It has crossed my mind that I may be too selfish to write about the Maine coast in August. I don’t want to reveal my secret hideaway.
I could warn you that the mosquitos are fierce this year, high-pitched specks of pure evil, and that the humidity is akin to being licked by an enormous, overheated St. Bernard. There are deer flies and sharp barnacles, and they say that somewhere out there a lost shark is roaming around the harbors looking for lunch.
But it would be a discredit to my favorite place in the world, and to my favorite Mainer, to withhold the real story. Bug bites and perpetually damp towels are incidentals–the truth is that nothing rivals island life in the summer. Bayberry shrubs, clusters of spearmint and lush mosses, and tiny Maine blueberry bushes bake under a thick cover of spruce and birch trees. If you’re lucky enough to catch the hot spicy scent rising off the woods during an early morning boat ride, well, forget about trying to top that day’s experience.
I know of at least one other person with a similarly overwhelming passion for Maine. Robert P. Tristam Coffin was born in 1892 in Brunswick, not far from my own Down East haunt, and wrote about Maine’s people and places with rapturous praise until his death in 1955. His books are fixtures of my visits. By now they are musty and the pages spotty, but I know some essays practically by heart. To me, a not-very-hardy California girl, Coffin is the epitome of New England robustness and I can’t help but read his essays with an uncontrollable (though brief) longing for a more rustic lifestyle.
What really does it is the food. Coffin writes about Maine meals with an enthusiasm that I once found arrogant but now seems charming. Life in the salt, sun, and snow made him the ultimate authority on proper island sustenance, and he won’t let you forget it.
On berry picking in the springtime, Coffin casually mentions, “People have been known to cook wild strawberries, but they have all been hung, drawn, and quartered long, long ago.” Don’t you dare do anything with those otherworldly strawberries except eat them straightaway with a pot of fresh cream.
Eels, Coffin says, “are notoriously great lovers and strong on domestic faithfulness. I think they mate for life and Don Juans are frowned on pretty strongly.” It’s reassuring to think that the fish in Maine at the turn of the century were just as stalwart as the people.
If you can’t make New England baked beans the way the Coffin family does, you should probably just quit while you’re ahead. It is a process that lasts all weekend and involves much barring of doors and beating away of hungry, wholesome children, but my favorite passage is the stern warning about preparing the beans before cooking. “The bad beans–the ones you have missed in picking the beans over, to get the broken and marred ones out–will rise to the top and float. The water separates the sheep from the goats. Skim the bad beans out and throw them away, even though they look as perfect as the others. For they have air bubbles in them, they are touched with original sin, they have flinty hearts, they are wrong at the core somehow. The water knows.”
You see? If you can’t take them seriously, you will have delinquent beans on your hands.
I grew to love all of Coffin’s essays only after I got over the agony of reading about his father’s chicken and dumplings as a young teenager. I’d never actually eaten chicken and dumplings, but Coffin had me convinced that it was the greatest dish known to mankind and I would never, ever, ever get to taste anything similar. In part that is because the dumplings could only be made in a particularly swarthy one-of-a-kind iron kettle–a “law written out among the stars”–but I also unfortunately lack the deft touch with water and flour that Coffin’s father had. He rolled out thin, elastic sheets of dough with a green glass bottle, sliced them so that they “curled like rose petals,” and tossed the slices into a pot of chicken soup where…somehow…they bloomed and rose to the top of the broth as unimaginably beautiful dumplings.
Having no particular standard for dumplings, I was completely entranced, delighted, and tortured by Coffin’s effusive descriptions, which all go something like, “Once the dumplings have flowered, you can throw away the chicken for all of me, for the dumplings have sopped up, sublimated and transcended the taste of the breast, liver, drumsticks, and gizzard, and turned it into an exquisite fifth essence or Platonic model of what a chicken might be.” Well. The man was a bit of a Classics nerd, so I’m even more fond of him now than I was when I picked up his books as a kid, but those dumplings always leave me all hot and bothered. It is their unattainability that has kept me coming back to Coffin’s writing year after year. I know they were perfect, somehow, and I know too that I’ll never quite understand them. I’ve stopped trying; merely rereading the account of the glorious Sunday supper is nourishment enough by this point.
In the introduction to Mainstays of Maine, Coffin writes “I know I am writing about what I like. For I like eating. I think it is a sign of humanism to like it.” There is no setting more ideal for such a sentiment.