By Eva Murray
Created Feb 20 2008 - 2:57pm
The word happily goes around the island each time the Sunbeam is in, tied up alongside the Steamboat Wharf. People begin wandering down aboard for a cup of coffee or a look at what Felicia's got there on the counter for cakes and cookies; perhaps Mike the captain has made a gingerbread again. It beats just collecting your mail and heading directly back to the woodpile or the laundry or the paperwork.
The Sunbeam has been coming to Matinicus and to many of the other islands around this part of the Maine coast for a century; we indulge them the big white cross on the bow, suitable for funerals; mostly we are just glad to see the crew-members, who have all over the years become our good friends. The Maine Sea Coast Mission, which owns the boat, does it's various good works and raises it's needed funds; we ignore the "mission" reference and are generally content to remain benighted savages and thankfully, one could almost say "thank God," they don't try to fix us. That's the beauty of the organization…they know we're largely in it for the cookies.
That is almost true, until somebody has need of them for more, in which case they do a great deal more for us than serve as a floating cafe. Back when Stan Haskell, the Boat Minister back in the '70s, wrote his regular columns for the National Fisherman, they called it "God's Tugboat." I told Tony, the subsequent minister, that it was more like a "floating truck stop." "God's Coffee Break," if you really have to work this religious angle (which we don't.)
On the 6th of February, the new steward of the Sunbeam, Felicia (out of Maine Maritime, with a pink Detroit Diesel hat, and don't imagine just anybody can get away with that,) offered to all comers of this island a lovely supper aboard the boat. Traditional chili, white chicken chili, and other dishes welcome on a cold night, when the community's population is at the low ebb and we are presented with darned few excuses to stir one's stumps after dark. I brought down enough Anadama bread to feed the militia, don't know what I was thinking, and islanders of all ages feasted together in celebration of nothing in particular except the tradition of the "all-island supper."
For this, we have to thank Betty Allen.
Betty was the previous and long-standing steward of the Sunbeam. We'd all been eating her cooking and enjoying her hospitality for so long it was hard to adjust to the idea of a new face in the galley. This month marks just about a year since Betty's retirement, along with that of her husband David, who had been the 'Beam's captain for decades. Betty began this tradition of putting on a big feed for the wintertime holdouts on a few of the more isolated islands; scallop chowder and beef stew, as a rule, with salads (including a variety of those technicolor Midwestern sorts of salads, which look more like dessert, and are no longer to be taken for granted at Maine community gatherings,) and homemade bread, and her pies, much beloved and of widespread repute.
Felicia knew that it wouldn't work to try and duplicate Betty's culinary offerings, but she did hope to continue a highly favored tradition. Her own take on "all-island supper" offered all the warmth of Betty's meals; we just ate different food. There were doubtless a few who thought "It sure would be nice to have some scallop chowder just about now," but everything I sampled tasted great.
As it happened to be the 6th of February, and thus right in the middle of a week where nearly every day on your store-bought, non-tide calendar bears indication of remembrance of something (go ahead and check,) we figured it wouldn't do to neglect all these holidays. Personally, I am happy to celebrate nearly any festivity that includes refreshments (although have never yet been challenged to put up or shut up on Robbie Burns' Day. It'll happen some time, and I suppose I'll do it. Ah, the famous haggis…looks like scrapple, smells like liverwurst.) As it was the day after Mardi Gras, and the day before Chinese New Year (which is usually celebrated for a week anyway,) all those revels seemed wonderfully necessary in the middle of prime cabin fever season.
The calendar indicated that February 6th was also Waitangi Day, the national holiday of New Zealand. As we do have a New Zealander among us now, it seemed only proper that we fly the New Zealand flag at the feast that night. Nobody having such an item, the Internet was prevailed upon, and the southern cross with the union jack was up on the wall aboard the boat. We weren't able to learn much about anything especially festive to do, however, this seeming to be more of a political than a gustatory remembrance. At any rate, no holiday need be left out. Craig, our "kiwi" neighbor, wasn't even here that day; that didn't stop us.
We had a big Mardi Gras "King Cake," which isn't really cake, it's more like a sweet yeast bread coffee ring, with all sorts of garish colored sugar. This one had cardamom and allspice and a sweet cream cheese filling, but alas, no baby doll or bean or penny or anything inside, no prize for the lucky finder, he or she the next "king" and obligated to throw the next party, or buy a round and make a toast, or anything such as that…with the crowd of little kids ramming around underfoot (already a lot for a tin can of a boat saloon) and the possibility of "take-out" to people who might not expect to bite into a premium, the fear of a broken tooth or a unpleasant surprise obligated us to forego this lovely element of Mardi Gras tradition. I know where to get large quantities of purple sugar, though, should you ever find the need.
Eventually, the majority having enjoyed their supper, having corralled their little ones, those men not injured (as quite a few were nursing parts that hurt) having physically picked up elder neighbor Kathleen and set her onto the dock, pretty much everybody left. One straggler, looking seriously at thirds on dessert, ventured off the boat to a nearby pickup truck and came back carrying a yellow plastic toolbox, the contents of which are best left to the imagination. Suffice it to say that the stone wharf got a bit loud for a few moments, in honor of the Year of the Rat. In the words of Rob, the current Boat Minister, "Thank God for China!"
Eva Murray of Matinicus Island will be looking for recipes for Saint Swithin's Day, should you have any.