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The cottagefor that, despite its lack of quaintness, is what it islies tucked into the side of a hill, just below the road into town and above a small cove, where the water glistens through a stand of trees. The walls have been insulated, a modern bathroom has been installed, as has electric heat to help out the woodstove when winter pulls its worst. Still, without a doubt, it is a summer place.
You know this immediately. It has the air of vulnerability always present in the sort of Maine house that is too airy, too full of light to have been built for living in all year round. There are other hints, too, especially in the motley mix of splurge and meanness that is the one feature common to almost any summer house: the neatly painted wood floors and the real pine paneling on the one hand; on the other, salvaged from older houses, the conspicuously mismatched doors and window frames.
These have their charm. Not so the kitchen, which sits in an addition tacked onto the back of the house by a later owner when the cottage was remade into a year-round rental property. This room has its amenitieslots of space, good light, plenty of counters, a decent sink. Against these must be weighed walls covered by fiberboard embossed in fake pine, a dropped ceiling of greasy Styrofoam, cabinets crudely hammered out of cheap plywood and shellacked to a repellent gloss.
The floor is covered with a casually laid roll of linoleum that has begun to split in long, curling cracks where the addition meets the house, for that part of the room rises when the ground freezes and comes down when it thaws. The refrigerator, turned as low as the knob will go, still ices up lettuce in the vegetable bin. Two of the burners on theelectric range will barely workthe other two, as with most electric ranges, work only too well.
Worst of all, this is a real Maine kitchen. The slapdash standards of construction actually reinforce its just-us-folks sense of coziness that is the vernacular Maine counterbalance to winter ... and to cold. That was what flashed into my mind the moment I first stepped inside. I hardly noticed the fake paneling, the torn linoleum, the crummy ceiling. Instead, I had a sudden vision of the previous occupantan Israeli boat designer, as it happenedpulling open the battered aluminum storm door (a plywood square already replaced the lower wind-shattered pane of glass) on a bitter January night, stamping his feet and blowing on his fingers as he tugged it shut against the ice-edged darkness pushing in behind. A shiver ran up my spine.
I had come back to Maine to live in a summer cottage, because for me a Maine summer cottage was home. I had chosen Castine because it was almost an island, on the tip of a peninsula, out of the relentless up-and-down traffic of the highways that now sunder most Maine seacoast towns. At once patrician, historic, and picturesque, it was hardly free of summer folkthey came in droves. The difference was that most of them arrived by yacht. There were no motels on the outskirts of Castine, no fast-food places at its center. As full of traffic as it might be on a summer Sunday, you could walk the streets at nightfall from one dim streetlight to the next in total quiet, smelling the green sweat of the trees and watching the night float through the shoals of stars.
Sentimental? Well, right then I wanted to roll in sentimental. The first night I slept there I awoke at some early hour and heard an owl softly hooting as it flew by outside. The next morning I found roses blossoming in hedges all over town and wild swamp iris blooming in roadside gutters. I remember how purely happy I was those first few weeks, how often I kept thinking, Why have I waited so long?
I had first thought about what coming home might mean ten years before, when I moved into the upstairs apartment in my grandparents' house. I had come to keep an eye on my grandfathermy grandmother had died and he himself was failingbut it gave me the opportunity to return to the very place my mother brought me back to after I was born, to wait for my father to come back from the Second World War.
Instead, as it turned out, he made the army his career, and we went to him. I was four when my mother, my new baby brother, and I took the train to Texas. From there we went on to many other houses in manyother places. Some of these I remember better than others, but not one of them gave me a lasting sense of home.
Consequently, just as children forced to grow up with strangers learn to read adults with preternatural care, so have I come to read houses. Childhood memories, when summoned, arrive in the form of snapshots, a catalogue of unconnected favorite parts: the sharp twist of a staircase, the glint of a bath knob, the bright compactness of a butler's pantry, the dim, moonface glow of a radio dial on a bedside table.
There were two exceptions. One was my grandparents' house: a two-storied, dark-green shingled monster with a wide front porch, a basement made of granite blocks, an enormous, empty attic, and a second floor that my grandparents had turned into two one-bedroom apartments, which, when family wasn't staying in one or the other, they rented out.
Thirty years later, the one my mother and I had lived in together was nearly unchanged, right down to the electrical fixtures. The walls were papered with the same bland flowery chintz; the woodwork was stained the same dark oak; the same double sinkthe deep side for hand washing clotheswaited in the kitchen ... as did the same secondhand Magic Chef stove that my mother, pregnant with me, had helped my grandfather carry up the stairs.
I had left when I was four, but flashes of memory came back to me as I settled in at thirty-five. Looking out the same bedroom window at the soft summer evening light on the roofs across the street, I become again the restless three-year-old who was sent to bed with the day still bright outside.
Even so, I remain astonished at the smallness of the place; it had been so large before. This sense of seeing everything through a reversed telescope never entirely went away, and sometimes I would lie down on the floor, just to make it fall back in place.
If I had a home at all, I thought, this was it. Instead, I had only returned for one last visit. It was my grandparents' house, not mineas I would discover during the year of caretaking after my grandfather died, which he did just four years after I moved in. Soon after the estate was settled and the house sold, I came to Maine.
As some readers will already know, since, without my intending (or, until now, even noticing) this, it is the subject of the first chapter of each one of my three booksmy grandparents had also owned a house there, a summer cottage, built at the edge of a cliff on an island in Casco Bay. When I was growing up, more summers than not, my father drove usmy mother, two brothers, a sister, and mefrom wherever in the country we then lived to spend the summer there.
It was the one place in the world that I loved purelyby which I mean that it seemed to me so perfect that I craved it in all its parts. It haunts my memory the way certain childhood books dothe ones from which any random phrase can summon from deep memory a luminous wash that combines the sound of the parent's reading voice with the sight, feel, even smell of the actual page. This cottage is the place, were that possible, I would want to claim as home.
Except I can't. It's gone. When my grandfather died it went to an uncle, who renovated it out of recognition ... or, rather, into something very much like the cottage I was now renting in Castine. Although even to write this fills me with bitter sadness, I don't blame my uncle (in any case, he is now also dead). He loved the cottage; his way of expressing that love was to fix it up. He rewired it, insulated it, installed a real bathroom, walled in the screened porch ... and, somewhere along the line, he killed it. The last time I was there, it felt, it looked, like any other house.
A summer cottage, by definition, is only marginally a house and can never be a home; it is too long left empty for that. A proper home is drenched with the presence of the people who live in it even when they are away; enter it then and you feel an intruder, a violator of a private world. Go into a summer place left vacant for the winter and it leaps to welcome you with the impartial affection of a homeless dog. Pet me, it says, feed me; I'm yours.
Even the best-kempt summer house has this hunger for affection, this hint of bone against the skin. A true summer cottage must be left empty three seasons of the year if it is to remain permeable to the one season we want to let inside. In summer, in cottage as in clothing, the thinner the membrane we drape around us, the greater the pleasure in inhabiting it. We want the lawn to roll right up to the front door stoop, the fresh air to pour in through wide-open windows, the rain to be just that close as it slides past us off the roof.
A home radiates a comforting certainty not only because of its solidity but because it is defined by a series of near-inalterable rules, which, in a summer house, are in constant violation. My mother also called the place "the camp," which gets it right. We went there to camp out, no matter the walls, roof, doors, and windows. Not only did outside and inside get pleasantly confused, so did public and private, adult and childall familiar orderings rendered magically contingent. Each and every summer day, it seemsespecially to a childthe world has the chance of being made over fresh and new.
In our cottage we went to bed, not to a bedroom, but out on the front porch, to crawl under thick quilts and listen to the waves rustle, to the wind toss through the trees. On stormy nights, we climbed up the narrow stair ladder by the fireplace to the attic and the old horsehair mattress laid out on its floor. There, we breathed mysteriously ancient air and shone our flashlights on the things that pushed out from the shadows: old boots, chamber pots, coffee cans full of nails, piles of gramophone records. The rain pattered on the shingles over our heads and ran splashing into the rain barrels set into the wall beside us. The next day, we washed our faces with it out of a basin in the side yard, drying ourselves with the morning sun.
Here was a world a child could understand: the rain water collected in a barrel; the drinking water was hauled up in a bucket from a well. When we were cold we made a fire in the fireplace, and for a long time, when it was dark, we lit candles and kerosene lanterns ... and carried one with us to the outhouse. We brought big chunks of ice for the icebox up from the dock in a wheelbarrow. We dug clams and picked berries and roasted hot dogs on sticks over a fire at the shore.
This was a life, it goes without saying, that was far from self-sufficiencybut one very close to self-revelation. Here was a world made tangible to the senses, one whose flesh seemed as fragile as our own. It is a small thing, maybe, to lie snug and safe, listening to the cold wet night pawing at the wall beside your ear. An experience complexly sensuous and sad, it gives substance to our understanding of safety, warmth, and comfort. Today, only the summer cottage has walls thin enough for the outside to reach us at all.
This is why I came back as a young man to spend my summers on the island: to lie in bed and listen to rain fall on the roof. I came to have fires in the fireplace and to cook for myself in the tiny camp kitchen. Shake the home-ec associations out of "homemaking" and it almost describes my apparently paradoxical mission: to make a home in a house that could never really be one.
This, though, was the point. Just as some people feel most at home in a sailboat cabin or a hunting shack, what I needed was a house hungry for companya hunger physically embodied in the fireplace. Built by my grandfather when my mother and her brothers were children out of enormous stones that they dragged up from the beach, it was a hulking monster that sat in the center of the cottage and dominated all its rooms.
Maine island summers are full of rainy days and chilly evenings, of time spent sitting, reading, talking, eating, playing cards or boardgamesall of it done in front of the fire. A fireplace generates a sense of companionship not only because it casts off heat but because it is a presence in the room. You feed a fire, you clean up after it, and always, you keep an eye on it. In an ordinary house, "inside" is defined by absence: a pervasive, padded silence, itself drowned out by the television or the CD player's unctuous purr. Reality is neutered, like an unsexed, declawed pet. In a house warmed by fire, "inside" has a living edge. It is not entirely subservient to you.
Fire making was also the end of a whole series of related activities which connected me to this place: finding driftwood, rowing it home, cutting it into lengths, splitting it into logs, and stacking them in the woodbox under the stairs. All in all, I spent more time feeding the house than I ever spent feeding myself, because feeding it was what excited and pleased me. Like a child giving a carrot to a horse, I adored being, for that moment, the sole conduit of its needsnot a visitor or an owner, but a friend.
So I expected, when I came back to Maine to live, to reacquaint myself with wood. What I hadn't expected was to be thrown back into a Maine kitchen. When we think about the particulars that define "place," we usually see this in terms of bonuses: Maine equals lobsters, blueberries, fiddleheads, and soft-shell clams. But just as the best wines can come from vines planted in hardscrabble hillside plots, so can the limits of a particular kitchen, the cook's own microclimate, do more to shape our cooking than any other thing. And Maine, like nowhere else, is a place of hardscrabble kitchens.
The camp cottage kitchen was one kind, the one in Castine another. The camp kitchen was dark, dank, and cramped. Eight feet square, it was illuminated by a solitary wall fixture set over the stove. Any cooking task away from the frying pan was done in shadow. The single tap spilled a weak flow of rainwater that always had to be rationed and could never be drunk, as its faint and slightly sweet smell of sun-baked algae warned. A bucket of well water sat, a dipper by its side, on a special shelf beside the door. The stove's burners spluttered weakly and coated the pots with soot.
I haven't been there for a decade and I can still smell the thin, sharp stink of the propane gas and the sour, weedy smell of damp plywood; feel the pitted, black-encrusted bottoms of the huge aluminum frying pans; hear the acidulous hiss of water droplets vaporizing on the giant kettle as it heated the dishwater. I can see the pig-shaped woodencutting board; the huge green tin breadbox holding a half-empty, wax-paper packet of tired saltines; the kitchen shelf with its frilly-edged shelf paper and the row of soup cans on whose tops my mother had carefully written the year of purchase, since after one winter they all began to look the same.
Every year, the morning after my arrival, the pancakes would stick to the frying pan. The drip coffeepot refused to drip. The toast would burn on the toasting rack that fitted over a burner on the stove, and I would burn my fingers trying to get it off. This resistance to casual use brought back, bit by bit, forgotten skills. As I relearned the knack of washing dishes in a small basin of water, of striking kitchen matches against damp sandpaper, of baking my own bread in the willful oven, a self emerged from hibernation that I otherwise never experiencedone that knew its way around.
The Castine kitchen seemed much more ordinary, but that was because I hadn't learned to read it yet. The appliances were extra-large: the freezer section of the refrigerator took up one whole side; the stove had two ovens, one large, one small. The refrigerator spoke of distanceit was a long drive to the nearest supermarket, and farther still to the nearest good one.
What the stove spoke of, however, was weather. It would be months before I discovered this, but that Castine place was a house besieged by cold. Not only was it a cottage, but it was nestled low into the side of a wooded hill, where the winter sun could barely touch it. The kitchen, stuck to the far end of the house, had three outside walls. The winter cold pushed right through them. No amount of heat would drive it out; the best I could hope for, I learned, was to pin it to the floor. When I sat at the kitchen table, I could reach down and touch it, a foot-deep layer of frigid air gnawing quietly at my feet.
The Castine cottage had a tiny Irish Waterford woodstove in the living room. I took this to be the equivalent of a fireplace. I imagined myself lolling in its toasty warmth on winter mornings, frying up buckwheat pancakes and brewing coffee on its cooking plate. However, as the sole source of winter heat, the stove was at once too small to warm the house and far too hot to sit by. During the day, I seemed to be anywhere but in that room.
And how it ate up wood. I brought it in daily from the enormous, ice-locked woodpile, armloads full, and stacked it on the floor to thaw. All through the dead of winter I fed the stove, as if it were a baby, every two hours, day and night. I put my bed beside it to stay warm and tomake less onerous the nighttime feedings: midnight, two, four, six, and eight.
Wood: the whole place had a permanent smoky tang. Little wonder that, the summer after, I was inspired to dig my parents' meat smoker from their barn and take it home. I set it up on the cottage deck and, for the first time in my life, began to turn out serious barbecue. A further permutation would be the building of (and subsequent struggle to master) an outdoor wood-fired bread oven.
But I lived all winter in that summer cottage in front of the double-barreled electric stove. Each morning, first thing, I used the small oven to roast a fresh batch of coffee beans; when I came back from the walk into town, I made a batch of sausage and biscuits in it to eat while I was going through the mail. The small oven was also the perfect place for baking beans, the larger one for making a skillet of griddle cornbread. There was never such a situation for baking in my life and never such persuasive motivation. By the next summer I was turning out fresh raspberry cake and green pea pie.
Even as a teenager, I could feel the summer cottage of my youth slowly but steadily sloughing off its past as a snake does its skin. Electricity came up the road; electric lights and the refrigerator followed soon after. As islanders phased out their iceboxes, the ice boat stopped coming. With electricity, kerosene lamps became at once an affectation and a hazard. And few Maine towns now permit outhouses in any but the most temporarily inhabited hunting camps; the island cottage now has indoor plumbing.
All this is fine. It isn't that I can't bear how things changeit's that I can't bear to be the one who does the changing. If, at forty-four, I found myself a year-round tenant in someone else's summer cottage, it was because I'm gun-shy of owning property. For years and years I thought of myself as someone who yearned to own his own place. But when I had the chance to buy the cottage in Castine at the end of my tenure there, I turned it down. Matt and I moved to Steuben instead.
Like everyone else, I cling to the things I own, but I have learned to tremble at the idea of possessing placeto live in a summer cottage is to be constantly reminded of its vulnerability. Every texture, every timbrethe smell of sun-soaked shingles or of coffee percolating up through attic floorboardsreminds us that however often we may be allowed to experience these things, we can also never hope to own them. To try to is to risk losing everything about them that we love.
To buy the cottage would have meant becoming a home owner. It would have meant doing what the owners did the moment I moved out: ripping out the kitchen ceiling, floors, and walls; installing modular cabinetry complete with dishwasher; taking the woodstove out of the living room and putting in forced-air oil heat instead.
The essential difference between the local and the summer person, between the owner and the renter, then, is this: the latter is always conscious of his or her good fortune in being there at all. The local person sees the same things but is distanced from their poignancy; he is as unlikely to surrender to their sheer delight as to lie in bed and marvel at the beauty of his wife. It is there, he is not exactly insensible to it, but affectionif it is expressed at allis conveyed through the deprecation that possession inevitably brings. Yeah, yeah, but you should have seen her when. Or, more dourly: Yeah, yeah, but you don't have to live with her.
Our culture doesn't permit our imagination the luxury of perceiving even appreciatingthe fact that houses also have a life. It is a realization possible only for people who have stayed in the same one all their lives, and they experience it subconsciouslythat is, as a strong but inarticulate resistance to change.
Those of us who move into such a house find its aura almost impossible to save. The truth is, you can't move into someone else's place; instead, you inherit the mess that is their leavings. These things, everything in you rightly says, have to be fixed up. Then one thing leads to anotherand there you are. The only alternative is to somehow leave what is not well enough alone.
Doing that is why, I think, each of my Maine kitchens has left its mark on me. They have given my cooking a certain shape that, when I moved on, it would both never assume again ... and never quite escape. Vulnerability to place: what else is "here" about? If you don't change a place into you, it will, after its fashion, change you into it. And you may get the better of the exchange in ways you don't expect.
I moved into the cottage in Castine in June of 1987. Summer went, and for the first time in my life, I stayed. I was so happy about that that I immediately started thinking, once again, This must be the place. As I now know, it wasn't. All that the feeling of welcome meant was that this place had remained just enough of a summer cottage to take a stranger in.
But that was all right. A few months later still, when it was me coming out of the cold into that winter kitchen, I started to hear what the roomhad tried to tell me from the first. Go throw some logs on the fire and get the coffee started, it was saying ... stay awhile.
CASTINE, MAINE, JULY-OCTOBER 1987 STEUBEN, MAINE, JUNE 1994
I first came across this pie in Camille Glenn's Heritage of Southern Cooking, and I think I would have been drawn to it even without her introductory evocation:
If I were asked to name the greatest fresh vegetable dish in the whole wide world, it would have to be Fresh Green Pea Pie ... It has succulence, flavor, freshness, elegance, and charmand one doesn't meet it every day.
The notion of combining a rich short crust with the clean sweet taste of green peas moved directly from the page to my mouth, in that way that signalseven if you're just idly leafing through a cookbookthe first encounter with a recipe that is going to be hanging around in your kitchen for a while.
Fresh green-pea pie may seem like a strange dish to make itself at home in a Maine kitchen (how truly Southern it is, I just don't knowI've never seen it mentioned in any other cookbook). But when I set out to make it, I discovered that my subconscious had been busy adapting the recipe to accommodateand resolvetwo of my culinary preoccupations.
The first of these had been an obsession for several years: how to make a chicken pot pie in which the chicken is actually moist and succulent and the crust not soggy. Green-pea pie offered a solution. Make a pie seasoned with a hint of onion and lots of little bits of crisped chicken fatwhat Jewish cooks call gribenes, the poultry variant of cracklingsand cook the chicken separately.
This proposition also addressed my second concern, which may not be a central one in your household but certainly was in mine: what to do with those large chunks of chicken fat that you pull out of the bird's cavity before poaching or roasting it. For a long time my answer was to bundle them in plastic wrap and toss them into the freezer, where they had a tendency to accumulate.
Since peas and onions (or, better, shallots) are about the only thingsworth putting in a chicken pie besides the chicken meat, it's no surprise that they make a terrific pie by themselves. And frozen peas do it best. This is because the baking period is just the time they need to heat up to perfection. If you use fresh peaswhich ordinarily I prefer, even if they're old and mealy (as, in supermarkets, they always are)they have to be precooked before they go into the pie, and so come out of it overcooked. Perhaps fresh baby peas straight from the garden would work ... but these are too rare a treat to risk finding out.
Green-pea pie made itself so quickly at home because it took a few simple things I already had in my kitchen and did something special to them. If you think a pie of peas is a silly notion, cut a slice and watch the contents swirl out into an alluvial delta of sparkling emerald ... taste the tender sweetness that melds so softly with those rich flakes of crust and unctuous little bits of chicken fat. From then on, you'll find reasons to make it often, chicken on the side or no. If your freezer isn't full of chicken-fat packs, a pea pie can also be seasoned with salt pork or with butter and a spritz of herb vinegar. However you make it, don't forget that it's a fine meal all by itself.
(SERVES 4 TO 6)
Your favorite pastry for a standard 9-inch 2-crust pie Cooking oil ¼ cup chicken fat, cubed 3 or 4 shallots, minced 3 cups frozen tiny green peas 1 tablespoon minced tarragon or parsley Salt and pepper to taste
Remember to prepare the pastry ahead of time so it has a chance to relax in the refrigerator for about half an hour before you roll it out. When it is time to make the pie, preheat the oven to 375°F. While it is heating, roll out the pastry for the pie, setting the bottom crust into the pie pan.
In a hot skillet made slick with a little cooking oil, render the chicken fat, scraping the bits as they crisp into a small bowl. When all the bits have been removed, add the minced shallots and sauté briefly until translucent. Put these in the bowl with the fat bits, along with about a tablespoon of the hot rendered chicken fat. Pour in the 3 cups of undefrostedpeas and mix together well. Sprinkle with the minced herb and the salt and pepper.
Pour this mixture into the pie shell. Brush the edges with a little water and press on the top crust firmly, trimming away any excess dough and crimping the two crusts together with your fingers or a fork. Make slits in the top crust with the tip of a sharp paring knife so that steam can escape. Bake the pie until the crust is golden, about 35 minutes. Let it cool for 5 minutes or so before serving, but do serve it hot.
Maine Home Fried
Crossroad Farm in Jonesport, Maine, is down a dirt road leading off the eastern end of the loop that is state Route 187. The round trip from our house in Steuben is about fifty miles. Matt and I drove it this spring for fresh asparagus; we're back this fall for potatoes. Before it dips into the woods, the track runs past blueberry barrens where, the last time we drove through, hives of bees were stacked, surrounded by an electric fence to keep out honey-hungry bears. Now the bees are gone, the blueberries picked, and the plants a brilliant swathe of scarlet beneath the cool, faded blue of the October sky.
Briefly, the road gravel turns into rocks that seem the size of grapefruits. When we hit this stretch on our first visit, we wondered if Crossroad Farm ever had a repeat customer ... or how many lost heart before they even got there. This would explain the sign that suddenly appears out of the trees to promise that the farm really is just ahead. Sure enough, the road evens out and the woods pull back to reveal a tranquil maze of small green plots burgeoning with vegetable life.
To complete the picture, add a large farm pond, a windmill, a funky Age of Aquarius farmhouse with a giant lilac tree at one corner, outbuildings overflowing with farm implements, and a pair of ancient Land Rovers, regal even in decay. The requisite farmhouse dogs, at once friendly and suspicious, bound up barking to case out the car and its occupants. Then they return to their sunbath in the middle of the road. Everyone else is away at work. If you want help, blow your horn.
Although Arnold and Bonnie Pearlman grow a wealth of organic salad and cooking greens, onions, squashes, strawberries, and other produce,they have a passion for potatoes and raise about seventy varieties. This may not be a world record for a farm, but it's more than any other place we know and plenty enough for us. The Pearlmans have a cold cellar that keeps many of these potatoes perfectly from harvest right through to the next summer.
On our spring asparagus runs, Bonnie also sold us small bags of Bellruss, Carola, Early Bangor, Early Gem, Red LaSoda, Desirée, and Yellow Finn, all in prime shape. Today she brings out a bag of German Butterballs, another of Green Mountain, and still another of a new, highly rated red potato, the Bison. On top of these she places as a gift two potatoes she wants us to try: a rare variety, Levitt's Pink, the flesh of which is a mottled, deep rose.
Crossroad Farm is unique only in the number of its varieties. All the different farmstands we visitSilveridge Farm in Bucksport, Hay's Farm in Blue Hill, Darthia Farm in Gouldsboro, Fairview Farm in North Brooksvillegrow potatoes and sell them to their neighbors at prices (unless they're buying by the fifty-pound sack) that are higher than the supermarket's. But there are still a lot of people in Maine who like potatoes enough to want to know exactly what they're buying. They don't want just boiling or baking potatoes; they want Irish Cobblers, Kennebecs, Shepodies, Katahdins, Yellow Finns, Green Mountains.
Not that these potatoes are necessarily obscure. The Kennebec, as you might guess from its name, is a standard Maine all-purpose potato; Irish Cobbler, a delicious, mealy white potato, is one of five seed potatoes sold nationwide in the Burpee seed catalogue. Even so, there is something touching about stopping at a small roadside farmstand, untended, with a coffee can left out on the table for you to put your money in, and finding a single, not-quite-full bag of potatoes for sale with IRISH COBBLERS scrawled on it in red crayon. The bags of tomatoes and green beans, the peppers, the broccoli, and the summer squash are not similarly identified; the only other vegetable the Maine farmer treats with equal respect is her dried beans; the only fruit, her apples.
At first glance, you might not think Maine's love for potatoes is reflected all that much in Maine eating. A potato-chip lover, I came here hoping to find a local mom-and-pop concern frying chips fresh all day from spuds picked from their own potato patch and selling them in grease-stained, brown paper bags out of their kitchen door ... the way, for example, you can buy crabmeat in these parts. If there is such a place, we haven't found it.
There is a single world-class kettle-cooked Maine commercial chipMaine Coast potato chipsbut even in-state, these aren't all that easy to come by. Go into any 7-Eleven in Pennsylvania Dutch country and you'll find stacked on the snack racks more local brands of potato chips than you can easily count. Not so here, and while Maine Coast potato chips have that clean, salty-sweet, fresh-fried taste that separates the leaders from the pack, they lack the determinedly distinctive this-is-the-way-we've-always-done-it character of, say, the lard-fried chips produced by Dieffenbach's in Womelsdorf, PA.
Still, eating around, we found that if we order mashed potatoes in even the least pretentious of Maine eateries, chances were they would arrive hand-mashed, freshly made, and good. If this observation hasn't been confirmed by more rigorous testing, it's because we discovered at the same time that Maine is one of the best places in the nation to eat French fries. Even the ordinary ones are crisp and good, and the extraordinary ones can be something truly special.
Up in Frenchville, at the very top of the state, Rosette's Restaurant is said to serve up the world's best French fries. If they are, they have some competition. In the restaurant listings in the 1991 Maine Times Summer Guide, Winnie's Dairy Bar and Restaurant in Presque Isle boasts of just two specialties: lobster stew and homemade fries. And Doris's Café in Fort Kent deep-fries potato cubes into golden, crusty squarespotato eating lifted right into home-fry heaven.
All this called to us when we finally drove up to Aroostook County, and we even thought of making the run clear up to Frenchville to try the fries at Rosette's. But I was unexpectedly sandbagged in Presque Isle by Fat Man's Texas-Style Barbecue. After snacking on half a slab of ribs slathered with the Fat Man's own secret sweet and vinegary sauce, I felt no special urgency to drive another sixty miles for a French-fry tasting. But we did stop in Houlton at the Elm Tree Diner, which serves four different kinds of fries (not counting home fries): French, country, curly, and barbecue. We ate the curly and the country, and can especially recommend the former: wiggly strips of potato, peel and all, about the thickness of a McDonald's fry but twice as long, crisper, and, well, better.
I mention all this not only because I like fried potatoes but because, to understand the Maine way with potatoes, you have to forget about fancy cooking, signature dishes, regional specialties. Whenever a bunch of "Maine" potato recipes are assembled in a book, there's always the whiff of the county extension service to them. These recipes are meant, mostly, for out-of-state cooks, who, when it comes to potatoesit is felt here in Mainecan't leave well enough alone.
Some Maine cooks can't either, but the best do. The potato, not bread or rice or pasta, is this state's starch of choice, the backbone of Maine cooking. Backbones should be solid not ornate, and solid is the word for the potato in Maine food. It bulks up chowders, comes to the table smothered with salt-pork-and-clam gravy, and gets mashed and made into doughnuts. But the real glow comes when potato talk turns to the frying pan.
French-fried potatoes are one thing, pan-fried potatoes another. One is restaurant food, the otheralthough every eating place here worth its salt has them on the menu, toois something else. After all, they aren't called home fries for nothing. I ask Bonnie Pearlman, who grows those seventy varieties, how she cooks her potatoes. She shoots me a surprised, slightly wary glance and answers, "Well, mostly we fry them."
It was Noel Perrin who lodged the Green Mountain potato in my brain. In a chapter called "The Gourmet Potato Grower" in Third Person Rural, he reports on a series of tastings he held with friends and neighbors. The entries were the fifteen varieties of potatoes he grew that year on his Vermont farm. The preferred mode of testing? Frying. The ultimate winner? Green Mountain. After reading this, I began to notice how often that particular high-starch potato is mentioned when people talk about flavor.
The Green Mountain potatoEdward Behr further instructed me in "Potatoes," an essay in the summer 1991 issue of his food letter The Art of Eatingwas introduced in 1885 by a Vermont breeder, O H. Alexander. At the time, Aroostook, the state's largest and northernmost county, was already potato country, and potato farmers there were soon growing, essentially, only two varieties of potato: Irish Cobbler and Green Mountain.
The Irish Cobbler was an early producer that went to market in the summer, bringing needed cash until the massive fall harvest of the latter. As Charles Morrow Wilson wrote in Aroostook: Our Last Frontier (1937):
There are 108 breeds of dogs in the United States. There are about the same number of varieties of potatoes. The great standby of Aroostook, and of most of New England, is the Green Mountain, a smooth-surfaced, brown-gray Vermont potato which has held dominance for three-quarters of a century. Next to theGreen Mountain comes the Cobbler, a round pinkish potato, earlier than the Green Mountain, pink-blossomed (the Green Mountain's is a creamy white), comprising from a fifth to a third of the Aroostook crop.
Such monocropping exacts its penalties. Even as Wilson was penning that passage, both these potatoes were struck down by the ravages of disease. Their reign was over. By the time chemical sprays were devised to control the disease, Aroostook's large commercial farmers had switched over to other varieties, and with these they have stayed.
Jim Gerritsen of Prairie Wood Farm told us that organic farmers still find Green Mountain and Irish Cobbler potatoes almost impossible to grow in Aroostook County. Even here in Washington County, the Pearlmans have trouble with them; Jim Gerritsen, situated between Houlton and Presque Isle, doesn't even bother. And the one potato at Chris Holmes's New Penny Farm in Presque Isle that isn't certified as organic is his large-sized Green Mountain.
Still, this potato remains popular with Aroostook home gardeners and, it seems, in one particular way with some commercial growers, too. We read in the catalogue of Pinetree Garden, a Maine nursery that sells Green Mountain seed potatoes (grown, as it happens, at Crossroad Farm), that Aroostook potato growers, while they raise field after field of Kennebecs and Superiors for the market, still put in a few rows of Green Mountains for themselves. This is the reason for our trip to Aroostook, or "The County," as it's known here in Maine: to find out if this is really so.
Or at least in part. Already, our experience with Maine potatoes has drawn us to the feeling people here have for them, something as elusive and yet as real as the tone in my father's voice when he talks about the Kennebecs and Green Mountains he used to grow in his own garden. Ed Behr quotes Eugene H. Grubb, potato expert and author of The Potato (1912), who remarks that in Aroostook the potato So, we're also heading for The County in the hope of catching some echo of that century-old conversation.
is the sole topic of conversation where two or more men are gathered together ... Houlton, Maine, the center of potato work, is the only place where I have been talked to a standstill on the subject of potatoes.
Past Calais, heading north, U.S. 1 plunges into dense woodlands of spruce and birch. For almost a hundred miles, it seems as if we'll neveremerge. Just beyond Danforth, about a third of the way to Houlton, the highway climbs up the side of Peekaboo Mountain and runs for a few spectacular minutes above tree level. To the east the Chiputneticook Lakes sprawl out like a vast inland sea; to the west and north the landscape falls away in mile after mile of autumnal forest until it comes to rest at the edge of the mist-shrouded foothills of Mount Katahdin. No farmland in view. And none will be, either, for the next thirty miles.
Then the highway swings around Westford Hill and arrives at Hodgdon Corners. The woods recede and small fields appear. These become larger and larger until, finally, there is only farmland, a landscape of sky and field. On this October morning, the sky spreads all around us, above and beyond, as far as the eye can see, and the effect is surprisingly exhilarating, almost moving. Expressions like "room to breathe" and "a place where a man can stand up" suddenly take on weight. John Logan calls Aroostook Maine's big-sky country, and that's exactly right. This is the way we imagine Montana, the Dakotas, Saskatchewan.
John Logan is director of quality control at the Maine Potato Board, headquartered in Presque Isle. Some of the questions we want to ask him will have already been answered when we reach his office, because, as luck would have it, we've arrived in The County in the middle of the potato harvest. In fact, Jim Gerritsen, whose farm we had also planned to visit, has had to beg off; rain is threatening to arrive by the end of the week, and he's going to be out in the fields all day, getting in as many potatoes as he can.
By the time we reach Houlton, once the farthermost army post in the northern wilderness, now the county seat and first of several citiesPresque Isle, Caribou, Limestone, Fort Kentbuilt by potato money, U.S. 1 runs, as highways always do in serious farming country, as if laid across the map with a ruler. We have already begun to pass huge bulk trucks, built like railroad hopper cars, piled high with freshly harvested potatoes. Now we see the enormous, galvanized-steel-sided warehouses of the potato distributors and, more picturesquely, the farmers' own potato barns. Because these buildings must keep their contents moist and cool, they are really giant root cellars, built when possible into the side of a hill, but otherwise with their outside walls heaped up with dirt.
A silo full of wheat may inspire admiration for the farmer who grew it but not necessarily make you want to go out and bake a loaf of bread. Similarly, no visions of fries dance in our heads as we watch these bulktrucks roll by, and it's a relief when small roadside stands begin to appear. These often sit right in front of the farmhouse, selling that farmer's own crop of potatoes, bagged in ten-, twenty-, and fifty-pound sacks. Hand-lettered signs offer Irish Cobblers, Shepodies, and, again and again, Green Mountains. There's no doubt that the Green Mountain still lives in Aroostook County, and it can be had here for a song: the fifty-pound sack we eventually buy will cost us six dollars, or twelve cents a pound.
A little later we're sitting in John Logan's office, talking potatoes. He tells us that the Green Mountain's demise resulted from its susceptibility to an aphid-carried disease, net-necrosis, which, at the time, farmers were unable to control. They've since moved on to more productive as well as more disease-resistant varieties, such as Kennebec, Katahdin, and Maine's current potato king, the Superior.
He agrees that the Green Mountain does have an excellent flavor, but it's clear that his heart is where the action is today, not yesterday, in Maine potato production. We've already seen that the farm of every organic potato grower we've visited could be easily fitted onto one massive Aroostook field. John Logan's job is to advise these commercial growers, and they make money by supplying the potatoes most in demand. This means paying attention to the needs of commercial processors, potato-chip makers, and the large, bulk-buying supermarket chains.
At our local Shop'n Save, however, we've noticed a small but growing number of specialty potatoesorganic russets, "chef's" potatoes (a large, oblong white)and the introduction of yellow-fleshed potatoes like Yukon Gold, whose packaging emphasizes their "buttery" taste. Is there any chance that this might foreshadow a trend?
Mr. Logan concedes that the yellow-fleshed potatolong a European favoritemay be finding a market here, but the fact remains that the very phrase "gourmet potato" in commercial parlance refers to size, not flavor or type. In short, there is no perceptible effort by commercial growers to offer consumers potatoes grown especially for flavor. There are still too few eaters who find that small distinction between good and great potato taste something worth seeking out ... and paying for. Consequently, while the Maine Potato Board puts out many pamphlets and brochures, not one lists Maine growers of specialty eating potatoes, mail-order or otherwise.
Not that Mr. Logan is oblivious to potato flavor. Although more burly than heavy, he offers his girth as evidence of an interest in potatoespursued outside working hours. The one time in our conversation when gears shift out of the informational into the personal is when we begin to talk about our efforts to perfect our pan-fried potatoes.
He smiles widely and leans back in his chair. He gestures with his arm. Yes, he says, you have to start with the right frying pana cast-iron frying pan, of courseand butter, plenty of good butter, not any kind of substitute. His own approach is to bake them first and then fry them. And the potato from his own garden he likes best prepared this way is the Alasclear, a newly developed Alaskan variety of the all-purpose oblong white.
We share with John Logan his enthusiasm for the Maine potato and the Maine cast-iron-pan-fried potato, but as we shall now see, we go our separate way as to specifics, regarding both potato and method.
My first winter in Maine, I bought a fifty-pound sack of Delta Golds from Hay's Farm and ended up giving away whole grocery bags full. I loved their taste and texture, but I was simply out of practice cooking potatoes. One year later, Matt had moved in with me, and we bought another fifty-pound bag, this time Kennebecs from Silveridge Farm. When we asked Bob Chasse what his Superiors tasted like, he presented us with a ten-pound bag of those and another of his Chieftains so that we could find out. We ate them allKennebecs, Superiors, Chieftains by sometime in January, without giving away a single one.
On the cellar stairs this autumn sits a fifty-pound bag of yellow Carolas, another of Green Mountains, and assorted weights of several other varieties. We've been learning potatoes. We make different potato soups, a lot of chowders, scalloped potatoes with walnuts and Cheddar, mashed potatoes topped with sautéed scallions and mushrooms or greens. Our current day-to-day eating consists mostly of single-dish meals made of pasta, bread, rice, or potatoes, and vegetables, with little or no meat (which is mostly saved for special occasions). This means that we rarely use potatoes as a side dish. Instead, they are themselves the reason for the meal.
So, for a long time, home-fried potatoesa side dish, it seemed to us, if ever there was oneplayed no role at all in our eating. Then I chanced to read the section on pan-fried potatoes in Haydn Pearson's The Countryman's Cookbook, written in 1946. He writes that when hewas a boy their farmhouse kitchen had two large cast-iron spiders (or frying pans)1 because his father
liked fried potatoes for supper often. We varied them of course with chowders; we liked New Hampshirestyle tomato soup with pilot bread. Sometimes we had moist gravy hash. But year in and year out, fried potatoes was a standard supper dish, and that's why a home needs two spiders.
The first thing, then, to learn about pan-fried potatoes is that they can make the meal. This was never a secret in Yankee cooking, where it was known as "necessity mess," "very poor man's dinner," or, more appealingly, "Scootin'-'Long-the-Shore."2 But like many vegetable-intensive main-course dishes, it had the stigma of poverty to it and, like them, too, lost favor as meat became more affordable.
It might be time to look at them again. A plate of fried potatoeseaten with a small bowl each of cottage cheese and homemade bread-and-butter pickles, or perhaps a salad of bitter greens and a piece or two of bacon on the sidemakes a fine supper for two consenting adults, who know that pan-fried potatoes have, ounce for ounce, fewer calories than unbuttered bread, and that frying is a synonym not for damnation but for satisfaction.
This, of course, is true only if they are made right. What we are not talking about here, as Haydn Pearson puts it, is that
insipid, mangled, tired-looking conglomeration that most people call fried potatoes. The average cook takes any two- or three-day-old cooked potatoes that have been accumulating in the refrigerator, chops them into defenseless, spineless bits, and calls the result fried potatoes.
Unfortunately, this is the way most peopleand especially most restaurants, including Maine onesmake home fries, from leftover boiled potatoes. This is because the dish takes twice as long to make with raw potatoes. But such potatoes, while they are an acceptable side dish atbreakfast pushed up next to scrambled eggs and bacon, simply do not stand up as a main dish.
Neither should pan-fried potatoes be confused with French-fried potatoes: two different methods, two different ideas. This needs mentioning because more than a few people expect too muchor the wrong thing entirelyfrom a skillet of home fries. Like ambitious parents with a reluctant child, they keep pushing harder when they should ease up.
The pan-fried potato cannot be a French fry. Deep-fat frying is fast and furious. Intense heat encases the potato, cooking it through in minutes. The only potato that can cook this fast is the starchy, loose-fleshed baking potatomost familiarly, the russet. The hot fat immediately seals shut the potato's surface; the super-heated moisture vapor within each fry cooks and fluffs the interior as, expanding, it finally escapes ... leaving behind a dry, flaky inside and a golden, crisp outside. This effect is enhanced by presoaking (or prefrying) the slices, which removes the starch.
The pan-fried potato is gently fried one side at a time in a small amount of grease. Pushing up the heat cooks the surfaces without reaching the interior, turning out a product that is burned, gummy, greasy, lousy. Most cooks try to overcome this problem by using precooked potatoes. Unfortunately, potato flavor is very evanescent. Pan-fried potatoes made from already cooked potatoes are, at best, a pale imitation of the real thing. Made from scratch, their inside is meltingly tender and flavorful; their outside is more than just crisp ... it is brown and crunchy. There are no shortcuts to this effect. To achieve it, pan-fried potatoes must be cookedplease mark this downslowly.
MAINE HOME FRIES
Potatoes Fat Salt Fresh parsley, minced Black pepper
THE POTATO. As it turns out, the Green Mountain makes an excellent pan-fried potato. Some suggest you soak it in cold water first to remove some of the starch. We feel this is a mistake. True, the unsoaked potato is more likely to stick to the pan, but strategic thrusts of a thin-edged metal spatula can take care of that. Left in place, the potato's starchcaramelizes in the hot fat to create a dense, crunchy crusta pan-fried potato that beats hollow almost any French fry we've ever eaten.
However, much to our surprise, good-flavored, waxy-textured potatoes also make fine pan fries. These take longer to cook and their crunchiness is not as spectacular, but they have more substance, both in the pan and in the mouth. The mealy texture of the Green Mountain allows so much water to evaporate that the pieces actually shrink while you cook them, and the resulting fry, like French bread, is largely crust. The pan-fried waxy potato, on the other hand, keeps its moisture. Frying it produces a crisp outside that enrobes a dense, molten-soft, and delicious interior. When pan-fried potatoes are to make a meal, a red-skinned Bliss, Norland, or Bison will give you more of one. Only the all-purpose Carola was a disappointment, without enough starch to give it crunch or the density to provide a really luscious interior.
THE PREPARATION. Choose your potatoes, and clean and peel them.3 We find four medium potatoes (about 11/2 pounds) make a meal for two or a side dish for four, andmore to the pointcompletely cover the bottom of a 12-inch skillet. The smaller the cubes, the faster they cook, but also the more they crowd the pan: we cut ours into half-inch dice.
THE PAN should be large and have a cover. Also, because the potatoes are to be cooked slowly over a low flame, it should have a heavy bottom to distribute the heat evenly. Cast iron is the traditional choice. As Robert P. Tristram Coffin wrote in 1944 in Mainstays of Maine, one of the few wrongs war ever righted was that it got aluminum out of the kitchen and back into airplane bodies.
THE FAT. Use no cooking oil except olive or peanut oil. Any fat that suits your taste is finegoose, duck, or chicken fat are all excellent. So is rendered lard or salt pork or bacon fat or suet or, of course, butter. Only good (not great) olive oil or peanut oil enhances the taste of potatoes; other vegetable oils simply replace it with their own, and despite what the cookbooks say, there is no such thing as a tasteless oil. Butter is the beginner's best choice. It makes delicious fried potatoes, and it's a sure guide to correct temperature. Ignore cooks who warn you to mix the butter with oil to keep it from burning. The secret to perfect pan-fried potatoes is gentle cooking ... slow enough so the butter doesn't burn.
THE COOKING. Put about two tablespoons of the chosen fat or oil in the pan. The bottom should be well oiled but not swimming with grease. We're not deep-frying, remember. The trick is to allow them to stickjust that muchto the bottom of the pan. No stick, no crust ... which is why potatoes take forever to fry on a nonstick surface. To start, melt the fat slowly over a low-medium flame. After a while the surface of the fat will cover over with bubbles. These will begin to move, and a faint hiss can be heard. This is your cooking temperature. Don't be tempted to turn the flame up higher. (You'll feel the pull to do so, first when you put in the potatoes and there's no loud sizzle ... and later when you want things to hurry along. Resist.)
Distribute the potato pieces evenly over the bottom of the pan. Sprinkle them with a generous pinch or two of salt. Now cover them and let them cook for twenty minutes. The only noise you should hear is that gentle, bubbling hiss. At the twenty-minute mark, lift off the cover (carefully, so that the moisture condensed on it doesn't spill back into the pan) and put it aside. Give the potatoes their first turn, patiently using a flexible-edged metal spatula to free any potato flesh that has stuck to the pan. Here, and in all the turns to follow, you'll find that your fingers are a necessary accessory tool.
Raise the flame just a little. Now turn the potatoes over with the spatula every ten minutes for the next half hour, for a total of four turns. The edges of the potatoes should be getting crisp. Raise the heat one more timeagain, only just a littleand now turn them every five minutes for the next twenty minutes (four more turns).
Total cooking time is 1 hour and 10 minutes. Total number of turns, eight. Depending on the moisture content of the potatoes and the intensity and evenness with which your skillet radiates heat, the potatoes will be about done. Don't despair if they need more cooking, just keep turning. By the time the inside has melted into a buttery soft amalgam, the outer surface will have turned brown and crunchyand will stay that way. During the last minutes of cooking, mix in the fresh parsley and grind some black pepper over them. Serve out onto warmed plates and eat at once. You'll find the meal worth the wait.
THE SOMETHING ELSE. Pan-fried potatoes are amenable to a host of simple adaptations, as long as you take care when the additional ingredients are added: put them in too early and they'll burn to a crisp before the potatoes are done. The following variations are exercises in dealing with that problem; good in themselves, they also provide a variety of useful strategies for working out your own improvisations. The first,sometimes topped with a handful of grated Cheddar, is the Maine camp standby. The rest, although from out of state, are all good, too.
Onions and salt pork or bacon. Dice a slice or two of salt pork or bacon and try it out in the skillet until it crisps up and gives off some fat. Remove and save the crispy bits. Calculating one small onion for each skillet of potatoes (more and you have a potato-onion stew), cut this into fine dice. Prepare and cook the potatoes as directed above. Add the diced raw onion at the end of the first twenty minutes of cooking. When the potatoes are done and the onion bits edged with brown, sprinkle on the reserved crunchy salt pork or bacon bits and serve at once.
Olive oil and garlic. Use one or two garlic cloves for each skillet of potatoes. Slightly flatten these with the side of a cleaver and let them steep in the cooking oil for an hour or so. Just before cooking, fish out the cloves and mince them fine. Add to the potatoes during their last five minutes of cooking, along with a generous amount of minced fresh parsley or a modest amount of minced rosemary or oregano. Use a spatula to mix this into the potatoes, finish cooking, and serve.
Anchovies and garlic. This classic Italian combination calls for frying the potatoes in olive oil to which a small amount of anchovy and garlic has been added. This hint of briny pungency enhancesrather than overpowersthe flavors of potato and olive oil. Calculate 2 tablespoons of olive oil, 2 anchovy fillets, and one or two garlic cloves, for each skillet of potatoes. An hour or so before cooking, slightly flatten the garlic with the side of a cleaver and allow this and the anchovy fillets to steep in the cooking oil to flavor it. Just before cooking, remove them from the oil and mince them fine. When the potatoes are nearly done, stir in the garlic-anchovy mixture and a generous amount of chopped parsley or a more discreet amount of crushed dried oregano.
Cheese. Pan-fried potatoes and cheese is a dish that appears in many European cuisines, the recipe varying mostly as to the cheese. A soft, easy-to-melt, mellow cheese is preferable, such as a good Cheddar, Cantal, mozzarella, or Gruyère. Use at least 2 ounces of the cheese to each skillet of potatoes. Grate the cheese coarsely and sprinkle it over the top of the finished potatoes. Serve as soon as the cheese has melted and turned slightly crusty where it touches the surface of the pan. A grating of black pepper enhances this dish, as does a small pinch of an appropriate herb, mincedthyme or, very judiciously, a little fresh sage.
A NOTE ON HASH BROWNS
Hashed browns is the dish in which to use leftover boiled potatoesand since more and more Americans encounter these solely as greasy, deep-fat-fried mucilaginous patties served as a breakfast item at fast-food places, it's worth remembering what they are like when prepared with interest and respect. Here is a recipe from Jessup Whitehead's Hotel Meat Cooking (1921):
Chop cold boiled potatoes quite fine and season with salt. Spread a spoonful of drippings or butter in an omelet pan or small frying pan and place the minced potatoes about an inch deep. Cook on top of the range like a cake, without stirring. Invert a plate that just fits the pan over the potatoes. Let them brown nicely and slowly, then turn over on to the plate. Push in the edge a little all around and serve on the same plate with the brown on top.
You might want to add a little freshly ground black pepper and possibly even a little minced parsley. Many cooks like to fold the potatoes over like an omelet and slide this onto the serving plate.
Speaking of omelets, Elizabeth David writes about one called an omelet Brayaude, made of potato cubes gently sautéed in the fat rendered from a slice of salt pork. One of the finest dishes I ever made was an inversion of this proceduredropping two raw eggs into a smoking skillet of almost finished hash browns, quickly salting and peppering them, and folding the potatoes over the moment the whites began to set. The fork cut through the crisp potato crust to release the still-runny egg yolk, which moistened and enriched it.
POTATO BUYING GUIDE
Potatoes are usually divided into three categories. There are the "waxy" or so-called new potatoes (Russian Banana, Desirée, Red Bliss), whose dense, creamy texture is preferred for potato salads and roasting and by some for gratins and pan-frying; the "floury" or "mealy" bakers (a market dominated by russets but including, among others, the high-starch Shepody, Butte, and Green Mountain), the usual choice for baking and mashing; and, in between, the all-purpose varieties (Kennebec, Yukon Gold, Red Pontiac) that are generally thought to show their best in stews, soups, chowders, and braises.
Our own experience has taught us that, at best, such categorizing offers guidelines not rules. We prefer to get a potato, try it out in differentroles, and see how it performs in them. It turned out that I loved the waxy Bintje in potato soup, relished the medium-starch Kennebec mashed more than any russet, and found baked red and yellow potatoes differently delicious.
Potato flavor is another elusive entity. Bonnie Pearlman told us that potato taste develops during cellaring; it takes time to produce distinctive nuances of flavor. New potatoes please with their delicacy and freshness, old potatoes with their special savor. Cobblers are a potato to eat young; Kennebecs get better as they age. Jim Gerritsen told me he raises over thirty different kinds of organic potato, trying to match "fantastic flavor" with good yield. Out of these, he might pick half a dozen or so to offer his mail-order customers. In 1991, these included a heritage variety, Russian Fingerling, and Butte, so new it was barely known in this country. Yet, for flavor, Yukon Gold is his own family's favorite. Our conclusion: go with growers committed to flavor and give themand their particular varietiesthe chance to prove their stuff.
NEW PENNY FARM (P.O. Box 448, Presque Isle, ME 04769 800-827-7551). Chris Holmes sells certified organic potatoes, Maine certified seed (and, in spring, fresh fiddleheads). He offers twelve potato varieties: Atlantic, Banana, Bel Rus, Bintje, Carola, Dark Red Norland, Green Mountain, Irish Cobbler, Kerry Blue, Kennebec, Spaulding Rose, and Yukon Gold. These are available as 10-pound, 4-potato-variety sampler packs for $27.50 in the following categories: (1) Maine, (2) low-starch, (3) medium-starch, (4) high-starch, (5) yellow, (6) red, and (7) your choice. Five pounds of a single potato cost $19.50; a single 20-pound selection is $34.50; all prices include shipping (a surcharge is added west of the Mississippi). His informative catalogue is free.
WOOD PRAIRIE FARM, RFD 1, Box 164Q, Bridgewater, ME 04735
• 800-829-9765 or 207-429-9765. Jim Gerritsen sells his more durable organic products (all are certified) by mail: rolled oats, maple syrup, grains, Jacob's cattle beans, Russian red-skinned garlic, Chantenay carrots, Lutz greenleaf beets, and flours and meals he grinds himself, including a cornmeal made from heirloom Indian Dandan corn. His potatoes include Yukon Gold (an all-purpose yellow), Russian Banana (a yellow fingerling), Butte (a russet high in Vitamin C and protein), Reddale (a bright red-skinned potato with white flesh), Elba (all-blue blue skin and blue fleshand good baked or boiled), and Caribé (a purple-skinned potato with bright, snow-white flesh). Prices start at $29.75 (postpaid) for a 10-pound, 3-potato-variety sampler packyou choose the selection. His descriptive catalogue is free.
MAINE COAST POTATO CHIPS, Maine Coast Natural Foods Inc., P.O.Box 851, York, ME 03909 207-363-6084. Surprisingly, many small-batch, kettle-fried chips are cooked in so-called flavorless (read less expensive, highly processed) oils that leave the chips with the same unpleasant flavor undertones you pick up in cheap baked goods. These chips stand out because small kettle batches of high-quality potatoes are fried in pure peanut oilthe best-tasting vegetable-oil frying medium for chips. Maine Coast Potato Chips are available by mail, minimum order one case of twelve bags for $22.08 (shipping included): natural (7 ounces), barbecue (6.5 ounces), and that Yankee favorite, salt and vinegar (6.5 ounces). Cases of mixed flavors are not available.
RONNIGER'S SEED POTATOES, Star Route, Moyie Springs, ID 83845. These folks offer the largest selection of organically grown seed potatoes in the U.S. Any serious potato lover will want their attractive, information-packed catalogue ($2), which containsamong other thingsa clear and concise description of each variety. Ronniger's also sells ten varieties for eating (instead of planting), $16.50 for a 10-pound bag (postpaid): Anoka, Bake King, Caribé, Desirée, French Fingerling, German Butterball, Reddale, Red Gold, Yellow Finn, and Yukon Gold.
Copyright © 1996 by John Thome