Summer Food, a grand community cookbook of recipes just published by Islesboro’s Tarratine Club, reminds me how closely food and memory are linked. Add vacation, long-beloved island summer homes, and at least three meals a day, and you are in for a grand wallow in memory and memory-making.
Summer at last, there’s time to cook and eat together; time to entertain friends, observe birthdays, anniversaries, go on boat picnics, and indulge in family favorites, some of which are relished only in summer, in a summer place.
Club members contributed recipes, along with the memories associated with them.
For the summer community, reading the recipes will be an adventure in sampling each others cooking, and remembering when one, as a guest, or a child at grandmother’s house, ate lunch on a porch overlooking the water or in a chintz-curtained dining room.
There is a grand congregation of old and new: classic, even old-fashioned, stuff like blueberry pudding, deviled eggs and lobster stew, along with trendy ethnic dishes, quinoa and the modern, inevitable kale. Plus, practically legendary island residents are memorialized for all time: folks like Mildred (“Mid”) Hale and her chowder, and Burr Mitchell and his scallop stew, as are the old-timers of the summer community with names like Aldrich, Gibson, Dillon, Field, Howe and many others, people whose stories are part of the island’s history.
Then, there are those for whom summer food was, and still is, work, either to grow it, or catch it, stock it on shelves, transform it into comestibles, and serve it up.
As we speak, of course, there are 5-year-olds and 8-year-olds who will grow up one day to remember Looney Mahan’s Peanut Butter Pie from the Island Market, with the same affection that older summer residents remember Mid Hale’s chocolate cake with inch-thick white frosting. They might remember the first time they ate kale chips at grandma’s Islesboro home and recall quinoa salad as a staple of summer lunches.
As I thumbed through the book, looking at the gorgeous photographs of gardens, food, dining rooms, pantries, still-extant though unused, coal or wood burning old ranges, views of the water, and at least one of the interior of the Dark Harbor Shop, better known as Billy’s ice cream shop, I was reminded of, and felt nostalgic for, a past that never really existed. A recipe like Mary Aldrich Homans’ Quick Lunch that relied on grated cheddar cheese, hard-boiled eggs, onions, and mayonnaise mixed and spread on bread, broiled, then served, said daughter Lucy, with salad or sliced tomatoes to lunch guests, was a speedy way to entertain, then get back outdoors to the garden or the boat. Talk about artless and unprepossessing. I fantasize a simpler time, full of quiet pleasures and innocent occupations.
But that is nonsense, of course. Nothing about life is ever that lacking in complexity or even difficulty, not even during vacations. Whether a recipe is simple or complex, the lives framed by them are deeply textured and we’d be naive to think otherwise.
There were moments, for sure, when, as I turned page after gorgeous page, a few upstairs-downstairs moments flew in and perched for a moment. Years ago, I worked part-time at cocktail and dinner parties, and in kitchens of a couple homes for a few summers, hardly anything compared to many women here and on other islands and along the coast who have done it full-time in summer for decades. It didn’t take much time, though, to come up with a collection of stories.
Stories about kitchen disasters, like the time the cook departed abruptly mid-dinner to leave the country—a disaster hastily overcome by the remaining kitchen crew who kept the dinner party going swimmingly along like the proverbial duck, calm above water while paddling furiously below. I have precious memories, like many described in Summer Food, of a disappearing way of life, for example, dinner in one elegant summer home, whose owner traveled with her silver between year-round and island places, and served bacon-wrapped canned Vienna sausages, which I promise you, her guests snapped right up. That meal ended with an orange Bavarian from a recipe straight from the late 19th century, a rare old dish which I never expected to see in captivity, and which she herself made earlier in the day.
Islesboro’s summer residents come from all over the country, and bring their recipes and taste with them, as Summer Food reflects. Recipes that work for dinner parties in Georgia or Louisiana, work here, too, like gumbo with Maine lobster in it. Other recipes in the book, though, are firmly associated with the island and the season, for example, “First Night Crab,” served the first night of guest’s or family member’s arrival on island. Another recipe, one for cooking clams, begins with “1 cup of Islesboro water” as first ingredient.
Summer Food‘s recipes call for real food; not many pre-prepared packages and cans of ingredients required in this book, so the recipes will endure, outlasting the reformulations and ever-shrinking containers of manufactured ingredients. That means these recipes can go on for generations more, creating more island summer food memories.
Sandy Oliver lives, cooks and writes about food on Islesboro.