Portland, Maine is the kind of place that sneaks up on you. Or maybe it’s a self-selecting town where the people who live here all really want to be here; I’ve never heard any resident say a negative thing about the place, it’s all passionately understated joy with an undertone that says, “We get it.” If you’re not Portland’s type, it lets you move on down the road without a twinge. If you are its type, it gets its hooks in you so gently, so gradually, you don’t know it until you find yourself as happy here as everyone else.
We spent two years house hunting – first in Brooklyn, then in Cold Spring, then in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, near Brendan’s family’s farmhouse – until one day we realized with a eureka ping that Portland had been there all along. All along, we’d been flying in and out of its easygoing little airport with the lobster “Welcome Home” signs, eating at its restaurants, admiring Casco Bay on the Eastern Prom, and then one day the gentle hooks had sunk in enough and we got it.
And so we spent a lot of last summer looking at various old houses all over the peninsula – this one was the 13th. It wasn’t for sale. Brendan saw the “for rent” ad and called about it, on a hunch. We both wanted this house, wildly, the instant we walked in, and although I was sure it would cost far too much and didn’t even want to ask, Brendan had another strong hunch and called the owners in Salt Lake City. Within two days, they had agreed on a price that we could pay. The sale was conducted over the phone, without realtors, with civility and honesty on both sides.
The woman who had lived here before us, Madeleine, turned out to be my former classmate at Reed, and has become our friend. The tenants we inherited are so interesting and responsible and great, we never want them to leave. Our contractors are excellent, kickass, scrupulously honest; they try to save us money. I love the hardworking, funny, dedicated women at the soup kitchen. I love the wisecracking, game women I take Pilates with, especially our instructor. I love the dark, wry, understated sense of humor and the fierce work ethic that manages somehow not to be puritanical or self-righteous – I get it.
On Saturday, after our headlands walk, Brendan and Dingo and I went to the Farmers’ Market down in the park, by the fountains, under the trees. There was the usual bounteous array of food, as well as a tightrope walker, a bluegrass band, and many calm and friendly dogs (as are all the dogs here; Portland has none of that weird Brooklyn neuroticism of both animals and owners). It felt like a 19th century country fair, matter of fact, here we are. We bought organic chorizo, 5 big stalks of rhubarb, 4 beautiful lettuces, a soft cheese dusted with spices, and big ripe tomatoes, and then we were out of cash.
At home, I washed and trimmed the rhubarb and cut it into four-inch pieces. I mixed 2 cups total of apple cider vinegar and rice vinegar with maple syrup, honey, salt, peppercorns, fresh sliced ginger, cardamom pods, sliced Serrano peppers, and cloves. I let this mixture boil for five minutes, then turned off the flame and added the rhubarb. When it had cooled, I packed the rhubarb into a container and poured over it as much of the liquid as it would hold. The pickles taste spicy and exotic and fantastic with cheese.
Yesterday at 3:00, after working all morning and into the afternoon, we had a Memorial Day picnic on the Eastern Prom. I made deviled eggs with capers, mustard, mayonnaise, smoked paprika, and chopped dill pickles, and packed three kinds of cheese and gluten-free crackers to eat with the rhubarb pickles, a bottle of chilled rose, an apple for Dingo, and chocolate-covered strawberries. We sat on a picnic table overlooking Casco Bay. We had that corner of the world almost to ourselves, although it was a bright, warm, sunny holiday; everyone no doubt had decamped for the beaches north and south of town. Sheltered by the trees, out of the wind, warm in the sun, we three sat in a row and feasted together, looking out at the sailboats trundling over the blue water and the shaggy green islands beyond.
Later, at home, we fell instantly into a triple coma of a nap. I regained consciousness at 7:30 to find Dingo fed and walked and Brendan hard at work again. Down in the kitchen, I hauled out the farmer’s market chorizo and a string bag of littleneck clams and opened a bottle of cold orvieto. In olive oil, I sautéed a lot of garlic, two medium leeks, two tomatoes, a jalapeno, and a red pepper. I stirred in 2 diced potatoes and the chopped chorizo, then added a cup of the white wine and a cup of chicken broth and 2 bay leaves, and simmered it until the potatoes were soft. Then I squeezed in the juice of one lemon and stirred, arranged the clams on top, covered the pot, and let it simmer till the clamshells opened. I added a big handful of minced Italian parsley, and we feasted for the second time that day.
Very early this morning, our bedroom flashed and banged with thunder and lightning, an intense electrical storm. Dingo crept in and we all huddled together, feeling safe in our house. At about 8, when I walked Dingo, the air was humid, cool, dark, and sweet-smelling. The soaked dark sidewalks were strewn with vivid pollen and petals.
The first draft of the new book I’m writing, whose working title is Blue Plate Special: the Autobiography of an Eater, is halfway done as of this week. It’s emerging so quickly, I think, because it’s something I’ve been writing in one form or another for many years, in pieces, in essays, in my own head, here on this blog, and now in book form — everything is tumbling into place, interlocking and coming to rest, finally. I feel hyperfocused, turbocharged, like a wind-up toy, charging over or bumping into and richocheting off anything that happens to be in my way.
Consequently, I am rather difficult to live with these days, especially for myself, but also, I imagine, for everyone else.
Our friend Jami is living here with us for the month; she and Brendan are both working as hard as I am. Dingo is busy lying on a chair near me, protecting me from any possible attackers or nogoodniks, growling deep in his throat whenever anyone walks by the window. As far as he’s concerned, that’s his job, and he’s hard at it. Jami is writing upstairs at the desk in the guest room. Brendan works at the dining room table. I’m in the second living room at a small table in one corner; I have a great view of the old Victrola we just got for $200, a Craigslist find, from a bald German gentleman in Falmouth named Mannfred who kept it in his garage for years next to his gleaming new BMW. It’s our new prize possession: a mint-condition 78 record of Marlene Dietrich singing “Lili Marlene” recently arrived from an ebay seller.
The two activities (besides drinking wine, playing fiddle tunes, reading in a bath, and, of course, sex) that most effectively loosen and ease my tightly-wound brain are cooking and walking. Every day, Brendan and I take Dingo over to the Eastern Prom for an hour-long, fast walk across the headlands, down on the bike path, up around the water treatment plant, along a wooded trail, back down the hill to Dog Beach, where we let Dingo say hello to all the other dogs and run along the sand to the rocky outcropping — then we walk the path on the other side and climb the stairs to the monument, and then we tramp back to the car. Dingo can be off-leash for most of it, which we all love. We have a view out over Casco Bay the entire time. The weather has been clear and sunny and cool all week – scintillating, sparkling Maine spring days. Today it’s rainy and cool… but we’re going anyway. Sanity demands it.
But cooking is the best tension-reliever I know of, bar none. When my brain is too full of ideas and images, loaded so full it churns around like a cement mixer, I go into the kitchen and start chopping things. I have a sturdy-handled, big-bladed knife and a big heavy wood chopping board my ex-husband made years ago from leftover ipe when he was making our shelves. Last night, my skull crammed to bursting with words, I stood at the counter and chopped and minced until there was nothing left to cut up for the meal: a big piece of ginger, Serrano peppers, a big white onion. I smashed and chopped so many garlic cloves I lost track, and as I did so, I felt the cement mixer slow down, rock gently back and forth, come to a settled point at which its heavy weight lay in its belly and was still.
I devised a spicy basmati rice, cooked in the shimmering rich and golden chicken broth I had made the night before, with saffron, Serrano peppers, ginger, garlic, and a dash of garam masala. I stewed the leftover chicken from the cacciatore I’d made the other night, pulled from the bones, in a sauce of tomato, spices, lemon, and ginger. Brendan made spinach minced and cooked in butter, garlic, ginger, and onion. With this warm, spicy meal, we drank cold rose and listened to bluegrass; somehow, it all went together.
The other day at the soup kitchen, Monica asked me to make an applesauce to go alongside some pork chops for a later dinner. I filled a small red crate with a variety of red and green apples from the big fridge in the pantry, washed them in the small sink, took off the little stickers, then set up a big cutting board with a wet cloth underneath to keep it from slipping. All through my shift, whenever I had a spare several minutes, I stood at my little workstation, happily and steadily reducing that big box of apples to a smallish dice. I prefer to leave the peels on. Cutting them small makes the applesauce smooth and palatable. I also like dicing; I’ll take any excuse to do it.
By the time my shift was almost over, I had filled a deep steam-table pan. I added a big handful of brown sugar, 3 bay leaves, some minced fresh rosemary from the plant in Monica’s office, a good pouring of cinnamon, and another of salt. After I mixed it all together, I poured 2 cups of water over the pan, covered it in parchment paper and then foil, and stuck it into a moderately hot oven to bake for the next hour or two.
I left not knowing how it turned out; it didn’t matter. I was so soothed and refreshed by chopping all those apples over the past couple of hours, I came home energized, smiling, almost euphoric, and managed to sail through a whole chunk of the chapter about my wretched adolescence.
Last Thursday, I started working in the soup kitchen at the women’s shelter, Florence House, here in Portland, Maine. I arrived 15 minutes early, at 10:15 in the morning, feeling nervous but glad to be there; I’d been meaning to do this for months, and here I was. A staff member led me back into a clean, well-appointed kitchen. As I signed my name in the register in the little office, I heard Nick Drake on the CD player, saw a Julia Child quote on a banner (“You don’t have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces – just good food from fresh ingredients”), and smelled something good cooking on the stove. I almost burst into tears.
After I introduced myself to Monica, the kitchen supervisor, she put me to work. I assembled about 60 cheese sandwiches and toasted them in butter on the grill and set the container into the steam table, loosely covered, to await lunch service. Then I peeled and diced a box of carrots and stored them in the refrigerator. Local supermarkets had donated all the ingredients in the kitchen – Hannaford, Trader Joe’s, and Whole Foods.
From 12 to 1, I stood by the steam table and served two kinds of soup, both made from scratch (broccoli cheddar and tomato basil), along with the sandwiches I’d made, while Kim, my fellow new volunteer, served the salad she’d made, and Monica started the prep work for that night’s dinner.
Monica told us that the other volunteer on that day’s lunch shift, Diane, had just been given the Volunteer of the Year award. Diane spent the whole shift washing dishes in the corner. Every time I needed more, there she was, restocking soup bowls and sandwich plates by my elbow. She did this with immense cheer, unobtrusively; it was not hard to guess why she’d been awarded the honor. The soup kitchen, I could tell right away without having it spelled out for me, has a strong ethic of service, or “mission,” as they call it; it’s not religious, it’s not didactic, but it is humble and without ego or judgment.
I stood in my apron and dished up lunch for all the women who came shuffling up to the service window. Many of them didn’t make eye contact. Many of them looked as if they had been through terrible things, formidable struggles. Even so, they knew what they wanted in their lunch, and they were not shy about demanding it. Some of them said, “Not that sandwich, I want one that’s not so burned.” Some of them asked for seconds, even thirds. They all loved the broccoli cheddar soup.
One of the rules of the place that I agreed to observe when I volunteered was not to reveal identifying details about anyone there. This is not a writer’s favorite promise to make, especially because the singular details and specificity of people are a novelist’s bread and butter. Even so, I can see the usefulness of protecting the anonymity of women in a shelter. But as I stood there dishing up their lunches, I wanted to know all their stories, their histories. I would be lying if I pretended otherwise.
Soup Kitchen Three-Bean Chili
After lunch had been cleaned up, before my shift was over, Monica had me assemble what she called a “three-bean chili” (“It sounds more exciting than ‘vegetarian chili,’” she said. “They complain sometimes when there’s no meat”), for the next day’s lunch, in order to use up various assorted cans of beans she had rattling around the pantry. This chili turned out to be similar to the one I make myself on a cold night when I haven’t bought groceries and want something quick, easy, good, and nourishing.
Saute a chopped onion, a celery rib, and a bell pepper in olive oil with plenty of garlic, cumin, paprika, oregano, black pepper, and chili powder. Add a rinsed can of one each of the following beans: dark kidney, pinto, and black. Add a can of diced tomatoes, a bay leaf, and chicken broth as needed. Simmer for 15 minutes and dish into shallow bowls with plenty of grated cheddar, chopped raw onion, and sour cream.
It’s been a long time since I last posted here. For the past month, I’ve been turning this blog into a full-blown book, which has been taking all my time and concentration. I want my editor to be happy. But the call of the blog is a tempting siren song, or maybe I should say a lure to the light, and I can’t stay away.
Brendan’s little brother Aidan lives in West Hollywood just off Sunset Boulevard with his friend Noah. He’s an actor and screenwriter, and Noah works for a big producer. Last night, when Brendan called Aidan to wish him a happy 24th birthday, Aidan expressed, in the course of their conversation, his consternation at the loss of his vicarious source of food envy.
“Reading her blog used to make our frozen pizza dinners taste so much better,” he said. “We’re dying here. We’re jonesing for more.”
Happy belated birthday, Aidan, but I’m not sure I have anything exciting to report, foodwise.
Tonight’s dinner, for example, was aggressively healthy and Whole Foods-inspired, and not likely to cause any drooling deviation from pizza: kale salad with buttermilk dressing. Chopped brussels sprouts tossed in balsamic vinegar, salt, pepper, red pepper flakes, smoked paprika, and cumin, and steamed till soft. And then, the hippie-food piece de résistance, which means most kids would rather die than eat it: a cup of rinsed quinoa sautéed in olive oil and butter with an onion, a whole head of garlic, 2 hot peppers, smoked cardamom, paprika, and tarragon, salt and pepper, then steamed in 2 cups of broth. When it’s a nice hot wet mass, the general color and texture of wood pulp, stir in half a cup of toasted chopped almonds, a quarter cup of mixed olives, and lemon zest. Serve with hot sauce…
It was good, and we gobbled it up avidly, as we do everything, but it had a quality of over-achieving to it; if you ate like this every day, you might plausibly never die, except maybe of boredom, or an excess of fiber and antioxidants and cancer-fighting compounds, which studies will no doubt soon reveal are toxic.
The other night, when our friend Madeleine, one of the few friends we’ve made so far in Portland, came over for dinner, I made a similarly health-on-steroids kind of meal: very fresh local haddock broiled in lemon and capers and olive oil; “forbidden” japonica rice steamed in chicken broth with shallots, garlic, whole cardamom pods, sesame oil, and chili-garlic hot sauce, and a salad of herb mix and avocado in a mustard vinaigrette.
Madeleine used to live in our house. She was the tenant in the downstairs apartment, where we now live, and, because she was moving out, we were able to buy it. We phoned her during the sale to ask her some questions about the place – why was she moving out, was there was anything we needed to know, that sort of thing (she had some stories to tell, most notably about a flood, but luckily, they didn’t deter us). It turned out that she and I had gone to Reed together – in fact, we graduated the same year. We used to play bridge together in the Student Union one summer. We had friends in common. But we’d barely known each other there – I’d always thought she was far too cool for me, which, frankly, she was. But now that we’re middle-aged, these distinctions are evidently moot and have smoothed themselves out.
We’ve been gradually settling into this house. We’ve augmented our furniture with stuff from Brendan’s parents’ barn, his grandmother Sally Fitzgerald’s furniture – a Queen Anne couch with matching armchairs, a secretary desk, a glassed-in bookcase, and Brendan’s grandfather’s old desk. I love the fact that this furniture has deep literary history embedded in its molecular structure: Flannery O’Connor was Sally’s best friend, so I’m sure she sat on the couch and chairs that are in our parlor. Brendan’s grandfather, Robert Fitzgerald, translated The Odyssey and The Iliad, and I love to think that he did so on the desk we’re using, temporarily, as a dining room table. Eating on it, I’m reminded of my freshman year at Reed, when I was held hostage to those books. The other night, when Madeleine found herself at this table, she heard the story of its provenance, and we remembered Humanities 110 – did either of us actually ever read them? The Odyssey, maybe.
This house has its own stories. Brendan has been researching its previous owners at the Registry of Deeds in the Cumberland Courthouse. They are legion, by which I mean it’s changed hands at least 20 times in its nearly 150-year life. Previous owners include an ex-governor of Maine in the late 19th century, as well as members of illustrious old New England families — Coffins, Libbys, Knights, Meserves, and McQuillans. For much of the latter half of the 20th century, the house was an institute — for 30 years, it was a Goodwill Industries home for Down syndrome adults and, before that, it was an old age home owned by a doctor associated with Maine Medical. A sprinkler system and wheelchair-accessible bathroom doorways attest to its institutional history; plaster moldings, high ceilings, and bay windows are evidence of its more distant, elegant past.
Evidently, we’ve taken possession of an old, much-altered, interesting, beautiful structure. Now we’re imposing our own ideas on it, as no doubt others will do after we leave it behind.
In a blender, put a cup of frozen mixed berries, a cup of orange juice, a banana, and as much yogurt as fits in the rest of the blender before it explodes. Blend. Serves 3.