Tag Archives: Maine

Seafood in the States

Before I moved here, when I thought of American food, I thought of burgers and pizza, and diners serving pancakes. I didn’t think of seafood. But since I’ve lived here and traveled around a bit, I’ve discovered that seafood in America can be found all over, in all sorts of places, and is not only delicious but also excellent value.

In the UK you’d probably think twice about having oysters in a pub – unless the pub was very much in the area for them and was known to be good. Probably you wouldn’t be able to find oysters on most pub menus. But here on the East Coast you’ll find them fresh by the dozen or fried in a po-boy in all sorts of pubs and bars, and it’s a safe bet to go for them. Even our local sports bar on 18th Street advertises oysters for a dollar each.

I had difficulty working out how to organize this piece, as we’ve had such good seafood on so many wonderful parts of the east coast, and each experience reminds me of another. But in the end I decided to take each type of seafood in turn.

Lobster 

lobster roll

Enjoying lobster my two favourite ways in Maine.

I mentioned the lobster shacks of Maine in a recent post. Lobster certainly is plentiful in this state! You could get it in lobster rolls of slightly sweet brioche-type bread stuffed with cold sweet meat and slathered with mayo. Or steamed and served hot with melted butter, with biscuits and corn cobs on the side. Or even as an ingredient in Mac and Cheese. This was probably my least favourite way to treat lobster – while I can’t really choose between lobster rolls and steamed. But if I thought this was just a Maine thing, I was corrected when we went to Boston and I discovered that you could get a lobster roll for a comparable price at Faneuil Hall, along with excellent clam chowder (I wrote about our trip to Boston here). I’ve also heard that the lobster is similarly great in Connecticut, though they make their lobster rolls with warm meat, tossed in melted butter.

Clams (more specifically, clam chowder)

chowder

When we were in Maine we decided to try to find the best clam chowder. We tried an award-winning one in a small cafe in Freeport (home of the outdoors store LL Bean), but in actual fact found one in a small pub in Boothbay harbour that beat it in our opinion. Both were creamy and had plenty of clam meat in them, but both also had slightly too much bacon taste for us. And we couldn’t seem to find any that used whole clams. Finally the clam chowder in a bread bowl from Fanueil Hall in Boston came into our lives and turned every other clam chowder into a distant memory. It might just have been that we were cold and needed it – but I don’t think so.

Incidentally, when we got back from Maine I found this recipe for clam chowder which I always use now. I like the fact that it doesn’t use cream (always a flavour-killer in my experience) and that it gives such clear instructions for really cleaning the clams to avoid your diners crunching on sand and silt. We had some really badly-cleaned sandy large clams in Maine (they’re known as Steamers because they’re just steamed), and that almost put me off clams for life.

Crab

So I wrote a while ago about how I am enamoured of crab, especially in crab cakes and crab dip. Here in DC we live pretty much on the Chesapeake, so crab is a local delicacy. Everywhere serves crab dip, and crab cakes are a very usual alternative to a burger in many bars in the area. Recently though, R and I discovered the fun that is beating up whole crabs to eat their legs like lolly-pops. We learnt the art of hammering and cracking and fishing about in the shards of shell for tiny morsels of sweet, sweet crab meat on the dock of a water-side bar in Deale on the Chesapeake. Just an hour away from DC, after a day on the beach, we felt like we were on holiday as we ate and drank beer in this beautiful spot. We ordered half a dozen medium crabs, along with a side of hush puppies, and were delighted when the crabs arrived covered in old bay seasoning. While it was hard work (especially when the sun had set) for not very much meat, what we got out of them was completely delicious.

IMG_0775 IMG_0777

Oysters

We discovered oysters in Boston. Did you know that oysters from different places taste different? Well we’d never found this until we went to Boston and found that oyster menus are more like wine menus, practically coming with tasting notes. We have learnt that the more Northern oysters from the coast are usually saltier than the ones that come from the Chesapeake or the Virginia river estuaries. Once we’d had our education in Boston (at their Legal Seafood and the wonderful Neptune Oyster) we found that Pop’s Seabar on our street in DC also has fresh oysters daily in at least three varieties, so we’ve been continuing to enjoy tastings.

oysters
The oysters and the water they came from – on the Chesapeake. (Beer goes surprisingly well with oysters we’ve found.)

The rest

We haven’t made such a comprehensive survey of other seafood such as scallops, shrimp and mussels. And I’ve not really had much straight fish. However, we’ve had excellent meals including scallops, in both DC and Boston. Cashion’s Eat Place does nice things with scallops but it was at Boston’s tiny Neptune Oyster that we had the stand-out dish of our time here. R had amazing scallops tossed with perfectly cooked sprouts, and I had one of the best seafood stews I’ve had outside of France.

scallopsIMG_0489

I have noticed a tendency in DC to overcook mussels. This was not a problem at Neptune Oyster.

One place we have not visited yet is New Orleans, where I’m told they have amazing shrimp. So far the shrimp I’ve had in shrimp and grits has been excellent, but I’ve heard that in New Orleans they get Gulf Shrimp, which I need to try. I’m also looking forward to finally travelling to the West coast this fall – R has been and has brought back reports of amazing sushi and fish dishes.

There’s probably lots of American seafood we still haven’t tried – the combination of a lot of coast and numerous culinary styles is a guarantee of that. I just hope the fish stocks hold out. Luckily there are some fish so plentiful they’re actually considered a pest – a local seafood bar hosts a regular all-you-can-eat blue catfish night to do its bit to ‘save the seas’ (see their facebook page). I think I need to get down there!

Beating the heat in Maine

Last year we made the sensible decision to spend late July/early August in Maine. DC in July and August can be unbearably humid (see my previous post: Living on a Swamp), so the idea of heading north and hanging out by the water was very appealing.

The next decisions involved where on the Maine coast we wanted to stay, and what sort of accommodation we were looking for. Maine’s tourist information website was very helpful in outlining the state’s different areas. Most famous is probably the southern part of the coast with its big sandy beaches, like Kennebunk, and beachside communities. But there are also lakes and mountains inland, and there’s the wild north coast from Penobscot Bay to New Brunswick, which includes Arcadia National Park. And then there’s the MidCoast area that we chose. An easy drive from the airport in Portland (ME, not Oregon – that’s much further away), the MidCoast is characterized by rocky peninsulas and long inlets, lighthouses, and lobster fishing. Wild in a gentle way (at least in the summer) it’s a beautiful place.

Pemaquid8
Old lighthouse at Pemaquid Point

We decided we should experience an American resort, so we booked a room in Spruce Point Inn just outside Boothbay Harbour. Many of the resorts we looked at were rather far away from bigger towns – there’s one down by the tip of a peninsula – so the fact that we would have access to the shops and restaurants of Boothbay Harbour helped us make this decision.

As soon as we drew up at the main inn building we knew we’d made the right decision. It was the perfect American inn, of white wood with long verandahs and a lawn that sloped down to the sea. A saltwater pool area – with hottub could be seen down by the inn’s dock, and Adirondack chairs were dotted about the lawn. Our room was in one of the little two-story cottages, with a verandah and a view of the gardens plus a sliver of sea.

Spruce1 Spruce3

Spruce5
Lovely Adirondack chairs where we had coffee most mornings (and wine/whisky in the evenings).

One of the first things we did was get down to the pool and enjoy the hot tub. It was by now evening and the sun was struggling through the clouds. My main memory of this place is the silvery light of the late evening sun on the sea, seen as I lounged warm and content by this pool.

Spruce8
This really was the view from the pool.

Not that we did that much lounging. The resort had tennis courts which we made great use of, and we spent quite a bit of time driving around the area, sightseeing.

One of our drives took us to Wiscasset, an old town just north of Boothbay – so on the mainland rather than the peninsula. We did the walking tour of the town, up and down its hills to the old Victorian mansions, the old prison and one of the first ever public schools. Sadly most things were shut in the morning, and the Musical Wonder House, with its collection of music boxes, had closed, it seemed, for good. Luckily Red’s Eats, with its famous ‘more than a lobster’ roll was open and made us forget our disappointments. A true lobster shack, we ate at tables set up outside in the sun with a view of the water and a sea breeze keeping us cool.

That afternoon we headed over to Pemaquid Point, to see a lighthouse and enjoy the rocky shoreline. It turned out that entry to the lighthouse also included entry to the historical site of Colonial Pemaquid – a really old fishing settlement that dated from when the English probably established seasonal fishing settlements there in the 1610s. Nothing really remains, save some old foundations, but it was still interesting, and a lovely spot in the summer. Nearby is the site of what has been various forts since 1677. Its earliest incarnation was made of wood and fell to Indian attack in 1689. Next came Fort William Henry in 1692, built by Massachusetts, which governed the area at that time. This was destroyed in 1696 by combined French and Indian forces. The final fort – Fort Frederick – was more successful but was dismantled when it came to the war of Independence, to avoid it being used by the British. Part of the second fort – William Henry – has been reconstructed so you can go up the tower, which gives great views.

Fort3
View from the Fort to Pemaquid beach

It also houses an exhibition about the area between 1677 and 1761, the archaeological finds, and the complex relationships between English, French and Indian traders. Although this is not the Fort at which Paul Revere fought as an artillery officer, there was a mention of him and what they saw as his disreputable behaviour there (see my article on regional versions of American history here).

We learnt more about Maine’s part in American history when we visited Bath and Portland on our way back to the airport our final day. Bath has an excellent Maritime museum, where you can see where they built America’s first ships – and how they got them into the water after building them (harder than you might think). And in Portland we saw Longfellow’s House – the poet who immortalized Paul Revere in his (pretty awful) poem Revere’s Ride.

Mostly though, what I enjoyed about Maine was being on the water, the seafood, and the casual nature of things. One of the best things we did was to take a boat trip around the Boothbay area. When we started the morning mist hadn’t quite lifted – even further out at sea – but we still saw plenty of lighthouses, islands and wildlife. I’m a fan of birdlife, so passing close by herons and nesting ospreys was fantastic. Most excitingly, while we were looking at some seals, an American bald eagle turned up!

Cruise10
I probably needed a better camera for this…

I’ll write about the seafood in another post, but I can’t end this blog without mentioning at least the lobster shacks. As well as the one we enjoyed in Wiscasset, we also found two around Boothbay that we loved. There’s just something about spending the whole day enjoying the sun and the water and then walking, slightly sand and salt-crusted, to a lobster dock, where you’re welcomed with beer, shellfish and plenty of paper napkins. It’s casual, relaxed, and utterly unselfconscious, and I think eating that way in the sea air can’t help but make the lobster taste even better.

Boothbay11

East Coast Adventures – US History

Our travels on the East Coast of America have focused mainly on two of my interests in life – food and history. There’s also been some room for reading too, but more on that in another post. I’ll be writing about the delights of American seafood, barbecue and pizza as I blog about the places where we enjoyed them, but I thought it might be worth writing a bit about US history generally, before getting on to the histories as told by different states.

Before coming to the States I had some knowledge of bits of their history – mainly gleaned as a child from playing Sid Meiers’s Colonization (similar to Civilization, but set between the discovery of the Americas and the achieving of independence) and more recently from half watching the first couple of episodes of HBO’s mini-series John Adams (I would recommend this for the fantastic theme tune and credit sequence alone). I also of course knew the story of the Civil War as told by Margaret Mitchell in Gone with the Wind. But my understanding of the early history of settlement and interaction with the native Americans was sketchy; I wasn’t quite sure who had won the war of 1812 or what it was about; and while I knew not to forget it, I had no idea what The Alamo was. I had learnt quite a bit from the Smithsonian Museum of American History (I blogged about this education here last year) but nothing beats walking the streets where citizens protested the quartering of British soldiers or standing on the battle-field where the British surrendered.

What I have learnt from our travels, though, is that the narrative I thought I knew is largely the narrative of Massachusetts. The story of Puritans seeking a place to practise their religion in peace; of a populace rising up in righteous rebellion against a tyrant king; of the heroism of a New England silversmith, Paul Revere, riding to warn the rebels of the British attack; and the story of a North that sought to abolish slavery and bring about ever more union between the states… All these stories ring truest in Massachusetts – specifically in Boston.

When you travel in Virginia or Maine, however, you find plenty of people ready to dispute the details of this dominant narrative. Archaeologists in Virginia were keen to remind us that of course Jamestown was the first successful British colony – started in 1607 for commercial rather than religious reasons – predating the Mayflower Pilgrims’ Plymouth colony by over ten years. And the museum of Fort William Henry, near another very early fishing colony at Pemaquid Point in Maine, is scathing about the role played by Paul Revere in the Penobscot Expedition of 1779 (during the War of Independence, the British had seized Castine in Maine and the Massachusetts legislature ordered an expedition to dislodge them). In Maine, the story goes that Revere was incompetent as an artillery commander, disobeyed orders, and fled before receiving orders to retreat (the expedition was a disaster). They prefer to commemorate the poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who immortalised Massachusetts’ hero in the poem, Paul Revere’s Ride – making it clear that there were of course many riders, and Revere’s name was just useful because it rhymed:

Listen my children and you shall hear

Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere

(it’s not a particularly good poem).

Meanwhile, in Boston, they insist that Revere’s name was cleared in the court martial he demanded for himself in 1782. They claim that the accusations only came about because the Massachusetts militia needed a scapegoat.

While I loved Boston, and thought their museums were very persuasive on most things, I’m more inclined to believe Maine’s version of the story of Paul Revere. This is partly because I was influenced by Bernard Cornwell’s historical novel of the Penobscot Expedition The Fort, which was excellent holiday reading in Maine.

I’m by no means an expert yet, but I’m certainly enjoying continuing my education in American history through reading, watching TV series, and, of course, more traveling.

Recommendations for anyone looking to gain a more nuanced understanding of American history – or just a different perspective (based only on where I’ve been and what I’ve read so far):

On the early colonies:

  • Jamestown archaeological site, Virginia
  • Mark A. Noll and Luke E. Harlow, Religion and American Politics: from the colonial period to the present

On the War of Independence:

  • Fort William Henry, Maine
  • TURN: Washington’s Spies, AMC series
  • Bernard Cornwell, The Fort

On the Civil War and its aftermath:

  • Arlington House: The Robert E. Lee Memorial (in Arlington Cemetery)
  • E. L. Doctorow, The March
  • Ford’s Theatre (especially the Ranger talk)
  • D. W. Griffith, Birth of a Nation (warning: explicitly racist)