Tuesday, August 21, 2012

A Little Chautauqua? - Dispatches from Maine

Poetry Reading at Monhegan Island Library
It seems only fair, since we spend our summer months in Maine, that I should read a little Stephen King while I am here.  He is, along with Henry Wordsworth Longfellow and Edna St. Vincent Millay, one of the state’s best known native writers, although I understand he spends a great deal of time Florida these days.  “I felt young when I got down there,” he writes.  He has also been told that Florida is “God’s waiting room, “ and the “home of the newlywed and the nearly dead.”  There is nothing wrong with that belief; I have spent quite a bit of time in the Sunshine State myself.  I was married in Florida and so I guess he has a point here.  I have not tested out the rest of that old saw.   

I will have to admit right up front that I am not a big fan of horror or science fiction or other boo-scare literature.  I will spot you that King is very good at what he does; everyone I know who likes those kind of stories and novels tells me so.  I have seen him on talk shows and he frequently appears pretty homey and self-deprecating.  “I lead a pretty boring life except when I write.  And when I write, man, I have wonderful adventures.”  He seems to be, at first blush anyway, a pretty witty fellow . . . someone you would enjoy hanging out with.

What I have read of King, and which I have enjoyed very much, is On Writing and Secret Windows: Essays and Fiction on the Craft of Writing, his wonderful exegesis on the art of writing which appeared over a decade ago. He certainly is a writer who thoroughly enjoys what he does while remaining true to and serious about his craft.  And, when he puts ink to paper, he is very good at explaining his process of writing.  He tells us that one never sets out to have an idea; it just happens.  But what to do with that idea?  That is what we must all consider; we can all learn from that.  Most of the past postings here on the  Looking Toward Portugal blogspot are dictated on that same proposition.

As good of a writer as he is, King freely admits that he’s not much on talking.  He was a high school teacher at one time and knows how to start talking when one bell rings, and how to stop when the bell rings again.  What happens and is said in between rings is what you get.  “I can’t really lecture - the idea makes me laugh,” he confessed to one audience.  “I can tell a few stories and then go home.  But that’s about it . . . we’re all having a fairly good time for people who are going to die someday.”  That is an interesting way to put it, I guess.  King is not comfortable speaking from prepared notes.  “About the most I can do is chautauqua, a fine old word that means you babble on for awhile about the thing that you do and then you sit down and let people get back to the serious drinking.”

I know what he is talking about.  Not long after our arrival here in Maine last summer I was invited to speak at one of the ubiquitous strawberry festivals occurring throughout the state at that time.  In fact, I quoted King in my introduction, comforting my audience with the knowledge that my comments, although fascinating and relevant to our gathering, would be brief so that everybody would get what they actually paid for . . . freshly made strawberry shortcake, chocolate dipped strawberries, and ice cream.  I was looking forward to this myself.

So OK, perhaps I am not going to read any more of Stephen King’s fiction, but perhaps I have learned something from him . . . how to chautauqua on a variety of topics that strike my fancy while I am here is Maine.  When I finish we can all agree to sit back with a glass of wine, or beverage of your choice, and ponder what I am sharing with you.  And unlike reading a Stephen King novel, hopefully these topics I have selected will not disturb your good night’s sleep with shivering night terrors.

Monday, August 20, 2012

A Rainy Day at the Lake - Dispatches from Maine

There is something very special about a rainy day here on Sabbathday Lake.  Of course we come to Maine each summer to enjoy the pleasant New England weather (although we do have our share of the hot and humid days that seem atypical for these latitudes), but rainy days have their special appeal.  I am not talking about those days when there is a passing shower or two which accomplish nothing more than settling the  dust.  I am referring to one of those all day, soaking rains; a day when you look outside and are glad that you have nowhere in particular to be; a day when you can choose to stay inside with a good book.  Or perhaps do a little writing or painting . . . or take a short nap while listening to the tattoo of raindrops on the roof.  I enjoy sitting back in one of those overstuffed chairs and staring out at the lake as the sheets of rain stipple its gray green surface.  And, if it rains long enough and the outside damp begins to creep inside, perhaps a fire in the old wood stove is in order, feeding it just enough fuel from the woodbox to hold the cold dampness at bay.  There is something about that crackle of the flames as the fire takes hold of the kindling, giving way to a thrumming wrawl as the larger logs catch.  Soon a gray gauze of smoke drifts over the lake mixing with the mist rising off the water.  Yes, there is something special about a rainy day.  The sun and the blues skies will be back soon enough.  I’m in no rush.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Got Moxie? - Dispatches from Maine

In all the years I have been coming to Maine, I have never tasted Moxie until this summer.  Some might find that hard to believe, while others of you might ask “What in name of all that is holy is Moxie?  A reasonable question to be sure.

For years I have seen cans and bottles of Moxie with their distinctive orange labels and logos in stores here in Maine, but I just never got around to trying it.  Perhaps I postponed a sampling because of all the terrible taste descriptions I have encountered.  Advertised as “Distinctively Different ®,” some say it tastes like various brands of cough syrup.  Others suggest it tastes like a combination of these medicinal elixirs and other products such as prune juice, tobacco, dirt, gasoline, kerosene and some other items best left to the imagination.  Then there is the tale of a man who finds several old bottles of Moxie in his refrigerator and wonders if they are still safe to drink.  He takes one of the bottles to a local chemist to have it tested.  When he returns the next day for the results, the chemist tells him he is afraid the news is bad.  “Your horse has diabetes.”  You get the idea.  So I asked myself.  Why would anyone pay good money to purchase Moxie let alone voluntarily consume such an obviously vile concoction?  Why indeed.

So this year I decided I am going to try Moxie and make up my own mind.  It can’t be all that bad if it’s been around for so long, right?  Then again, folks here in Maine are said to be of a stronger and more resolute constitution than those of us from away.  Having spent so many summers here I like to think that perhaps some of these qualities may have rubbed off on me, certainly enough so that I can manage to consume twelve ounces of Moxie without too many ill effects. 

The moment of truth came during our most recent visit to Monhegan Island.  On the boat from New Harbor I bumped into a fellow wearing an orange Moxie baseball cap.  I asked him if he was from Maine and whether he had ever tasted Moxie, and if so, was it as bad as everyone makes it out to be?  It turns out the guy was from Minnesota and had not the foggiest idea what Moxie is.  He just thought it was a neat looking cap.  It was, but that is not the point.  If you are going to proudly wear the name “Moxie” in public, you should know what it is and whether it tastes good or not.  It would be the same thing as wearing a “Kitfo” baseball cap.  OK, I think I have made my point.

So one fine afternoon we were having lunch on the island and as a lark I ordered a can of Moxie as my beverage of choice.  I smelled it . . . so far so good.  It did not offend my delicate olfactory sense.   I sipped it.  Not bad.  A few more sips and I began to wonder what all the fuss is about.  It is actually pretty good.  I finished the can and washed it down with a second.  And before the week was over I had consumed a few more cans.

OK, I could tell you the actual ingredients, but I feel that would in some way destroy the Moxie mystique.  Suffice it to say that I can wear a Moxie baseball cap in good conscience.  These folks in Maine are on to something.
Check out my latest posting “Vacilando” at my other blogspot - “A Flâneur in Washington, DC.”  See: http://flaneurinwashington.blogspot.com/2012/08/vacilando.html

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Finestkind! - Our Favorite Lobster Pound - Dispatches from Maine

When I think of lobsters and Maine, and one cannot think of Maine without thinking of lobsters, the first thing that comes to mind is Morse Lobster. For the past decade or so, ever since we chanced upon Sheldon and Kathy Morse’s quaint lobster pound then located on, appropriately enough, Morse Point, in Harpswell, we have returned many times. Lobsters at Morse’s just seemed to taste better than all others. I am not sure why this is true, but it is. Better yet, it was less than an hour’s drive from the cottage on Sabbathday Lake. Whenever we got a hankering for a lobster and a pile of steamers, off we would go to Morse Lobster. 

So how did we find this place? It was pure serendipity. One day we set off for Holbrook’s Wharf, what was then our regular lobster pound located in Cundy’s Harbor on
Sebasoodegan Island, in the eastern reaches of Harpswell. I no longer recall why we did not stay once we arrived there. Perhaps the lobsters were too small, or too expensive, or maybe they were out of steamers (in our book a lobster dinner is not complete without a pile of these native clams). Whatever the reason, we decided to look further to see if we might find what we were looking for that day. Our wanderings eventually brought us to Harpswell Neck, a narrow strip of land separating Harpswell Sound and Middle Bay, and there, on gravel side road, we came across a small sign - “Morse Lobster” - pointing down a rough dirt road leading to the water. We decided to check it out and in doing so we made one of our greatest discoveries in all the years we have been coming to Maine. There, on a small wharf stacked with lobster traps, we found a couple of small tables and Adirondack chairs arranged around a small weathered, clapboard-sided shed. A large kettle rested on a propane burner. That was it. But what more did we really need? Let’s not forget the flower boxes full of color that added a homey touch to the place. We were the only ones there and as we walked down to the wharf we were greeted by a burly fellow with skin the color of a boiled lobster who introduced himself as Sheldon Morse. He grew up in Harpswell fishing his native waters. We inquired about the lobsters and steamers, and soon we were sitting in the Adirondack chairs looking out over the blue expanse of Harpswell Sound, its surface dotted with multi-colored buoys marking the locations of lobsters traps a few fathoms below, while three lobsters and a couple pounds of steamers were cooking in the pot along with ears of the local corn. It really does not get any better than this.

That was our only visit to Morse Lobster that summer. We soon returned to Maryland but vowed that we would make our way back to Harpswell Neck at our first opportunity the following summer. During that long winter, when we dreamed of Maine and lobster, we recalled our fond memories of that day. When we finally did return to Maine the following August, our first trip to the coast included a trip down Harpswell Neck to a new and improved Morse Lobster. Well, I am not sure you can improve on perfection, but the operation had grown over the winter. The shed was still there as was the wharf where we ate the previous summer. But now there was a new, larger wharf with a few more tables sheltered by umbrellas. The flower boxes were still there as was Sheldon, still jovial and hard at work over his pot of lobsters and steamers. We knew we were in for a treat! We ordered lobsters, steamers and corn and once again enjoyed the local scenery as we waited for our meals to cook. The place had upscaled a bit, as lobster pounds go, but the ambiance was the same and the lobsters and steamers tasted just as good as they did the year before and during our subsequent visits to Harpswell Neck that summer, and the summer(s) after that.

We have visited Morse Lobster so many times over the years that I have now forgotten just how many summers we’ve eaten at our favorite lobster pound in Maine. And each time there was Sheldon presiding over his small fiefdom. We rarely visited another lobster pound unless we were exploring a more distant section of the coast. Business was good as more people discovered the Morse’s now little-kept secret. The original shed was used for storage, replaced by a larger structure where take-out orders were placed and the meals prepared. Family members and others took orders and shuttled meals to the tables. Lacey, the family dog who seem to enjoyed swimming more than anything else, would wander among the tables allowing diners and other visitors to briefly run their fingers through her wet coat before moving on to yet another adventure. It was also around this time that Sheldon took over the defunct Ernie’s Drive-In, adjacent to the Bowdoin College campus in nearby Brunswick. He renamed it Morse’s Lobster Shack, and sold lobsters to go and offered local seafood inside or at your car (“just blink your light for service”).

Sadly enough it seems that all good things must come to an end. One summer we arrived in Maine and planned to return to Morse Lobster at our first opportunity. When we did, we found the pound closed and strangely silent. Gone were the tables and chair and the umbrellas. The wharf was once again piled with lobster traps and Lacey was nowhere in sight. We could not believe it. We were heartbroken. As it turned out, some of the new neighbors on Harpswell Neck did not like the idea of a commercial operation in “their” neighborhood. They appealed to the Harpswell town council to close Morse Lobster down. I wrote a letter to the council questioning the wisdom of such a move - lobstermen who have fished these waters for generations should not be dispossessed of their traditions and livelihoods. In the end, however, the council’s decision was allowed to stand and we lost our favorite lobster pound in Maine. We looked for alternatives, but it was just not the same. The lobsters and the steamers we found elsewhere were fine, but gone was that special ambiance we had come to enjoy during our summer sojourns in Maine.

When we returned the following summer we were happy to learn that Sheldon was back in business. Not on Harpswell Neck where he and Kathy continued to live; they had leased the lobster pound at Holbrook’s Wharf, in Cundy’s Harbor, where we use to eat before we discovered Morse Lobster. It was not quite the same as what we had come to enjoy at their former location, and it was a farther drive than before, but we were happy that Morse Lobster was back in business. At least for that summer. And then summer was over and with it Morse Lobster at Holbrook Wharf. Again we had to look for an alternative. It just wasn’t the same.

As we returned to Maine again this summer we were reminded that we had yet to find a lobster pound as friendly and pleasant as Morse Lobster. Usually we were eating lobster during the first days of our visit yet this year we seemed to be dragging our feet. There was always Morse’s Lobster Shack, which we had eaten at a few times, but it was not on the water. Lobsters are meant to be eaten outside and with a clear view of the water. The closer the better. The Morses had sold the Shack a few years ago although it retained the old name. This year, however, we noted that the place had a new name. Nope, this just wouldn’t do.

We had been here a few days when we took a drive down to Land’s End, at the very southern tip of Bailey Island. On our way home we were preparing to cross the historic Cribbstone Bridge from Baily Island to Orrs Island when Sally Ann called out “Oh my God, Morse Lobster!” There, on the southern end of the bridge, is a restaurant we have been passing for years without ever giving it much of a thought. Adjacent to the bridge was a small shed festooned with lobster buoys and an American flag; beside it a short, narrow pier leading out to a deck over the water with two tables. On the shed was a small oval sign - “Morse Lobster.” We quickly pulled to the side of the road. “It has gotta be the same,” I said. We parked and walked across the road and looked into the shed. No one was there. We turned around and there came Sheldon walking across the parking lot from the Cribbstone Grille. This is the second summer he and Kathy have been running both the restaurant and the wholesale and retail lobster pound next door. If we had only known last summer! We were so happy to know he was back in business . . . and only three miles down Harpswell Sound from his original operation we had first discovered years ago. We had already eaten but we pledged to return as soon as possible.

Nothing ever stays the same, but sometime it does if you just wait long enough. We still think fondly back to that first summer when we discovered that small wharf with a couple of tables and chairs. A few days ago we returned to the “new” Morse Lobster and ate at one of the tables at the end of the pier. The lobsters, steamers and corn were just as good as we remembered them. It is still our favorite lobster pound in Maine. Great food, friendly people, and surrounded by the beautiful scenery of coastal Maine. Finestkind!