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Listening in Downeast

Geezers say the darnedest things!

I overheard the following conversation in the checkout line at the Ellsworth, Maine Home Depot this morning:

Alarmed dog courtesy Responsible Pet Ownership blog.

Mike: “Jesus Christ, Harold, how you been doin’?”

Harold: “Well hello there, Mike. Didn’t see you creep up on me. You know, I can’t complain. What’ve you been up to?”

Mike: “Oh not much really, just fuckin’ the dog, you know.”

Now I’m sure that the expression “fucking the dog” (meaning doing nothing for those of you who didn’t grow up in a trailer park or a women’s prison) is not new, and neither is it peculiar to Maine, but I can tell you that this is the only place on Earth I have ever heard it uttered. God only knows where it came from, and I for one would rather not dwell on the possibilities.

I have, in fact, also heard various layabout good-for-nothing dimwits referred to as “FTD specialists.” Again, only north of the New Hampshire border. As a rule, FTD specialists are universally acknowledged to be as dim as they are slothful. As in,

My husband’s a real FTD specialist. He don’t do a goddamned thing, and he’s number than a pounded thumb to boot. He don’t know nothin’. Shit, he don’t even suspect nothin’.

I may never go back to New York.

Making ice cream in the summer kitchen

Yes, you can burn yourself while doing so.

The summer kitchen.

I am officially on vacation, having traded the filthy sidewalks, unrelenting heat and constant clamor of New York for the sunny days and deep dark, so-cool-you-need-a-blanket nights of Downeast Maine, at least for the next three weeks. The local cannibals are all busy extorting the tourists, and but for the persistent grinding of the neighbor’s Husqvarna (wood management is a full time job up here), it’s peaceful by the bay in high summer.

Lest you think we’re some kind of fish-faced enemies of the people, let me explain how we came to be cottage-owning summer people here in my own home state. If you recall, the Oughts generally (and 2000 to 2007 specifically) were a good time for homeowners in this country. As a result of the vagaries of the New York real estate market and no small amount of luck, Mr. Slattern and I were able to float on the bubble to a ramshackle summer cottage in need of some TLC. In hindsight, we’d have been smarter to tear it down and start over, but that’s a story better suited for scaring the adults around the campfire.

Even after extensive renovations, our place is no palace. There’s no foundation, and by mid August the well water begins to smell like it was pumped through a chicken barn. As soon as we drain the pipes and lock up in the fall, red squirrels set up housekeeping in the attic and mice take over the lower levels. The washer and dryer are as temperamental as my elderly relatives, there’s no insulation, and the kitchen is rudimentary at best. You won’t find a dishwasher, Kitchen Aid mixer or food processor, the stove  is completely unreliable — one day underpowered, the next day incinerating entire meals when set at an innocent 325 degrees, and no matter where I stow the fruits and vegetables, the fruit flies find them.

Of course it’s a damned sight better than when we bought it.

I love a project!

Thanks to the indefatigable efforts of my family, and my mother’s total renovating genius (she could do a whole house over in a week with $200, a ladder and ten yards of fabric), the sad, dark, dirty mess has been transformed to a cheery, productive space suitable for guests, so long as they’re not terribly germ-phobic.

This is, in fact, the one place I actually enjoy cooking. Partly, I suppose, it’s because we usually have a houseful of company, which creates a party atmosphere, especially at sundown, and cooking while cocktail hour is in full swing is far more fun than the usual Tuesday night, get-it-done-so-I-can-prepare-for-tomorrow’s-early-meeting approach to dinner. I also like that there’s no schedule. Dinner happens when it happens, and no one seems particularly worried about having adequate time to digest following the evening meal. We just stay up until the stomach does its thing and we feel like sleeping, or the wine runs out, whichever comes first. There’s also abundant local produce and seafood to choose from this time of year, so we just eat whatever’s at the farm stand or the fish market at the moment.

But more than anything else it’s this place that makes me want to dust off the oven mitts. The first summer we were here, my favorite aunt — Arlene, my grandmother’s older sister actually — came for a visit. It was cold, but we all sat outside and chatted, and Aunt Arlene told me about visiting her grandmother on this same point as a child in the 1920s. It was here that Grammie Sprague settled later in life after leaving the farm, she said, and right over there across the bridge where she was buried. The children loved it here and would poke around on the beach all day, searching for starfish, picking mussels and digging clams. Back then, Aunt Arlene recalled, the children weren’t allowed outside at night because there were Klan meetings in the area, and they were Catholic. I guess since there were no black folks to persecute, the local racists made do with Papists. That’s Yankee ingenuity for you.

It was pure coincidence that we landed on this spot — none of my family has lived here since my great great grandmother’s time, and I had no idea even that she had — and yet I feel connected to this place in a way I don’t feel part of any other. And so I bake blueberry rhubarb pies in my summer kitchen, churn homemade ice cream in the hope the freezer will stay cold enough for it to set, and bake beans in the old crock I dug out of my mother’s kitchen.

Coconut: Toasted up and ready for freezing.

Happy as I am here, I frequently screw things up, as when I served seafood chowder so overcooked the lobster was like gum rubber and the potatoes had all but disintegrated. Then there was the time I forgot to add the liquid to a pot roast I was cooking in the crock pot — it came out like bacon cooked with a flame thrower.

It still takes me a while to adjust to a slower pace. This morning I decided to add toasted coconut to the Nutella-flavored frozen yogurt I was was making and as I rushed to assemble it, grabbed the pan handle immediately after removing the toasty, brown coconut from the oven. I burned the hell out of my left hand, but happily there was a big bag of frozen blueberries in the freezer to hold onto until the pain subsided. The frogurt turned out to be delicious. Aunt Arlene would have loved it. She had a real sweet tooth.

Coconut Nutella frozen yogurt
(adapted from The Cottage Revolution’s recipe)

Spread half a bag of sweetened shredded coconut in a baking dish and toast in 350 degree oven until golden brown. Remove from oven and let cool completely.

Using an electric mixer, blend:

  • 1 cup Greek Gods honey yogurt (full fat)
  • 1 cup unsweetened coconut milk
  • 1/2 cup Nutella (at room temp)

Add to ice cream maker and churn until frozen and thick.

Spread the coconut in the bottom of a plastic container with a lid.

Pour the churned frozen yogurt mixture over the coconut, cover and freeze.

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All images are the property of WS Winslow. Please use only with attribution.

Puritanism: The gift that keeps on giving

Mr. Slattern snapped this photo of a bumper sticker during a recent trip to Maine. I thought I’d share it with you just in case you were wondering why I drink

My life reduced to a bumper ornament.
Photo property WS Winslow.

Maine has it all. Or a lot of stuff anyway.

Ayuh. It’s time for summer vacation.

Wicked clean, as opposed to filthy dirty.
Photo property of Audrey Winslow

Living as I do here in the metropolis, I seldom encounter many of my fellow Mainers. When I do, there are the usual formalities — Where’re you from?   Do you know so and so? When’d you get out?  — as each of us tries to suss out what caliber trailer park the other sprang from, whether we might be related and which details of our personal/family history need to be glossed over. Having established one another’s bona fides, a good natured conversation usually ensues, more often than not with both of us lapsing into the native dialect, which almost invariably leads to general hilarity, and eventually, plans to hit the local watering hole for a couple of pops as soon as schedules permit.

There’s always a certain camaraderie in shared origins, and this is especially true if the family homestead happens to be in a place as weird as Maine. The particular language, common references, mutual food preferences and suchlike provide a solid foundation upon which many lifelong friendships are based, often much to the bemusement of outsiders, or as we tend to call them, flatlanders.

So as I contemplate my annual pilgrimage back to the land of my ancestors, I find that once again I’m looking forward to a little immersion in the cultural sesspit pool from which I emerged, mostly because Maine people are really, really funny. There’s a certain dryness of delivery that is difficult to convey in print, so I won’t even try. And then, there’s the accent. After a few cocktails, I have been known to offer a reasonable interpretation, but even without the accent, Maine humor is pretty SHAHP in large part because of its unique linguistic quirks.(If you’re one of my sensitive, caring readers — though I’m pretty sure I scared the last one away months ago — you might want to stop reading here. It gets fairly offensive fairly quickly.) Read the rest of this entry

Size does matter, but quality rules

How to choose fresh fish, avoid bad clams and triumph at the lobster pound by choosing the smaller, softer crustacean

Apparently lobster prices in Maine are at an all-time low. That’s very rough for all the hardworking lobstermen and women in my home state, and if you don’t think lobstering is tough work, think again. Imagine being out on the water in freezing weather (every month of the year but July) on an open boat deck, wearing rubber overalls while handling bait and pulling traps up from the bottom of the bay to earn your living. It’s cold, it’s backbreaking, it’s dirty and it’s dangerous.

HOWEVER

Whatever the price, if we don’t buy lobsters, the lobsterman’s labor is all for naught. So as we approach the season of my most favorite of all seafood, the soft shell lobster (or shedder), I thought you might profit by taking a gander at my seminal look at seafood, Avoid the Bad Clam, originally posted in October of last year. It contains many handy tips on choosing seafood to prepare at home and an invaluable guide to successfully navigating the lobster pound. Here you go:

Click the photo to read the original!

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