s own “Little Italy.”
“Most of the Italians in Portland came from this one town in one region in Italy,” Lindgren said. “There is a connection between a bunch of businesses and Amato’s sandwich shop, which were all run by one of those families. That sandwich is representative of a community of Italians living together.”
Perhaps the most begrudged element of the sandwich by today’s culinary connoisseurs is the spongy roll, rendered somewhat structurally unsound by the other tasty toppings. It, too, tells a story of immigration in Maine.
The soft white bread used in classic Maine Italians was made by J. J. Nissen, a bakery started by a Danish immigrant named Jurgen “John” Jepsen Nissen. Despite philanthropic efforts to save the bakery, J. J. Nissen was bought out by Bimbo Bakeries USA, and the storefront closed in 1999. The building now holds apartments, offices and street-level stores, and the brand lives on in the grocery store bread aisle.
Still, the tradition of serving the sandwich on a soft roll remains, despite the haters. Though the city has since transformed and the immigrant communities have changed, Amato’s is still a popular sandwich spot in Portland — and other locations around the state, including Augusta, Lewiston and Bangor.
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.