Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Wiscasset Strangler: Why I Hate the ‘Prettiest Village in Maine’ - Dispatches from Maine”

Driving up the Maine coast on US Route One, passing through a hodge-podge of civilization with occasional reprieves as the highway passes through stretches of forests and tidal streams, you eventually come to a sign announcing rather boastfully that you have arrived in Wiscasset, “The Prettiest Village in Maine.”  I don’t think so.  Granted, it is beautifully situated along the banks of the Sheepscot River.  Such an ideal location that when Maine became a state in 1820, the village was considered as the site for the new capital.  But it was passed over in favor of Augusta because it was too close to the sea and therefore difficult to defend (a string of fortifications lined the Kennebec River leading to Augusta).  And today it still has a quaint charm to it.  But so do many other villages in Maine.  I guess it all depends on what one considers authentic quaint charm.  Frankly, the good people of Wiscasset need to take a closer look at their village before making such an outlandish claim.  Wiscasset is far from the prettiest village in Maine.  Not even close!

So what is it if not pretty and charming?  That’s easy.  Wiscasset could best be labeled the worst traffic bottleneck in the entire state of Maine . . . what some have come to call the “Wiscasset Strangler.”  It is difficult to appreciate the village’s charm when forced to sit in miles-long traffic back-ups along northbound Route One among the unsightly periphery of car dealerships, gas stations, motels, etc.  And once into the actual village, one has to wait to creep at a snail’s pace through the two blocks of quaintness before being shunted onto the bridge over the Sheepscot.  Southbound Route One traffic is also frequently backed up beyond the bridge into Edgecomb, but at least there one has some trees and river vistas to divert attention.  Simply put, Wiscasset is a village to be  avoided at all costs, especially during the summer months when an estimated 25,000 vehicles pass through the village daily (even more on weekends).  Contrast this to the 15,000 vehicles during the off season which still seems like a lot to me.

So why is there so much traffic?  It is a simple matter of geography.  Mid-Coast Maine is a series of several broad and lengthy tidal rivers and estuaries with very few crossing points.  Route One north of Brunswick is the only direct coastal route and therefore handles much of the tourist traffic bound for the Boothbay peninsula just beyond the Sheepscot, as well as all those headed farther Down East toward Mount Desert Island and Acadia National Park.  One can either take Route One and the aggravating bottleneck at Wiscasset or follow Interstate 295 north to Gardiner or Augusta to cross the Kennebec River before returning to the coast via various blue highways.  This alternative adds about 30 miles and 45 minutes driving time, but the advantages are that there is relatively little traffic and no back-ups while passing through some very pleasant rural countryside few visitors to Maine ever see and some villages that are, in my very humble opinion, just as quaint as Wiscasset.

There is a lot of finger pointing when it comes to the reasons for the Wiscasset bottleneck.  It is not just the fact that there is only one way in and out of town.  There is also a large “S” curve on the edge of the village center where Route 27 along the eastern edge of the Kennebec River valley feeds additional traffic into that already funneling through on Route One.  There is a seldom used railroad spur along the banks of the Sheepscot River on the opposite edge of downtown and one still has to slow down to cross it before inching across the bridge to Edgecomb.  There is the lowered speed limit through town and several cross-walks with which to contend.  Yet for many the main culprit appears to be Red’s Eats, a tiny lobster shack that has been a local institution for almost sixty years.  It seems that everyone who comes to Maine has to stop at Red’s for its lobster roll or its fried clams.  There is no inside seating and very limited cooking space.  So waits can be long as crowds of people orbit looking for places to park, stand or eat.  Why?

I’ll admit it.  I have eaten at Red’s.  Originally established by Allen “Red” Gagnon in nearby Boothbay Harbor in 1938, it moved to the corner of Main Street and Water Street in Wiscasset in 1964 and that is where it has remained ever since.  It was many years ago when we first started coming to Maine regularly in the summer months and it was pretty much de rigeur to stop at this coastal icon billed as the “World’s Best Lobster Shack.”   Hmmmm.  The best lobster shack in the world and the prettiest village in Maine?  Quite a reputation to live up to.  The lobster roll, as I recall, was good and what I had expected . . . chunks of lobster combined with mayonnaise and scooped into a bun.  But the “Best Lobster Roll in Maine”?  I would not go that far.  Over the years I have had several that tasted better and served in prettier environs and for several dollars less than the almost $18 Red’s currently charges.  Unfortunately, those visitors to Maine who stick close to Route One never get a chance to sample some wonderful lobster pounds and shacks not all that far off the beaten track yet far from the traffic, auto exhaust, very limited outdoor seating, and long lines with waits of over an hour that visitors routine experience at Red’s.   

There has long been talk of rectifying the situation.  Perhaps a few stop lights might help space out the traffic a bit.  I seriously doubt this will help and may only add to the frustration of coping with Wiscasset as one watches the lights turn green while the traffic fails to move.  A by-pass option surfaces from time to time although it seems to be dead at the moment and three suggested alternative routes around the town have been tabled.  There are several towns along Route One with by-passes.  If Wiscasset is really that pretty, or has that much to offer, surely folks will take the time to jump off Route One, just as they do in other places, to see what it is all about.  Frankly, I have been driving Route One for almost three decades, and I jump off every chance I get if not avoid it completely.  Some complain that the by-pass price tag upwards of $100 million is too costly.  There are also very real and serious environmental concerns, but something has to be done as the traffic seems to get heavier with each passing year.  Others think the traffic snarls can be eliminated by moving Red’s Eats to another location that can handle the large crowds of diners and the gaping onlookers.  That would help, I’m sure, but I seriously doubt that it will cut down on the heavy traffic that uses Route One to get from here to there along the coast of Maine.

When we first started coming to Maine, I enjoyed driving slowly through Wiscasset as it permitted time to look at the wrecks of the Hesper and Luther Little, two four-masted cargo schooners purchased in 1932 and grounded on mud flats near the bridge where they were left to decay for over six decades.  The years and storms diminished them to almost nothing and finally, in 1998, they were removed to a local landfill where they continue to rot to this day.  The shipwrecks use to draw people to Wiscasset, and you can still find postcards with their once familiar silhouettes against the blue waters of the Sheepscot River.  But now that they are gone, there is even less of a reason to come to Wiscasset.  The wharf where one once went to view the shipwrecks has been taken over by several lobster shacks trying to siphon off some of Red’s business.  And these add to an already terrible traffic gridlock.

This is why I hate Wiscasset.  Perhaps this explains all the homes for sale in town.  Who would want to put up with this mess?  Not me!

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Saturday, July 27, 2013

Si vis pacem, pare bellum” - Dispatches from Maine

In a recent posting I mentioned the August 1985 plane crash on the northern edge of New Gloucester which claimed the life of 13 year old Samantha Smith, America’s Youngest Ambassador, along with her father and six others.


There was another plane crash in New Gloucester decades ago that did not receive the same media attention and has been long forgotten.  I have been spending my summers in this town since 1988, and as a historian, I like to think that I am fairly familiar with the lay of the land and the local history.  Yet this summer I, along with many who call New Gloucester home and who have lived here far longer than I, have been introduced to a little known chapter of local history that has just now come into proper relief.

During a meeting of the local historical society in late March, Tom and Phil Blake, the town history curator and his father, turned over some interesting artifacts they had found while sorting through the family homestead and farm.  Their grandfather and father, Everett Stinchfield Blake, who had passed away in 2011 at age 91, had lived there since 1933 when at age 13 he had come to help out his grandparents, Oscar and Clara Stinchfield.  He continued to live there and work the farm after his grandparents died in the early 1940s.  Among the things found in a dusty dining room drawer was a box of some metal items and what looked to be old electronic gear.  Upon closer inspection, however, it was determined that the items came from a F4U Corsair fighter aircraft, one of the mainstays of the US Navy arsenal during the final years of World War II.  Memories were jogged and soon the historical society was researching the crash of two of these planes near the Stinchfield farm in early October 1943.    

The aircraft were stationed at the Brunswick Naval Air Station approximately 16 miles east of New Gloucester.  This facility was constructed and occupied in the spring of 1943, primarily to train pilots of the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm to fly the brand new carrier-capable Corsair fighters, as well as the F6F Hellcats.  Training missions were also flown from the Naval Auxiliary Air Facilities located on Long Island, in nearby Casco Bay, and in Lewiston (now the Auburn/Lewiston Municipal Airport and the site of the 1985 crash), Sanford, Rockland and Bar Harbor.  US Navy and Royal Navy squadrons also conducted critical anti-submarine warfare missions from Brunswick.  The base was  deactivated after the war but was recommissioned in 1951 to support the Korean conflict and it remained an anti-submarine warfare facility until its final closure in 2011.

The Fleet Air Arm had received its first batch of almost 100 Corsairs in September 1943, and the first British training squadrons had assembled at Brunswick and elsewhere along the Eastern Seaboard.  Upon completion of their training, these pilots would cross the Atlantic to serve in operational squadrons in Europe and elsewhere.  As it was, the Fleet Air Arm pilots actually qualified the F4U Corsair for carrier operations even before their US Navy counterparts.

It was on one of these training missions on the morning of October 3, 1943 that Lieutenant Commander Alfred Jack Sewell, the commander of 1837 Squadron and a well-known British naval ace, and his wingman, Sub-Lieutenant David James Falshaw Watson, were satisfying the motto of the Royal Navy - si vis pacem, pare bellum [if you wish for peace, prepare for war].  While practicing maneuvers over the Intervale area of New Gloucester north of the old Pownal State School (now Pineland Farms), their two Corsairs - Models JT-190 - which had been manufactured by Chance Vought Aircraft in July and capable of flying at 450 mph, collided head-on at approximately 9:50am.  According to Thomas Fogg, a local farmer, one of the planes careened into the swampy meadow behind the Stinchfield farm and exploded killing the pilot instantly.  The other pilot tried unsuccessfully to parachute and was critically injured and died a short time later.  Both planes struck the ground approximately 100 feet apart and left a debris field covering over 200 acres.  According to local lore, Everett Blake’s father Fred flagged down and offered assistance to the military personnel arriving from Brunswick to investigate the crash and to recover the bodies.  He was rebuffed and soon enough their vehicles were bogged down in the swamp.  Four days after the accident, Sewell and Watson, both 25 years old at the time of their deaths, were buried side by side with full military honors at the Portsmouth Naval Cemetery, in New Hampshire.

So who were these two men?  Lieutenant Commander “Jackie” Sewell of the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve served on the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious in the Mediterranean Sea in 1940-1941, flying Fulmar I carrier-based fighters on combat and convoy patrol sorties against Italian targets and aircraft.  He also flew missions while based on Malta and on the HMS Formidable in the eastern Mediterranean, and commanded a squadron on HMS Dasher in 1942-1943, in support of “Operation Torch,” the joint US-British invasion of North Africa.  He claimed approximately 25 enemy aircraft shot down and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.  He later  commanded the training squadron flying the new Corsairs fighters based at Brunswick NAS from September 1943 until his death.  Sub-Lieutenant Watson’s previous heroism and claim to fame was due to his reputation as the star right-hand batsman for the Oxford University rugby team.  Also a member of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, he and Sewell were officially deployed to HMS Saker (British Naval Delegation), a “stone frigate” - Royal Navy facility on land - to which all Royal Navy personnel in the USA were assigned.

Almost seven decades have now passed since that fateful and long forgotten morning, one more chapter of a war that is quickly slipping into the realm of history and myth.  Two brave British pilots died far way from home and family and the battles still to be fought. To honor Sewell and Watson, the New Gloucester Historical Society and the Veterans Monument Committee have decided to add their names to the planned veterans monument and memorial to be erected in the village, along with the names of more than 950 New Gloucester residents who have given their lives in the service of their country since the American Revolution.

My gratitude to the New Gloucester Historical Society and various media reports past and present for providing me with some of the details cited here.  It was an honor for me to present a lecture to the Historical Society last September to help kick off fund-raising efforts for the new veterans monument.  I wholly endorse the plan to add the names of these two brave British pilots to the New Gloucester Veterans Monument and Memorial. 

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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Cheesehead Revisited - Part 2 - Dispatches from Maine

The Williams Farms Cheesemakers and Samples of  the new "Bon Bree"
Part 1 was posted on July 13.  Please check it out.

I noted in Part 1 that I always find it gratifying to learn there are others who share my hankering for a good hunk of cheese.  And speaking of a good hunk of cheese, not long after my original cheese posting back in 2009, I began to receive regular comments from others who appreciate some of my cheese recollections, particularly my discovery and enjoyment of “Bon Bree,” a unique cheese produced for many years in a small cheese factory in Mapleton, Wisconsin (northwest of Milwaukee).  Four years ago I happened to visit Mapleton after a long absence only to learn that the factory had closed several years earlier.  As I would learn from the comments I received, I and many others have mourned the passing of Bon Bree cheese into history.

Back in January I was contacted out of the blue by a fellow who lives in Pewaukee, Wisconsin, not too far from my old stomping grounds in the early 1970s.  He had seen my posting about my fond memories of Mapleton and Bon Bree cheese and we agreed it was a black day when the Mapleton cheese maker decided to close up shop.  The good news, however, was that he and his partners at the Williams Farms Creamery in Waukesha, were hoping to soon replicate “a Mapleton style cheese” similar in consistency and taste to the Bon Bree cheese of old.  In doing so, they would answer the prayers of its many loyal disciples who have long mourned its passing.

Always interested in cheeses and those who try to do something interesting or unique in the production of cheese, I asked to be kept abreast of developments in Waukesha.  In March I received a report that Williams Farms and partners were in the last stages of their sample runs using their own milk and hoping to perfect the “Bon Bree taste” through test batches leading to a final recipe  “We are all cheese heads and waiting  anxiously for that first sublime taste.”  This was exciting news as the dream gradually became a reality. 

“We have cheese” was the next message I received at the beginning of May.  “Our 24th test batch turned out great.”   The best news was they were shipping a sample to me in Maryland.  At first there was concern that the cheese would not withstand its transit through the US postal system, but I assured them it would be OK.  Bon Bree was always a hardy cheese, and my family sent blocks to me in college in Florida and Arizona.  I even had Bon Bree sent to me during a year I spent studying in Germany.  Surely it would hold up on the trip from Wisconsin to Maryland.  And it did.  The promised sample arrived in mid-May and I could not wait to sample it.

Although the color was more white than the buttery hue of the original - something which only occurs with proper aging - it looked, felt and smelled the same as the old Bon Bree.  My memories rushed back to the trips I made to the cheese factory in Mapleton four decades ago.  Beyond the entrance was the room where the cheese was produced and it was here that smell first hit you.  As I open the sample in my kitchen I knew this was going to be a treat!  And the taste?  It had that “squeak” that young cheeses have when you first bite down . . . wait for it . . . yep, pretty damned good! Maybe slightly saltier,  but it tasted like the Bon Bree I remembered (the curds and whey are mixed together into brick molds which gives Bon Bree its unique taste).  I immediately contacted the good folks in Wisconsin with the good news and two thumbs up.

I have been in touch with Williams Farms over the past two month as they have proceeded with the production run, the first of which generated 380 pounds of cheese using 3500 pounds of milk.  The next “make” occurred in late June and these  bricks have been cut and wrapped and racked and are currently resting to acquire age and that special taste “bringing back the Bree”.  To date they have three batches, totaling 827 pounds, currently aging and they hope to have the cheese in the markets by the beginning of August.  I am waiting patiently to hear the good word.  

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Monday, July 22, 2013

Maine’s . . . and America’s . . . Youngest Ambassador: Remembering Samantha Smith - Dispatches from Maine

Even though there is no longer commercial air traffic in and out of the Auburn/Lewiston Municipal Airport, planes still regularly pass over us here at True’s Point, on the eastern shore of Sabbathday Lake.  Runway 4 is just five miles northeast of here.

This was not the case on August 25, 1985, when it was a regular stop on Bar Harbor Airlines flights between Boston’s Logan International Airport and Bangor, Maine.  That evening six passengers and a crew of two boarded Flight 1808 for the short flight to Bangor with intermediate stops in Augusta and Waterville.  Due to air traffic delays in Boston that day, an earlier flight to Auburn/Lewiston had been cancelled and the airlines amended its routing for Flight 1808 to accommodate the delayed passengers.

The Beechcraft 99 took off from Logan at 9:30pm.  At 10pm, an air traffic controller in Portland advised a course correction for a southwest approach to Auburn/Lewiston where a light drizzle was reported with obscured visibility of one mile.  The aircraft passed near Sabbathday Lake but apparently failed to make the necessary course correction.  Five minutes later it crashed into a dense line of trees near the Poland Spring Road and less than a mile from the end of Runway 4.  There were no survivors.  Two of the passengers were Arthur Smith and his 13 year old daughter Samantha, who were headed home to Manchester, just outside of Augusta.  But the story is much larger than the tragedy of a father and his young daughter dying in a plane crash. 

Samantha was born in Houlton, Maine, near the Canadian border, in 1972 and lived the life of a regular American girl.  Finishing second grade in the spring of 1980, she moved with her family to Manchester, Maine where she enrolled in the local elementary school.  Her father taught literature and writing at the University of Maine at Augusta, while her mother Jane worked for the Maine Department of Human Services, in Augusta, the state capital.  Just an average American kid like all of her classmates.

All of this changed, however, in November 1982, when Samantha, who was then ten years old, asked her mother something any curious kid might ask a parent during the Cold War and the crumbling detente of the early 1980s.  Why do the Russians and Americans want to fight a war?   But she took it one step farther.  She wrote to Yuri Andropov, who had recently ascended to the leadership of the former Soviet Union following the death of Leonid Brezhnev, to congratulate him “on your new job” and to tell him that she was concerned about the possibility of a nuclear war between the two countries.  “Are you going to vote to have a war or not?”  She also inquired why he wanted “to conquer the world or at least our country.”  She hoped that the United States and the Soviet Union might “live together in peace and not to fight.”  Perhaps an unusual letter for an average ten year old girl to write?  Maybe not.  When she was five, Samantha wrote a letter to Queen Elizabeth II to tell her how much she admired her.  Maybe Samantha was not that average after all.  Andropov eventually wrote back to Samantha calling her “a courageous and honest girl” and reassuring her that he had no plans to go to war against her country.  He invited her and her family to visit his country the following summer, wishing her “all the best in your young life.”

Soon Samantha became a media darling as reporters from around the world documented her 1983 peace mission to a land our leaders were assuring us was an “Evil Empire” bent on world domination.  She traveled throughout the Soviet Union in July 1983, visiting Moscow, Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), and a Soviet youth camp in the Crimea.  Andropov, who was seriously ill at the time and who would die the following year, did not meet with Samantha although they spoke on the phone.  It seemed neither the American nor the Soviet media could take enough photographs of young Samantha, or to ask her too many times what she thought about the Soviet people she had met.  “They are just like us,” she would say.

Returning home in late July, Samantha was feted by her fellow Mainers and heralded as "America's Youngest Ambassador."  She continued her role as a peace activist, visiting Japan in late 1983 to attend the Children's International Symposium in Kobe. She later wrote a book about her trip through the Soviet Union and was cast in a role for a new television series being filmed in London.  She was returning home from England when she and her father were killed.

Samantha Smith was mourned during a large funeral in Augusta.  A representative of the Soviet Embassy in Washington read a personal message of condolence from Mikhail Gorbachev, who assumed the Soviet leadership following Andropov’s death, calling Samantha a young American girl who “dreamt about peace, and about friendship between the peoples of the United States and the Soviet Union".  She and her father are buried in a small cemetery near her hometown of Houlton. The Soviet Union issued a stamp in her honor.

This month  marks the 30th anniversary of that historic visit by an average American girl.  And Samantha Smith would have celebrated her 41st birthday on June 29th, the day we first arrived here at True’s Point for our summer hiatus.   I think of her as I stand  on the end of our dock watching the sun set beyond Sabbathday Lake.  What a shame her young and special life ended so early and so tragically just north of here.  There is a statue of Samantha Smith holding a dove in front of the Maine State Museum in Augusta. "Maine is proud of her native daughter, and we remember the message she brought,” reads the inscription.  “One child can play a powerful part in bringing peace to the world.”

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Sunday, July 21, 2013

A Fish Named Maine - Dispatches from Maine

During November and December of 1936, just days after Franklin Delano Roosevelt was reelected to his second term as President of the United States, he set off on an extended “Good Neighbor Tour” to South America, visiting Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina where he also attended the Pan American Conference in Buenos Aires.  It was the first foreign visit ever by a sitting US president.

There was no Air Force One back in those days and FDR traveled on board the Portland class cruiser USS Indianapolis.  This was not the President’s first voyage on this ship.  Not long after its shakedown cruise in early 1932, the Indianapolis sailed north from its home port at Philadelphia, stopping in Bar Harbor and Eastport, in Maine, before picking up FDR at his summer home on Campobello Island, in Canada.  (FDR was also the first and only president to reside part of the year in a foreign country.)  From there the ship and its honored guest traveled to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.  Thereafter the President would frequently use the Indianapolis as his “Ship of State.”

Just two weeks before the “Good Neighbor Trip,” FDR won a stunning electoral victory again his Republican opponent, Governor Alf Landon of Kansas, carrying 46 of 48 states.  Only Vermont and Maine, with a total of eight electoral votes, went for Landon, the smallest number ever received by a major party candidate.  Prior to this election there was a popular saw - “as Maine goes, so goes the nation” since the state-wide elections two months prior to the national elections in November frequently suggested how the two parties would fare.  Not so this time around.  Mainers elected a Republican governor in the face of FDR’s landslide victory, leading James Farley, the chairman of the Democratic party, to joke, “as Maine goes, so goes Vermont.”

The historic cruise to South America commenced on November 18, 1936 when the USS Indianapolis and the Presidential party departed Charleston, South Carolina.  In command of the ship was Rear Admiral Henry Kent Hewitt whom FDR would later tap to command the armada that landed the first US troops in North Africa almost six years later.  During the long cruise FDR, an avid angler, would frequently fish from the cruiser’s boat deck, and during a stopover in Trinidad, the President found time for some deep sea fishing using one of the ship’s motor launches.  It was during one of these outings, or so it has been reported, that FDR caught two fish which he promptly named “Maine” and “Vermont” in honor of the only two states who did not favor his reelection.

Historical footnote.  FDR is the only former president to be reelected to a third and fourth consecutive term in office.  Five months after his final reelection in November 1944, President Roosevelt died in Warm Springs, Georgia on April 12, 1945.  Three months later, the USS Indianapolis, after a long and distinguished deployment with ten battle stars in the Pacific Theater during World War II, was sailing from Guam to the Philippines after delivering components of the atomic bombs to the island of Tinian.  On July 30th a Japanese submarine attacked the ship with two torpedoes.  Twelve minutes later, FDR’s favorite ship rolled over and went down by the head.  Only 880 men of the 1157 officers and ratings on board made it into the water.  Rescue attempts were delayed for over three days and only 317 survivors would be brought to safety.  Hypothermia and sharks got the rest.  Nine days after the sinking, an atomic bomb detonated over Hiroshima.  Neither Roosevelt nor the Indianapolis, his Ship of State, would survive to see the end of the war they helped to win.

So, as Paul Harvey liked to say, “now you know the rest of the story.

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Friday, July 19, 2013

Bacon: The Guiltiest of Pleasures? - Dispatches from Maine

Those who know me know I like bacon . . . a lot!  Perhaps you are familiar with the popular shibboleth “I love you more than bacon.”  I don’t know if that applies to me or not.  All I know is that I love bacon.  How much?  A lot!!  I especially enjoy the apple-smoked bacon I can find so readily here in Maine.  Nothing tastes like it.

The other day I was looking through one of our weekly newspapers up here and I came across an unattributed story under the title “Bacon - The Next Health Craze.”  Noting that bacon can be the “ultimate food indulgence” and the “guiltiest pleasure possible,” Dr. John Salerno, the author of The Silver Cloud Diet and a protégé of the creator of the Atkins Diet, has posited that bacon is one of the healthiest foods one can eat.  Well, I am no board-certified family physician or dietician, but hell . . . I could have told you that!  Salerno goes on to say that the consuming of high protein bacon, free of nitrates and full of amino acids, can aid in body metabolism while assuaging the ill effects of diabetes, heart disease and strokes.  Salerno also points out that bacon, while low in carbohydrates and with a 4:1 ration of protein to fat, is full of mono-unsaturated fats containing vitamins and minerals and the good kind of cholesterol.  OK, this all may be true and I trust the good Dr. Salerno.  But he left out the most important reason to eat bacon . . . it tastes so damned good!!   And if it didn’t, why do so many dishes taste so much better with a piece or two of bacon wrapped around it? 

I live by the adage, “If it tastes good, eat it.  If it doesn’t, don’t.”  It’s that simple.  And it even says so in the Bible. “And make me savoury meat, such as I love, and bring it to me, that I may eat; that my soul may bless thee before I die” [Genesis 24:7].  What more needs to be said?

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Saturday, July 13, 2013

Cheesehead Revisited - Part 1 - Dispatches from Maine

Back in May 2009 I posted a two-part discourse on cheese and confessed that I am a tried and true “cheesehead.” 



“After all, it is cheese that has made America the great country it is.”  I noted, too, that the life of a cheesehead “is dictated by powers and forces others may not fully comprehend . . . You do not just eat cheese, you revere cheese and those who make it for your enjoyment . . . you go where the cheeses are.”  Based on reader comments, it seems these two postings have been among the more popular ones I have posted to date.  It is gratifying to discover that there are others like me out there who share my hankering for a good hunk of cheese.

Another past posting touched on the subject of cheese curds, those firm chunks of unripened cheese, and their use in the preparation of poutine:


I search out both at every opportunity afforded me.  Unfortunately neither are that easy to find, especially here in the USA.  But “seek and you shall find” are the words I live by when it comes to any form and style of cheese. 

This past weekend my wife and I were up in Québec, and although I did not enjoy a helping of “une maudite poutine,” I was lucky enough to stop by the Fromagerie La Chaudière in Lac-Mégantic, one of my favorite local creameries in the Canton de l’Est in the heart of the province’s dairyland.  I have been eating their tasty curds for years and always try to score some when I am north of the border.  I have been known to drive several kilometers out of my way for a bag of these delightful curds.  Usually I stop at one of several village depanneurs I have come to know over my years of exploring this area.

There is also a small grocery store on the main street in Lac-Mégantic, a charming resort town on the shores of the lake by the same name.  It is the source of the Rivière Chaudière flowing north to where it flows into the St. Lawrence at Québec City and the route Benedict Arnold and his men followed during their invasion of British Canada in 1775.  I have frequently stopped in Lac-Mégantic for a bag or two of curds and to walk through the very pretty and tranquil lakeside park before making my way to the nearby Canadian-US border at Coburn Gore, Maine.

And so it was this past Saturday.  We had spent a lovely day in the Townships and once again I was driving in the direction of Lac-Mégantic.  This time, however, the trip had a most bittersweet of endings.  We soon found ourselves with the town between us and the border.   As we approached from the north passing through the villages of Stornoway and Nantes, we noticed a thick black plume of smoke rising near the center of town.  I commented to Sally Ann that something was on fire, but had not the faintest notion of the full extent of the tragedy unfolding just a few miles in front of us. 

Soon we were passing the La Chaudière creamery on the northern edge of town and Sally Ann asked why we did not stop and buy the curds right from the source.  I always thought the place was simply where everything was made; I never imagined they actually sold their cheese products on site.  But it made sense to me, and following a quick U-turn, we pulled up in front and parked.

The Fromagerie La Chaudière was founded by Vianney Choquette in 1976 and today the family business is carried on by his three sons.  The family prides itself in its ability to produce quality cheese through sustainable development and a concern for the local environment.  All of their cheeses are kosher certified and free of animal rennet, and the free range cows used in milk production are raised on local organic farms with pesticide-free fields and pastures. 

Entering the creamery, I had great difficulty keeping my eyes in their sockets as we discovered a veritable cornucopia of cheeses, cheese products, and other dairy items.  Naturally, my attention focused almost immediately on the variety of curds and blocks of unripened cheese which are produced overnight and distributed fresh the following day.  And there were not just the small 85 and 200 gram bags found in stores.  Here one could purchase 340 gram, 1 kilo and 2 kilo bags of curds and various sizes of block cheese!!  I decided to go for the gusto and purchased a kilo (roughly 2 1/4 pounds) to take back to Maine figuring it would keep me in squeaky cheese (“Skouik” as they market it at La Chaudière) for awhile.

As we prepared to leave we noticed that the sky still hung heavy with dark smoke from the large fire burning near downtown.  As much as we enjoy our walks in town, we decided to give the fire a wide berth and followed another route to the border.  When we finally reached the US customs station at the rooftop of New Hampshire, the Customs and Border Protection agent asked us where we had been in Canada and whether we had anything to declare.  I mentioned that I had purchased a bag of curds (I don’t recall whether I mentioned the fact that it was a kilo).  The agent then asked if they were for my “personal use.”  Thinking “damned straight,” but respectfully replying “yes sir,” we also mentioned our brief stop in Lac-Mégantic.  The agent then asked if we had seen or heard the major explosion there earlier in the day.  We had not really sensed that anything was terribly amiss when we were there, but this would have explained the thick black pall of smoke hanging over the town upon our arrival.  It would be several hours later, when I had a chance to check the news online, that I discovered the stories of the massive derailment of several tanker cars carrying crude oil from North Dakota to a refinery in New Brunswick and the resulting explosions that gutted the entire downtown area killing an estimated 50 people.  One of the buildings destroyed was the grocery store where I once bought my bags of curds.


I have long associated Lac-Mégantic with my quest for the tastiest cheese curds anywhere.  And I have always enjoyed walking it streets and the tranquil lakeside park.  It is sad to think that all of this is gone now.  My prayers go out to the people of Lac-Mégantic who have lost so many family and friends as well as the heart of their lovely town.

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Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Back in the USSA - Dispatches from Maine

We have just returned from another adventure on and beyond the edge of America.  This past weekend my wife and I headed north from the lake cottage, spending time at my favorite lodge in far northern New Hampshire and visiting with friends who call the North Country their home.  While we were there we had an opportunity to enter nearby Canada twice in order to do a little sightseeing and exploring in Québec’s beautiful Canton de l’Est (the Eastern Townships south and east of Montréal along the borders with Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine).  This is stunningly beautiful country with rolling hills populated by small, idyllic villages and farmsteads. 



This use to be the bastion of the province’s Anglophone communities.  Today one is hard put to find anyone who can speak much more than rudimentary English.  Blame this on Québec’s rather draconian language laws which demand that French be the only official language spoken in the province.  But this does not bother me.  I get along fine when I am there.  I can read the signs and make myself understood when necessary.  The scenery is too good to pass up. C’est la vie, non?  But I am getting ahead of myself.

The first time we entered Canada over the weekend was at Norton, Vermont/Stanhope, Québec.  I pulled up to the modest custom house where the inspector looked at our passports, asked a couple perfunctory questions, and sent us on our way as we admired the awesome scenery we had come north to see..  The next day we entered at Pittsburg, NH/Chartierville, Québec, a crossing I have been using for years.  Once again the Canadian customs inspector emerged from a structure very similar to the one we encountered the previous day.  He also looked at our passports and waved us through satisfied we were who we claimed to be.

By entering Canada twice, we also had to reenter the USA twice . . . and that was an eye opening experience.  After the first day touring around some of our favorite places in the Canton de l’Est, we returned to New Hampshire via the Pittsburg port of entry. Marking the northern terminus of US Route 3, this is the only crossing point along the 58-mile international border separating New Hampshire and Québec.  And there are several miles of wilderness between it and the first human habitation on the American side.  It really is the end of the road.  I have been doing this for years and I have always thought of the Pittsburg customs house as a good case in point for the old saw that the US-Canadian border is the longest undefended border in the world.  That may have been true once, but it is the farthest thing from the truth now.

Back in the day this border crossing was about as isolated as any along the US-Canadian frontier.  In fact, until 1960 there was no official border crossing here.  That only occurred in 1960 when US 3 was completed the last few miles to the border.  And even then it was only manned during the day and only at certain times of the year.  Persons arriving at other times were directed to cross and report to the customs house located in Beecher Falls, Vermont several miles farther down US 3.  The US and Canadian customs houses were small ramshackle wooden structures manned by a skeleton staff and situated on a wind-swept notch in the Height of Land that delineated the border.  A pair of small granite pylons set between US and Canadian flags marked the actual border and one could be photographed there with one foot in each country.  Otherwise there was very little else to see.  I have also parked here several times and wandered up to the Fourth Connecticut Lake, the headwaters of New England’s grandest river nestled on the US side just below the crest of these forested hills that are the divide between the Atlantic and St. Lawrence River watersheds.  Part of the trail is marked with small metal discs attached to rocks marking the border.  I crossed back and fourth over the border several times on the short hike to the lake that is nothing more than a glorified marsh.


That was then.  The events of September 11, 2001 have unfortunately changed everything forever as the US authorities have gradually sealed the borders of Fortress America.  The Canadian border station here has seen a few upgrades over the past decade, most noticeably a barrier gate that rises and lowers admitting vehicles once they have completed inspection.  Otherwise there are few discernable changes on that side of the line.  The pylons and the flags are still here but now stand isolated in a virtual no man’s land between the two border posts.  Gone is the small wooden US customs house that stood here for 50 years. In it’s place is an unsightly 6500 square foot monstrosity that belies the fact that this is still an isolated and infrequently used border crossing.  It handles only a few automobiles and commercial vehicles (most of them seem to be logging trucks) annually, and most of these in July and August.  During the winter months there is virtually no traffic going through here; a few cars braving the heavy snowfalls and the occasional snowmobile.  But that is about it!

As we passed through what the Department of Homeland Security now calls a LPOE, or a Landed Port of Entry, we were confronted not only with the structural monstrosity which went into full operation one year ago after a two year construction project costing the American taxpayers almost $8 million, but also encountered a menacing and forbidding array of nuclear material detectors, spotlights, vehicular barriers and chain link fencing incongruous with the unpopulated wilderness where it is located.  I remarked to my wife at that time that it reminded me of the East German border control stations I use to pass when I crossed through the former Iron Curtain.  Thankfully those ugly lusus naturae have passed into history only to be replaced by an American LPOE on a quiet ridgeline in the New Hampshire wilderness.  How sad.

Once safely sealed into the inspection area with all the gates down in front and behind us and our engine shut off, we presented our passports to a friendly but officious and well-armed Customs and Border Protection agent.  Gone, too, are the days when the border patrol official steps out of the small customs house to ask a few questions and send you on your way.  One almost feels guilty of something and I have to remind myself that I am an American simply returning to the land of my birth.  I can only imagine how Canadians and other foreign travelers must feel when they arrive in the Home of the Free and the Land of the Brave.

And it does not stop here.  The rest of the 58-mile border between New Hampshire and Québec, longed marked by a wide clear-cut, is now festooned with cameras and motion detectors in case anyone hopes to sneak into America through the woods.  Helicopters, which have been used for years along the Mexican border, are occasionally observed here.  Unmanned and unarmed Predator drones similar to the armed version deployed in Afghanistan and which are now commonplace for surveillance purposes along our southern borders, have been tested along the Canadian border in recent years, although the authorities are unclear whether they are in use here now.  I have spoken to inhabitants of the North Country who have assured me that they have seen and heard them.  This seems all the more ominous when I see current reports in the media that Homeland Security is now considering weaponizing these drones in order to “immobilize” targets in border areas.  Considering all of the negative media attention the deployment of armed drones in Afghanistan has stirred up with reports of civilian collateral damage (i.e. innocent civilians being mistaken for terrorists and killed in a drone attack), I cannot fathom the possibility that the US government would consider deploying armed drones against targets along the US border.

The following day we returned to Canada briefly to do some additional exploring before crossing back into the United States farther east, at Coburn Gore, Maine.  Once again we drove north on US 3 through miles and miles of uninterrupted wilderness.  We passed Third Connecticut Lake on the left . . . long one of my favorite places on earth which I return to time and time again in every season.  Another mile and we follow a slight bend in the road and we are once again confronted with the back side of the new LPOE surrounded with more high chain-link fencing.  Another high fence runs down both sides of the northbound lane of traffic, strangely reminiscent of a recent photo I saw of the Kaesong Highway that runs across the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating South and North Korea.  Certainly the Department of Homeland Security would shun the comparison, but there it is.  We emerge from this ugly cage as we pass the granite pylons marking the international border.  The pleasant agent steps out and wishes us a “Bon Jour!”  Sally Ann asks if he will stamp her passport and he is happy to do so.  The barrier goes up and we descend down the long northern face of Mégantic Hill to the charming hamlet of Chartierville, the expansive farmland of the Canton de l’Est before us.  

Later in the afternoon it is time to finally head back to the lake in Maine.  We make our way to Coburn Gore, the southern most of the border crossings into Maine.  It is equally isolated yet it still looks very much like it always has.  The big yellow nuclear material detector gates have been added and there are a couple barriers that go up and down and perhaps a few more spotlights.  We pull in and shut off the engine as the inspector steps out to check our license plate.
“How are you folks doing today?” he asks.
We say we are fine and ask after him.
“Oh, fair to partly cloudy,” he responds with a smile.
He asks us the standard questions and checks our passports.
“Welcome home,” he says as he hands them back.  “Have a nice day.”
The gate went up and we were on our way back to the lake.

The United States is not the only country fighting the war on terror.  This past week two residents of British Columbia were arrested for attempting to plant bombs near the provincial legislature in Victoria.  Earlier this spring two Tunisian immigrants studying in Quèbec with alleged links to al-Qaida were arrested for conspiring to bomb the Via Rail train between Toronto and New York City.  And there is the infamous Toronto 18 who plotted to storm Parliament Hill in Ottawa and set off truck bombs throughout Ontario.  The Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service work together regularly to thwart terrorist threats along US border.  Still, most of the visible security upgrades are evident only on the US side of the line.  It is possible to fight terrorism successfully without hermetically sealing the border and treating all travelers as suspect.

There is a good way to welcome people to the United States, both native sons and daughters happy to be home, and foreign guests who come here by choice hoping to see if all the good things they have heard and read about America are true.  Entering through the lonely crossing in Pittsburg, NH left me cold.  Arriving at Coburn Gore is as it should be.  There is a wrong way and a right way, and these are good examples of each.

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Friday, July 5, 2013

A Return to True's Point - Dispatches from Maine

I will be posting several “Dispatches from Maine” throughout the summer months.

Where has the past year gone to?  It seems like we were just packing up the cottage last October for our return to Maryland and here we are again on the shores of Sabbathday Lake where we will be in residence until the leaves are once again taking on their autumnal colors.  It has been a busy year, especially the past few months of spring.  “Long stormy spring-time, wet contentious April, winter chilling the lap of very May; but at length the season of summer does come.”  So Thomas Carlyle (1795-1851), the Scottish essayist and historian, reminds us.  And that was certainly the case in the Mid-Atlantic states, as well as here in northern New England.

We are happy to be back here among the peace and quiet of this lovely lake on the edge of the foothills of the White Mountains although the first few days of our stay  have been accented with cool temperatures and rain that seemed not to want to stop.  But now the skies have finally cleared and the sun and the warmer temperatures have returned just in time for this mid-year holiday weekend marking the true beginning of summer in New England . . . and with more humidity than we have come to expect up here.  Luckily we have the lake nearby, when the heat and humidity become too much to deal with.  Still, I would prefer cooler days.

The last time I was here was back in mid-January, when I was passing through Maine  on my way home from my annual wintertime escape to Tall Timber Lodge, in the far northern extremities of New Hampshire hard on the Canadian border.  At that time the lake was covered by a thick mantle of ice and snow and populated with a few bobhouses manned by intrepid icefishermen.  Not wanting to get bogged down in the deep snow, I parked out by the main road and hiked into the cottage, just to know that it was still standing sentinel again the frozen winds and snows of a typical Maine winter.  What a difference a few months can make.

Today we are heading back up to New Hampshire for a couple days.  We look forward to visiting with friends over this holiday weekend . . . and I can never get enough of the wonderful North Country scenery with its rolling, forested hills and its many pristine lakes and ponds.  We also plan to pop over the border into the Eastern Townships of Québec just to show our Canadian neighbors there are no hard feelings.  In fact, just a few days ago they celebrated their own national day with fireworks and BBQs.  When it comes down to it, we are not all that different. 

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Thursday, July 4, 2013

What the Fourth of July is All About - Dispatches from Maine

This morning I participated in the annual reading of the Declaration of Independence at the History Barn located behind the New Gloucester (Maine) Meeting House in the Lower Village.  As a regular summer resident of the town, I was honored to be a part of this fine tradition marking the day we celebrate our revocation of British tyranny.  I think every American should read this document from time to time to remind ourselves of the promises we made as a nation and its citizenry over two centuries ago.  I fear we have strayed far from many of the freedoms and rights granted to us by our forefathers.  

I wish everyone a festive and safe holiday among family and friends.  And as you celebrate, take a look through the Declaration of Independence.   These are good words that deserve our attention and respect.