November 02, 2011
The Magic of Maine in the Fall: Where Lobster Meets a Perfect Sky
Maine is one of my favorite places on the planet and I'm counting over 74 countries at this point and have lived in eleven of those. Truth be told, I probably gravitate to its familiarity and small town American charm since I grew up in upstate New York and when renowned author Richard Russo writes about either one, I can't always tell the difference. (one of my favorite authors btw and hope I don't end my stint on this earth before meeting him, preferably over lunch).
While I used to drive up often when I lived in Boston, its been years since I ventured up Route 1 taking in every roadside stand, every lobster shack, every pottery stall, every antique store, every candle shop...unfortunately on my way up the coast, it was raining, but I didn't let it muck up all those previous memories camping somewhere you weren't supposed to be, slowly dozing off as you gazed into the fading fire with your last marshmallow on a stick.
There was one point in a turn north of Portland I recognized so well that I actually remembered not just the smell of twenty years ago but the color and texture of the trees on that wild group trip one July.
There were roughly 8 of us and we all decided to camp and cook, particularly since one of the friends on the trip was a French chef, married to a girlfriend from Colorado. We ended up roasting lobsters on the grill, carmelizing onions (Pierre always knew precisely when to grab them from the fire), and boiling corn. We had cheap French Bordeaux for drinking since we were all young with measly salaries, yet we felt as if we were eating and drinking like kings. And, we were.
We had Maine's midnight sky, the smell of pine, the taste of fresh lobster and good friends who loved to laugh a lot....and tell stories. We went up in a friend's open jeep (what I wouldn't do to relive that warm summer weekend where a carefree life with so few commitments was the order of the day).
I heard from that friend with the jeep recently although I wasn't able to see him this time round because of a family conflict. He now has gray hair, children and has one of those responsible jobs my Aunt Evelyn would approved of. I also didn't see my French chef friend and his wife; although they still live in the area, she was in Colorado visiting an aging and sick parent.
We all have schtuff going on and none of us are in our early twenties anymore and yet that drive sent a signal and a voice from my heart to my head that said in a not so quiet voice "you must and you will find a jeep and window where the weather is likely to be grand and drive up the coast of Maine, into its interior, bug spray and all. I'd wake up to a glorious New England sky, without my damn iPhone, without sending a Tweet or a Facebook update, without email beckoning me to do something not all that important.
Often, my ex-husband and I would jump into our beat up cream-colored Chevy stationwagon we called Daisy on a Friday afternoon, close our eyes, point to a place on the New England map with eyes still closed, open them and then drive towards whatever destination our fingers landed on. I paid my grandfather $350 for that car after I returned from a European trip not long after I graduated from college.
It was large enough to sleep in, which may not sound all that comfy, but we had my aunt and uncles mattress in the back from the 1950s (visual - old but very very soft), curtains that I made from some African materials I picked up in Kenya, a cooler, binoculars, sleeping bags and hiking boots. What else do you need in your early twenties? No cell phones. No laptops. Plenty of maps.
Somehow Maine turned up more often than New Hampshire or Vermont but regardless of where we went, one thing was constant: we'd wake up with the back window's light coming in just enough to remind us to jump up to see the early morning rise in the distance, a sight I never see today since I'm often up working (or writing) until 3 am. While New England not have Arizona or African sunrises, it delivers a beautiful sky morning and night and color-rich leaves every October that you can't find with such magnitude and scale anywhere.
The other thing that was constant was lobsters. While neither of us made much (I still find it shocking how much we did and the rich life we led with so little), lobster was cheap.
There were places we could find that for $9.95, you'd get a twin deal: essentially two one pound (to 1 and a quarter pound) lobsters. He often wanted to eat two so sometimes we splurged, but it tended to be the most we'd spend in a day. We ate them often and if we were on the coast, one thing was guaranteed, we returned to Boston late on a Sunday night with our hands and faces saturated with the smell of lobster.
On my way north, I didn't see one lobster shack opened even though I'd imagine October would be prime season for folks trying to make money off tourists. The weather was gray and many of the shops and stalls not only looked closed, but permanently so, I sadly wondered how hard things were hit with the economic downturn.
Things felt more run down and yet, they may not have been I reminded myself. It could very well be that living in Silicon Valley, a modern, fast paced environment where technology rules and money is plentiful, was enough of a lifestyle to make anywhere look recessed.
I had lobster in Camden at a restaurant but it wasn't cheap and it while it was good, I was more focused on the conversation of the group, aware of being present to their energy and input more than the food on my plate. You have to BE with lobster to really get lobster. I always found it amusing to watch how much time my ex would spend getting meat out of the legs -- his lobster and mine. It's a process. It's an experience. It's oh so so Maine.
On my south, it was on a Sunday, the weather was better, there was a blue sky and at the very least cafes and diners seemed to be open as I passed town after town. I ventured into antique stores and a few art galleries with price tags I'm sure only out-of-towners and those with second or third homes in Maine could afford.
It was a day I never wanted to end and yet, as I passed Warren and Wiscasset, I knew I had only about two hours left before those old familiar outer Boston suburb exits would be on my right, a sight that was part of every week of my life at one point in my life, a memory that now felt about as far away as early childhood.
If there were two words that came to mind as I reminisced of those precious days, they were fate and faith, two words I lived my life by. We both did. Fate loves the fearless and fearless we most definitely were in all aspects of our lives. Faith had so many meanings to me. Faith is looking at a sunset and knowing who to thank. Faith is having gratitude when things are not going your way and its been days since you felt a real smile. Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings while the dawn is still dark.
As I was in a place of faith and gratitude, I made my way over the bridge in Brunswick, and the sky got bluer, the clouds cleared out, the wind was dying down and there on the left was the lobster shack that wasn't open on my way up. Sprague's Lobster & Clambakes the sign read. Although a pick-up truck nearly healed me as I made my sudden turn left into the parking lot, I was there and lobster was calling my name.
You could get a lobster dinner with corn on the cob, cole slaw and a roll for $15.99. It was warm enough to sit at the picnic table and eat outside and so I ordered the largest size they had, which was only a one pound a quarter at the time I arrived, something they apologized for.
Sure, deep inside I was hoping for a pound and a half and two pounds seemed outrageously piggish although how often did I have a precious moment like this to take it all in and show up at one of those Boston suburb exits exuding lobster from every pore of my body? But knowing that a dinner at a friends was waiting for me in three hours, I ordered only one -- no extras, just a boiled lobster in all its glory.
The ticket was clipped up on a line, a bell was rung and off it went some 20 feet or so down to where Frank himself was boiling 'em up in a little shack. I meandered down for a chat and as I did so, his neighbor Robert Jones from Ridgeback Pottery came over to hang out as well.
Unlike most days in my life, I wasn't in a mad rush and I didn't care whether I had an Internet or phone signal and so there I was just like when I was ten, able to hang out and chat to two older men full of wisdom, rich stories and kind of humor that can't be found in its purest form on the west coast.
Both talked about their children, one of them lived in northern California, and Frank showed me photos of his dark-haired grandson who was bound to break many a woman's heart in about 15 years. After awhile, as I neared the end of my last claw, I was kicking myself for not ordering the twin lobster and Frank somehow knew this as he didn't give me much of a chance to fight him on cooking up another one before I left.
This time, he threw in a little pesto butter for the claws and while it was fabulous (definitely worth trying), I realized boiled lobster is best in its purest state, on its own, with a little lemon if you must.
While I love all seafood, lobster was what I was after. For those passing by however, Frank has many other options to try, including a crab or clam cake basket, crabmeat roll, fried or baked haddock, fresh chowder with lobster meat and lobster rolls.
You can also get a pound of steamers for $8.95 at the time of writing this. My pound and a quarter on its own with no frills was $10.95. Don't be an idiot like me and not order the twin - they're just too good to pass up and on top of it, you've got Frank's personal touch which is hard to find.
Robert's pottery had equal care and like a true artisan, he was proud as he showed me his work. Done using the Raku technique, the style mixed a little New England with Raku, which originates from the tea ceremonies of Japan.
The pieces are rapidly fired and taken from the kiln as soon as the glaze is melted. The rapid cooling causes the glaze to form cracks at which point, the pottery is placed into airtight reduction containers with pine needles, grasses, leaves or wood shavings.
This causes the cracks to absorb carbon and become black. The lack of oxygen also changes the color of the minerals in the glaze, and then the pieces are plunged into water to set the color.
How I wanted to buy some his pottery and a couple of the old oak chairs I saw in an antique store along the side of the road. If only I had a house down the road.
After devouring both lobsters with a huge smile on my face and the fabulous company of Frank and Robert, I made my way down the final stretch to the Massachusetts border to see old friends, a few I hadn't seen in several years.
Fate, faith and gratitude were the order of the day as my pores filled the car with the smell of lobster and my radio played old tunes from the 70s and 80s, a station that was pre-set and I didn't choose and yet it seemed to play every song I loved and was a magical part of my time in New England, part of one person's life history, stored in my mind's eye and memory only until now it is told in a story as I remembered it on that long drive this past October.
They were both the Maine I remembered, the Maine I still cherish and hopefully the Maine I will return to with a jeep on some future hot summer day.
For more reading about Maine and all things New England, have a meander through our Maine pages.
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