Editor’s Notebook: A postcard from Maine
My city, Lewiston, Maine, became known this past week for something horrific. You have surely read about the shootings last Wednesday night. Eighteen people gone, thirteen injured. A terrorized city locked down for 40 hours while law enforcement searched for the gunman. Stay away from windows, texted a friend.
It pains me that this is what you know of my city. It pains me that I had to mention it. I want you to think of something else when you think of Maine. You can think of Stephen King, if you like. You can think of snow, lobsters, blueberries. Ice fishing. Moose. Lighthouses. Or you can take a brief trip back in time with me, to enjoy a Maine snapshot I recently discovered myself.
At the Lewiston Public Library, where I manage inter-library loans, hundreds of books pass through my hands every week, each on its way to someone miles away. Someone waiting impatiently, I always think, and quicken my pace as I sort the day’s requested items. I do take a moment to inspect any older, obviously worn book, in case the binding is broken or pages are torn or stained.
A few weeks ago, as I poked at the binding of an old book of essays about Maine cookery, my love for prose about cooking and food took over, and I couldn’t resist sampling the text. I read a few pages before I forced myself to stop and get back to work. Then I did just that, happy in my knowledge that what I had read would serve as the source of my November Editor’s Notebook.
I was going to say something about voice, I think, because I was so charmed by this blast from the past, a Mainer sharing his father’s recipe for chicken dumplings in 1944. Or maybe I would have talked about the relationship between storytelling and food, something I’ve thought about a lot, because food was the only topic that was safe, in my family. We have a story about my mother’s baked beans, my first restaurant meal, a wheel of super-sharp cheddar it took us weeks to eat in thick wedges we sandwiched between pieces of buttered toast. I have literally said the words, “Tell me the one about the baked potatoes, Dad.”
Probably that’s where I would have landed—food and stories. Instead I will cut myself short so I can make the excerpt longer. I will revel again in the passion a Mainer from eighty years ago brought to his description of cooking and then eating Sunday dinner. Literature without labels. Enjoy this bit of Maine you never would have seen, if you hadn’t come here today:
From Mainstays of Maine, by Robert P. Tristram Coffin, Egged on by Ruth P. Coffin.
We start this dish of ours innocently. We start it as if it were going to be just another chicken fricassee. We cook the dismembered bird in an immense iron kettle, with an innocent little onion or two. But when the bird is nearly done, we do a thing that changes meat into magic. We mix up a pint of sifted flour and a half a teaspoon of salt with just enough water to make the flour pliable. Then we roll the whole mass of it out on the breadboard with a rolling-pin. (My father always used an empty bottle of his favorite, green, Irish whiskey, thinking there was some lingering fragrance of a bygone joy capable of being translated by glass to the dumplings.) We roll the dough out till it is thin as the petals of wild roses and as shrinkingly shy and as alive to the touch. Then we slash this cloth of roses made of sensitive flour into quick strips, and drop the strips one by one into the pot with the chicken. Each thin petal sinks out of sight, each independent and not stuck to its companions. And now down there among the chicken bones and flesh, liver and breast and dark meat, each delicate petal ruminates. Then a miracle happens. Each petal suddenly swells, grows, explodes internally in all its cells, suffers a lovely and strange sea-change. And up the petals come, each after each, to the top of the kettle where the golden “eyes of soup” dusk and shrink and expand. The petals have taken up into their beings all the different taste in the several parts of the chicken, in its skin and marrowbones, and they have added a subtle new taste of their own, part flour, part poetry. And when, fifteen minutes after the dumplings have gone to the top of the kettle, we serve the whole works in the largest family soup-tureen, all the family fight for the dumplings, forgetting the Sabbath, forgetting their manners, forgetting the ties of blood. [xvii – xviii]
That’s just one page of the Forward, folks! I can’t wait to read this book.
May you enter the season of eating with a fraction of the joy Robert P. Tristram Coffin found in his kitchen. And may we all hold close every bit of joy we can, wherever we find it.