Saturday, October 10, 2009

Portland, Maine, a haven for foodies

Maine, just like other parts of the country, is fighting to preserve its unique qualities, and not be overrun by homogeneity, and bland corporate ubiquity.Depending on where you go, it seems hit or miss how well the state is doing to maintain its identity.

Portland is Maine’s largest city, and the closest community we have to something remotely urban. With a population of just over 60,000 (230,000 if you include South Portland and the surrounding metro area of Greater Portland), Portland exudes a vibe of a small town, where people still know one another, and yet, offers qualities of cities with much larger populations.

I’ve always had a special affinity for Portland, dating back to my high school years when a trip to the Old Port was special, and felt somewhat decadent, especially for a small town kid who had his sights on leaving his hometown in the dust, at some point. In high school, a night on the town, catching a show at the Cumberland County Civic Center, and eating at one of the many restaurants that dotted the Old Port, even back in the late 70s, was a real treat for me and my friends.

Fast forward 30 years and Portland has recently been honored with recognition and accolades from a well-known food magazine, as well as America’s newspaper of record for its abundant eateries, and great local food.

Bon Appetit voted Portland “America’s Foodiest Small Town” in August, and then, a few weeks later, Julia Moskin, food writer for the New York Times visited town, and wrote an effusive piece about the city and its decade-long ascendancy as a food destination. Moskin highlighted many of the city’s eateries, bakeries, and markets where fresh, local food is the norm, not the exception. She also recognized the many top-notch chefs that populate the city’s food scene.

There’s always a danger to take for granted the special qualities that exist in one’s own backyard, thinking that the grass is greener, and life more robust elsewhere, especially in bigger cities like Boston, New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles. While these places certainly have elements that are impossible for Portland to compete with, for a small city, it arguably has an amazing array of local food options, and restaurants committed to local farmers and food producers.

Moskin’s article struck a chord with me. Some of the restaurants she mentioned, like Hugo’s and Fore Street, I was familiar with. I also knew about Rabelais, Portland’s bookstore for foodies, located on Middle Street. There were many more places, however that I knew little about. After reading the article, and discussing it with my wife, we’ve decided that we are going to make an effort to get into Portland more often, and sample some of these places, even on our small budget devoted to out-to-eat options.

With fall firmly ensconced, and Maine farms producing a rich bounty full of abundant choices for local food lovers, we headed into the city to sample the offerings of Saturday’s Portland Farmer’s Market at beautiful Deering Oaks Park.
Before hitting The Oaks, we buzzed over the Casco Bay Bridge to partake of bagels at 158 Pickett Street Café, one of several places Moskin mentioned in her article.

Bagels are a food item that I used to eat almost daily. Back when I went low-carb, following the prescription of Dr. Atkins, I called bagels, “wheels of death,” and even though I’ve abandoned the low-carb path, bagels have never found their way back to my daily menu of foods.

158 Pickett Street is located near SMCC, about a mile and a half down Broadway, after turning left off the bridge. Moskin mentioned Chef Josh Potocki’s “long-fermented water-boiled bagels,” and chili-garlic cream cheese to top them off, and Mary and I decided to break our bagel fast and sample one each.

Arriving just after 9:00, there was a line of six, or seven people ahead of us in the non-descript building just a stones throw away from the SMCC ballfield that Mark used to play on during his fall baseball days during high school.

The place had a hipster vibe, with staff sporting an abundant variety of colorful tattoos. The line moved quickly and we placed our order; I ordered a poppy seed bagel and Mary had one with everything, both toasted and topped with the above-mentioned spread, which the cashier assured us was “a good choice.”

[Willard Beach, bordering the SMCC campus]

We took our order to go and drove a few hundred yards, parking and walking down to Willard Beach bordering the backside of the campus. The bagels, both about the size of a baby’s head, were heavenly. The chili-garlic cream cheese was the perfect complement to the crusty bagel, which had its own abundant flavor.

From South Portland, we headed back across the bay and into downtown Portland, bound for Deering Oaks and Saturday’s assortment of fresh local produce.

With the sun just peeking through the clouds, we enjoyed walking through a variety of booths filled with root vegetables, arugala, fresh heirloom tomatoes, and locally-produced artisanal cheeses. We had discussed creating our evening meal from what we found at the market, and we didn’t leave disappointed.

With tomatoes, turnips, arugala, fresh basil, as well as mozzarella, and feta cheese made from goat’s milk (for tomorrow’s tomato feta salad), we then were off for Brighton Avenue and Rosemont Market.

Rosemont Market is a local market of the finest order. Committed to carrying the freshest in local foods, ranging form locally-grown produce, to meat from local producers, as well as freshly baked bread they bake themselves, this neighborhood market provides a cornucopia of what’s right about Portland’s Buy Local movement.

We picked up steak and sausage for the grill, both from Maine producers, as well as a bottle of moderately-priced red wine, a snack of polenta pennies (cookies), and a Moroccan chicken soup, which was our lunch (it came with a large, doughy roll that was similar to the mouth-watering rolls my German grandmother used to bake), and we were on our way home, and an afternoon bike ride.

Tonight’s dinner was a celebration of our day; a rich bounty that came from Maine’s often, too-rocky soil, and local farmers that continue to buck the blandness of over-produced, factory farms, where too much of our nation’s food ends up originating from.

I feel fortunate that Mary and I live so close to Portland, and we’re planning to embrace this benefit by sampling local food, whether we pick it up and cook it for ourselves, or allow one of Portland’s skilled chefs to work their magic and prepare it.

[Sign for Portland Farmers' Market]

[One of the Farmers' Market's wagons]

[Abundant veggies from local farmers]


Elly said...

Thank you so much for your comment on my essay. I'm glad you feel I touched on an interesting subject, and I have to agree with you on admiring Billie Joe for touching on those issues. Thanks again!
~Elly. :)

Jim said...


Thanks for stopping by. Thankfully, there are still entertainers like Billie Joe, not afraid to speak out and tackle issues that need addressing, and using his platform of celebrity to do something more than merely promote more consumerism.