Friday, June 26, 2015

Grilling Red Snappers - New Dispatches from Maine

It has been said that you know you have crossed into Maine when you go to the local market and the hot dogs on display are a bright, almost neon red. They are not called hot dogs here.  They are red snappers, pure and simple.  Oh, you can get the regular hot dogs at grocery stores, but why when you can enjoy a red snapper instead?  Red because of their obvious hue, and snapper because of the sharp snap they make when you bite into one.  Some folks are turned off at first sight; I know I was just a little suspicious.  They just did not look real to me.  But this all changed when I first bit into one of these pork franks for the first time.  They are delicious!

This is not to say these tasty wieners can’t be found elsewhere, although you might have to look near and far to find them in the grocery store.  I have seen them for sale in Massachusetts, but not on the scale they can be found here.  In Maine they are a staple anywhere you look, due in large part to the fact that the largest manufacturer of red snappers is Bangor-based W.A. Bean & Sons who have been turning them out since 1918 (founded in 1860, five generations of Beans have been running the company since then).  It claims it is the only source of red snappers in Maine and produces over 4 million of the red tube steaks annually.

They are tasty whether served in a split-top frankfurter roll, which is not the same thing as the standard hot dog bun found elsewhere in the USA (see photo above), or by themselves on a plate.  Just add a healthy squirt of mustard - I prefer Dijon or a mustard-horseradish confusion - and they are ready to eat washed down with a bottle of Moxie or cold beer. 

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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

A Special Kind of Soldier - New Dispatches from Maine

                L'audace, l'audace, toujours l'audace!
                 – General George S. Patton quoting Frederick the Great

I thought about posting this a few days ago, on Father’s Day, but decided to wait until today which would have been my dad’s 91st birthday.  I have posted about him in the past, but being in Maine, I thought I would touch on his short time here, about the only thing I knew about the Pine Tree State until my first visit in 1988.  I have been a regular visitor, and now part time resident, ever since.

Dad was drafted into the US Army in April 1943, just a couple months shy of his 19th birthday. He left his native Michigan, having never traveled farther than northern Ohio, and completed his basic training at Fort Jackson, in Columbia, South Carolina.  From there he was sent to the University of Maine, in Orono, as part of the Army Specialized Training Program.  The ASTP was designed to single out specially qualified soldiers for their exceptional IQs and send them to various college campuses around the United States to learn special war skills.  The two-company detachment of over 500 soldiers assigned to the University of Maine in the summer of 1943 was designated as a “pre-radar” group to study electrical and civil engineering and other related disciplines that would be required for the eventual invasion of Japan.  Some were also enrolled in Officers Candidate School (OCS) to be trained for a specialized officers corps to serve as Army engineers as the war expanded in the European Theater.  The training program was intense.  The ASTP soldiers wore their uniforms bearing the ASTP patch emblazoned with the “Sword of Valor and the Lamp of Knowledge” and maintained strict military discipline while attending university courses.   They stood early morning reveille and marched to classes and the dining hall.  The war had not yet begun in earnest for these young men, but they all knew their time would come.  They were “soldiers first, students second.”  Still, they knew they were fortunate to attend college and I recall Dad telling me how much he enjoyed his time in Orono; the war was far away and life was good, even during the winter with all the snow and the sub-zero temperatures.

    Some Mothers have sons in the Army,
    Some Mothers have sons on the Sea,
    Take down your service flag, Mother,
    Your son's in the ASTP.

Unfortunately, it would not last.  In February 1944, during the third term of the ASTP at Orono, many of the soldiers enrolled in the basic part of the program, including my dad, were recalled to active combat duty.  Casualties were mounting rapidly and the entire ASTP was abandoned that March when the advanced OCS students were also recalled to active duty.  They did not realize the Sword of Valor would come so quickly.  The Army decided its need for infantry replacements was more pressing than the need for technical specialties.  The early group traveled by train to Tennessee to join the 104th Infantry Regiment, 26th Infantry “Yankee” Division in the US Second Army’s spring maneuvers.  They were needed to bring the division up to strength before it was shipped to France in the wake of the D-Day invasion where it would join the US Third Army under General George Patton.  Originally consisting of personnel from the Massachusetts National Guard, the division was no longer the special pride of New England as its ranks swelled with men from all over the United States.  The ASTP soldiers would serve in the front ranks as combat infantry riflemen and knew from the beginning that their future looked grim.  Many who went never came back.

Thirty-four of the former ASTP soldiers at the University of Maine – their own special band of brothers – returned to Orono in September 2001 for a first reunion sponsored by the College of Engineering.  They returned not so much because of the short time they spent on campus, but because all of them were thrown into the war together.  These “special soldiers” came together again to honor the 52 members – 10% – of the ASTP detachment at the University of Maine who were killed in action during World War II and to place a bronze plaque inscribed with their names.  Since the university did not maintain records for the ASTP detachment assigned there, it is difficult to say if many more died during the war. Those who could be located and who attended the reunion believed there were many more.  Without original records, no one can be certain.  As many as 75% of the ASTP detachment was wounded in combat in northern France and across Germany in the final months of the war.  The plaque also includes the names of two soldiers who died in a dormitory fire on campus in February 1944.  I remember my dad telling me about the fire.  He was housed there and was lucky to get out.   Since this reunion, surviving ASTP members have located the names of several additional members who were killed in World War II and their names appear on a second plaque which hangs along side the first in the Class of 1944 Hall in the hope that those special student soldiers who died will not be forgotten again.

Dad did not attend the reunion; I doubt he even knew about it at the time.  He visited me here in Maine several years ago and I am quite certain it was his first time back since he left in 1944 on his way to Tennessee and the battlefields of Europe.  I asked him if he planned to go back to Orono to see if it had changed much.  He never did.  He pretty much put the war behind him when he returned home when so many did not.

If I have a chance, I hope to visit Orono this summer to have a look around and think of Dad and the good times he spent there as one of the US Army’s special kind of soldiers.

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Sunday, June 21, 2015

Subaru War Horse - New Dispatches from Maine

Allons! whoever you are come travel with me!
Traveling with me you find what never tires
     – Walt Whitman, “Song of the Open Road”

Our 2005 Subaru Legacy wagon crossed the 200,000 mile threshold yesterday morning on my way home from the post office, the most miles we have ever put on a car.  That averages out to 20,000 mile a year and I can believe it.  That is over two-thirds the distance from the earth to the moon!  Our car is a war horse if ever there was one.

Purchased in early January 2005 when we drove it off the dealership lot in suburban northern Virginia, it is our fourth consecutive Subaru since we bought the first one - our first new car - in 1978.  Now, over ten years later, it is still a smooth and enjoyable drive.  And like all the Subarus that preceded it, it has been extremely reliable and durable after numerous fully loaded trips to and from Florida and Maine, as well as the  shorter road trip to hither and yon.  And the old girl still gets incredibly good mileage.  

Most of the miles are the routine daily local trips.  Driving in and around the Washington, DC metropolitan area takes a heavy toll on any car.  The streets are rough and full of potholes.  Add to these conditions the cold and damp winters and the hot and steamy humid summers which also exact their heavy toll.  The war horse goes where we point it and brings us back again.

We crossed the 100,000 mile mark in Florida in March 2010, and now we are in Maine and another summer during which we will rack up several thousands of miles of back road driving.  We take good care of her and she treats us well in return as we continue to explore the edges of America.  I’ll never tire of the old gal.

I wonder where we will be when we reach 300,000?

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Saturday, June 20, 2015

It's Time to Take It Down - New Dispatches from Maine

The recent murderous rampage in Charleston, South Carolina by yet another misguided and foolish person saddens and sickens me.   How many more of these  monstrous acts of violence must we endure before our leaders show the courage necessary to end this scourge?  Promises were made after the Newtown massacre almost three years ago and they still remain only promises.  People who should never have a gun can still get them.  And now, in the wake of this latest slaughter, people seem to be more interested in symbols than the weapon that killed nine innocent people in a historic black church in Charleston.  Many seem to believe that this madness will stop if we finally ban the display of the Confederate battle flag.  I feel they are somehow missing the point. 

I agree with those who think the flag should be taken down . . . from where it flies on the grounds of the South Carolina capitol in Columbia and elsewhere.  Those who tell you that it is a symbol of “heritage and not hate” are kidding themselves.  Just take a look at the above photograph.  Who wants to claim that as their heritage?  Lindsey Graham, who represents South Carolina in the United States Senate, and who almost three weeks ago announced his candidacy for President of the United States, would have us believe that the Confederate battle flag (different from the national flag of the Confederacy) is a "part of who we are."  Really?  It is certainly not a part of who I am.  And I would go so far as to suggest that it has nothing to do with anyone alive today regardless of where they were born or live.  A part of who we are as Americans?  Does this mean that modern Germans should fly the Nazi banner from their homes and government buildings because it is a part of who they are?  I don’t think so.  Today one often sees the Confederate flag flying alongside the Nazi banner at Klan rallies and other white supremacist gatherings.  The Confederate battle flag, regardless of what it represented a century and a half ago, has become inflammatory while representing an unfortunate chapter in this nation's history, one that could possibly have been avoided if our Founding Fathers had done the right thing when they had the chance.

Taking this symbol down will not end the racism it has long represented nor will it stop the endless and senseless gun violence that plagues this nation.  These problems are far too complex, and our leaders appear hesitant to address them in any sensible way.   Let's keep our eye on the ball, folks!  It is high time we start considering the very real problems we will continue to face as long as nobody has the courage to act.  We need to start somewhere.  Taking down that flag is only the first small step on the long road to doing what is necessary and right.

Symbolism only goes so far, but yes, it is time to take that flag down.  A first step, a small step, a symbolic step.  But we can’t stop there!  We need to roll up our sleeves and get to work doing what needs to be done.  And soon.  No more talking about it.  It’s time to act.  And if our leaders are not willing to do what we elected them to do, for whatever reason, then they need to step aside and get out of the way of those who can and will.

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Friday, June 19, 2015

Red Flannel Hash - New Dispatches from Maine

Someone yells “hash is ready” and I am usually the first to sit down at the table.  I love hash.  Corned beef hash, roast beef hash . . . call it hash and I am there.  But I never heard of red flannel hash until I first came to Maine almost three decades ago.  But I am glad I did, and despite some initial reservations about this local variant, I still come running. 

The etymology of the term “hash” goes back to the French “hacher” . . . to chop.  Like any good hash, it tastes best when made from leftovers and whatever else you might have handy.  In this instance, it is a motley of onion, diced potato, corned beef, with some salt and pepper to taste.  The “red flannel” come with the addition of chopped beets.  Top it off with a couple fried or poached eggs and you are done.  I am not a big fan of beets, mind you, but it works here and I am not exactly sure why.  It tastes good and so I don’t ask too many questions.

I have heard a couple tales on the origins of the name.  Some say it goes back to Vermont’s Green Mountain Boys during the American Revolution.  Supposedly they were so hungry one winter that they chopped up their red flannels to add to their scarce potatoes.  I guess hunger trumped warmth.  Another tale tells how a cook in a mining camp, suspecting her husband was stepping out on her, ground up his red flannel long johns and added them to the morning hash.   It turned out he and the others liked the stuff so much they asked to have the bright red hash every morning.  Having dispatched her errant husband’s only red flannels, she substituted beets after that.  I wonder whether he ever questioned the disappearance of his skivvies?  A good hash can make one forget his or her woes.  That must be it.  These make for entertaining tales, but the origins of Red Flannel Hash is, I am sorry to say, far more pedestrian.

Apparently The New York Times published a recipe for Red Flannel Hash in its October 25, 1943 edition under the title “Dish of Infinite Variety.”  It almost immediately drew fire from some of its readers.  One complained that the war would surely be lost “if the noble American dish of red flannel hash be fallen to the low estate set forth by your editorial . . .”, adding that the dish originated with the “never-to-be-forgotten institution, the New England Boiled Dinner!”   The ingredients were simple; one took the boiled dinner left-overs – “potatoes opalescently colored and lusciously flavored by a mixture of juices; beets, red and enticing; and a few golden carrots” – and chopped them up (but not too fine) “and warm them to a turn with a discreet use of the pot liquor.”  Another reader wondered “in what isolated corner of New England did you find the recipe published for red flannel hash?  Or were you simply fishing for the real recipe to replace the parody you gave?”  The dish was once again attributed to a boiled dinner – “corned beef and cabbage to New Yorkers” – and included “beets, carrots, turnip, cabbage and potatoes with the corned beef. The hash is the clean-up meal. It is correctly made of 50 per cent potatoes, 25 per cent corned beef and 25 per cent beets.”
Once chopped everything was fried in bacon fat in an iron skillet “and you have a dish for the gods, whether it be served for breakfast, lunch, dinner or supper.”
As fussy as Mainiacs are about their Italian Sandwiches (see my June 17, 2015 posting), the same goes for their Red Flannel Hash.  Some say it is only for breakfast and must be served with a fried or poached egg.  Others will insist it is a supper dish served with a side dish such as cole slaw, baked beans, or cornbread.  Still others will insist it can be served anywhere and at any time.  I tend to side with the latter.  And whereas Worcestershire sauce is frequently added to American Chop Suey (see my June 18 posting), Red Flannel Hash can be enhanced with a splash of apple cider vinegar.  Some will fry it in oil or bacon fat while others will add a dollop of sour cream just as you would to a bowl of borscht (beet soup).  Some like it soft and mushy and others fried crispy.

Strictly speaking, Red Flannel Hash is not unique to Maine; you can find it just about anywhere in northern New England.  But it was here in Maine where I first encountered it and so I consider it local fare.  My nose tends to go up when beets are offered to me; I would almost prefer my flannel long johns to beets.  Still, they work well in hash for some reason.  And I do love borscht, so what can I tell you?   The mysteries of life.

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Thursday, June 18, 2015

American Chop Suey - New Dispatches from Maine

Since I am on a local cuisine streak at the moment, allow me to wax poetic about a dish I first discovered at the Cole Farms Restaurant, an institution in nearby Gray, Maine since 1952.  I had no idea what to expect when I first came across American Chop Suey on the menu.

For me, chop suey conjures up the absolutely horrid Chun King “Chinese” food (and I use that term with great reservation) my mom occasionally served when I was growing up.  It was a congeries of chopped celery, tiny shrimp, chicken or beef mixed with a slurry of flaccid stir-fried mixed vegetables and some frightful mystery sauce that may have been soy sauce but I would not bet my life on it.  It came in a can, was heated, and then served over dried noodles.  I shudder to even think about it.  It has been decades since I last ate the stuff and I can still taste it.  It will never cross my lips again.  In fact, it was this concoction that scared me away from trying genuine Chinese cuisine until I was living on my own in college. 

So, when I saw “American Chop Suey” on the menu at Cole Farms, described as an “Old time New England favorite made with fresh tomato, bell pepper and sweet onion,” it immediately evoked those grim childhood memories of that mockery of Chinese food and I never gave it a second thought . . . not until I saw someone at a neighboring table being served a steaming bowl of what I have always referred to as goulash, which I adore, and I told my waitress that I did not see it on the menu.  She open it and pointed to “American Chop Suey.”  Imagine my surprise.  Goulash has nothing to do with Chinese cuisine and vice versa.  I had already ordered but made a mental note to try it the next time I returned. 

And I did.  Perhaps if the menu had noted that there was ground beef, and that it and the vegetables were served as a sauce over elbow macaroni, I would have realized that this was not the repugnant chop suey of old.  You live and learn.  Apparently a classic “chop suey” is a hodge-podge of ingredients served as a stew.  One source states that “chop suey” is a transcription of “tsa tsui,” the Mandarin Chinese for “a little of this and that.”  At long last, the mystery was solved.  American Chop Suey is a traditional comfort food here in northern New England, and like the Italian Sandwich, attributed to Italian immigrants to the region.  I have certainly never encountered it by this name anywhere else.  Growing up in the American Midwest, we simply called it goulash and usually associated it with the Hungarians, not the Italians, who brought the recipe with them when they immigrated to America.  I have been eating and enjoying it since I was a kid.   And in the Mid-Atlantic states, where I now live part of the year, this concoction is referred to as a “Chili Mac.”  Goulash or Chili Mac by any other name would smell (and taste) as sweet.

I was recently reading Tom Seymour’s Maine, a part of the “Off the Beaten Path” series describing unique places to visit in various states.  Seymour, a popular columnist and outdoor writer, tells how he likes to eat at “ma and pa” joints when traveling around the Pine Tree State.  The kind of places where the locals prefer to eat.  He calls American Chop Suey “Maine’s answer to authentic Italian cuisine.”  According to, “the Oxford Companion to Food and Drink traces American Chop Suey's etymological origins to the 1916 Manual for Army Cooks, “an urtext for many institutional foods of the twentieth century.”  The manual called for beef round or pork shoulder, mixed with beef stock, barbecue sauce, and salt and served over white rice.  A 1932 Navy cookbook suggested the addition of cabbage and green peppers. Practical Home Economics (1919) includes a recipe that adds tomatoes and parsley while omitting the onions and cabbage.  Eventually the rice was replaced by elbow macaroni and somewhere along the line grated cheese was added.    This led me to wonder just how “authentic Italian” this stuff really is.  And around these parts you don’t serve it unless there is a bottle of Worcestershire (what’s this here)  sauce on the table.

It has been suggested that American Chop Suey is no longer as popular up here as it once was.  Perhaps this might be true in some places for it is not de rigeur on every menu.  Yet I have eaten at a lot of places and looked at a lot of menus here in Maine and I seldom have any problem finding it.  Now that I finally know what it is, I will order it when I am in need of, or nostalgic for, a genuine comfort food.  I am still not big on the name, but it sure does hit the spot!

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Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Italian Sandwich - New Dispatches from Maine

I have previously written lovingly of the “Cubano,” the popular Cuban sandwich which I always associate with visits to Florida, although it is beginning to show up on menus all over the USA.  So I think it is time to turn my attention to another favorite sandwich that has its origins right here in Maine.

I have been told that Portland, Maine is considered to be the birthplace of the Italian Sandwich.  Some even consider it to be Maine’s signature sandwich known simply as an “Italian” to those in the know.  Its origins can be traced back to the early 20th century when Italians were immigrating to New England in large numbers and settling into cities where they found ready work.  Many of them settled near Portland’s waterfront, and it was here that Giovanni Amato sold fresh baked rolls from a pushcart on the city wharves.  Around 1902 he eventually began to add meat, cheese, fresh vegetables, and a variety of condiments and his rolls became Italians.  Amato abandoned his cart for a storefront sandwich shop on India Street sometime in the 1920s, and by the 1950s the shop was making around 5,000 daily.   There is still an Amato’s at 71 India Street although there are now almost two dozen branch stores throughout Maine, with a few others in New Hampshire, Vermont and New York where you can still get close to one of Giovanni’s original Italians.  Amato’s also operates the oldest bakery in Maine in suburban Westbrook.  This is not to say that Amato’s has sole claim to the Italian, but its founder certainly set the standard high.  Now almost every corner grocery store and gas station shop here in southern Maine produce and sell unique versions of this tasty sandwich.  I had my first genuine Maine Italian at Sam’s, on Main Street in Lewiston after giving a lecture at nearby Bates College. It was a treat to behold.  Those who have grown up with a particular version tend to stay loyal to it for life, at times even having them Fed-Exed to wherever they might happen to be.  I don’t know if they are on Craig’s List or E-Bay, but I would not be a bit surprised.

Ask anyone who grew up or now lives for any length of time in Maine and all will pretty much agree on what constitutes an honest to God Italian Sandwich.  The sandwich got its name because its originator was Italian.  It has nothing to do with the ingredients.   Some might want to compare it to a muffuletta, a Sicilian-style sandwich popular in New Orleans.  I have had both and there is no comparison in my book.  For a classic Italian, you start with a one-foot-long soft roll . . . not the hard roll you get with a typical sub, hero, wedge, hoagie or grinder.  In fact, a good Italian in its current guise is as different from them as night is from day.  There is nothing really Italian but the bread or the fixings. The roll is sliced 2/3 of the way through lengthwise like you would a hot dog bun, and to  this you add a slice of American cheese (preferably the kind individually wrapped in plastic), slices of boiled ham, chopped onions, tomatoes, green peppers, sour pickles (although I add dills instead because I am not a native Maniac), a few olives (I prefer green or Greek), and a splash of extra virgin olive oil.  I also like to sprinkle on some oregano and a little salt and pepper, but like I said, I’m not from around here.  One thing you don’t include is lettuce (although many do), mayonnaise or mustard.  Why make it fancier than it needs to be?  And never, ever heat them up.  They are fine just the way they are.  Once finished with the ingredients, you wrap that baby up is some waxed paper (or whatever you have handy).  Unwrap one end and eat it directly from the wrap.  It can get a little messy, but what the hell.  Behold and enjoy . . . you don’t need no stinkin’ plate.

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Monday, June 8, 2015


Photo by Dave Benton
Yes, it is that time of year again.  Time to pack up, load up, and head up the familiar highways to Sabbathday Lake, in New Gloucester, Maine.  This will be our 28th consecutive summer in the Pine Tree State.  The thought of it rests gentle on my mind.

It was a long, hard winter, both in New England and here in the Mid-Atlantic states, with lots of snow and bitterly cold temperatures; pretty much what the weather pundits were saying last fall when we began to batten down the hatches while making ourselves ready to weather the storms to come.   But spring finally arrived, slowly but surely, and before I knew it the temperatures were beginning to creep up into the 80s, and even the low 90s, as Washington’s pervading humidity laid its heavy hand upon us. 

I have been following the weather reports from Maine for months, since we departed the lake for home in the early days of October.  The autumn colors were resplendent as we departed, but it was not long before the first flurries of snow were in the air.  Ice bound the lake tight by Christmas and then the snows came and piled up ever higher.  Ice out came in mid-April as the last vestiges of snow finally disappeared from the shadows.  A new Vacationland season was beginning.

So it is time to look northward, to the quiet and peaceful summer days along the shores of Sabbathday Lake, to the gentle breezes off the lake, and to the star-filled nights and the sound of the loons calling from the near distance.  It is a finestkind summer hiatus and it always arrives none to soon.

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Friday, June 5, 2015

Waiting for Godot

Photo by James Patterson
A literary evening in Washington, DC.  I am joined by poet and longtime dear friend Miles David Moore and Katherine Young, a gifted Russian translator and another good friend, at the after party following the Politics & Prose book launch for the Richard Peabody Reader released this year by Alan Squire Publishing.  Rick, who by the way is exactly one week older than me, is a razor-sharp (and frequently quirky) poet and writer who also edits and publishes Gargoyle, the seminal DC-based magazine founded in 1976 that may be one of  the finest literary journals in the United States. There are not too many writers in and around DC who have not been published by Rick and Gargoyle.  He published some of my early literary criticism and for that I will always be thankful. 

Thursday, June 4, 2015

And the Hits Just Keep Coming . . . .

Thanks to everyone who has checked out the 330+ postings appearing here since late 2008 . . . the 175,000 who have been counted since May 27, 2012, when the counter went online, as well as the uncounted thousands who visited this site before then.  I hope ALL of you will continue to visit as I share more random notes from the edge of America.  To paraphrase the great American patriot John Paul Jones - I have not yet begun to write.