What makes good Maine food? The question is referred to on sites like chowhound (see this particular post with 98 replies on Classic Maine Dining
), and it's a question I've been thinking about a lot recently in my role as assistant editor at Down East Magazine. What do our readers want to read about in terms of Maine dining? The absolute best food in the state that might be found in any metropolis in the country or a place where you can go to get that quintessential Maine experience? Hence, my question, what exactly is good MAINE
"Maine food," in its most stereotypical form, consists of a few old-timers: lobster, clams, "chowdah", and blueberry pie. Throw in some fiddleheads and potatoes, and there you have it. At least that's how "Maine food" is often perceived. So when tourists come to our shores and mountains, their expectations are colored by the perception of the way food (and by extension, life) should be in Maine. Namely this perception involves seaside dining complete with a lobster dinner, fried clams, and perhaps an ice cream cone. Thus our restaurants, or many of them, are forced to cater to this identity that is at once a blessing (it draws the crowds) and a curse (it limits creativity).
In a place like our state, then, it would seem that the terroir is of utmost importance, like a crucial pinch of cilantro or rosemary without which the dish wouldn't quite taste as good. And I'm the last to argue with the fact that the fried clams at The Lobster Shack in Cape Elizabeth (see the May Down East feature "Where to Eat Now"
) taste better because of the sun and the sea and the austere surroundings in which I eat them. But if you had to ask me flat out, I don't think I could deny that the ones at Susan's Fish and Chips
(207-878 3240) on Forest Ave. are far better, even though the atmosphere is less than stellar.
So as Mainers, that Maine mystique so pursued by tourists is intrinsic in everything we do, and we are lucky for it. Sure I have a lobster bake a few times a year, and yes I will cook myself a pot of steamers every so often. But I don't suffer from the pressure to create that Maine experience. I'm lucky enough that it just creates itself. I can have a picnic on Mount Battie followed by a cocktail at Natalie's overlooking the harbor, and I don't even have to think about seeking out the Maineness of it all.
Perhaps it in inevitable, then, that Mainers' good Maine food means something altogether different than the good Maine food of map-toting tourists. Both are Maine and both are good in their own ways. Just different. As we approach full tourist season, my goal is to find those elusive gems that meet both standards.