Over thirty-five years ago I met a man.
It was a hot summer romance and very quickly I realized it was serious. I called one of my best friends to tell her the big news.
“What’s he like?” she asked. I searched for the right words. “Well, he makes me feel… rooted,” I told her.
“Rooted?” she asked, bewildered. We were 21 years old and roots were not exactly what we were supposed to be looking for.
“I mean is he sexy? Smart? Funny?”
Yeah, of course. He was all of those things and more. But he also gave me this reassuring feeling of being attached to the earth, a sense that as long as I was with him I could get through the tough stuff. This story has a happy ending. My instincts were good. I ended up marrying John and today he still makes me feel rooted. However, this is not the story of how I met my husband. It is the story of how we end up feeling rooted in a community and what it means to call that place home.
Food is what brought me to the Seacoast more than thirty years ago. As an editor at a food magazine in New York City, I was given the enviable assignment to write a piece about the best restaurants in New England. We traveled from southern Connecticut through Downeast Maine. I tried everything. However, when we arrived in Portsmouth, we had dinner at what I knew immediately was an extraordinary restaurant, The Blue Strawbery. The next day the Strawbery’s chef, James Haller, invited me to interview him while he churned butter from local milk. (I’m not making this up! Haller was way ahead his time.)
Months later, after my article came out, Haller invited us to his home in South Berwick, Maine. We drove the five hours from NYC for a picnic on Star Island. We spread herb butter on homemade bread, ate lobster salad on biscuits with tender summer lettuce, and fresh berries mixed with whipped vanillascented cream. We had discovered a magical place and a whole new group of friends.
We left New York and moved to the Seacoast for a year. To native New Yorkers, a year in Maine sounded romantic. We left our small NYC ground floor apartment for a big old farmhouse in South Berwick. The Seacoast became our permanent home in less than a year.
People and food have always kept me rooted here. Since arriving early in 1982, I have watched this region change from a place where it was hard to find locally-produced food to one that supports a thriving local culinary scene. It is not just about shopping local; it is about the quality of the food we now find around here. Perfectly crusty baguettes and ciabatta from my local bakery. High-quality meat from the local butcher, Maine-made cheeses, farm-grown local vegetables, Seacoast honey, fish, and even world-class locally-brewed beer.
These days, there are so many more dishes than traditional lobster and clam huts that previously defined New England cuisine. At Moxy, in Port smouth, Chef Matt Louis offers locally-sourced New Hampshire steelhead trout roe caviar with house-made creme fraiche and root vegetable chips. This is a dish that places you right here in the waters and the land of the Seacoast. The Black Birch in Kittery, Maine have their famed deviled eggs; local eggs stuffed with unexpected combinations like prosciutto, fig, and blue cheese. Chef Evan Mallett, of The Black Trumpet sources local food with religious vigor. Mallett’s locally-sourced trout wrapped in rosti potatoes with crisped trout skin, cured roe, creamed greens, and Baer’s beans grown in South Berwick, ME is another excellent dish representing the dedication to locally grown. A turn of the head exposes further community connections. Anju, in Kittery, features an extraordinary broth that forms the base of the ramen they serve, made from the bones and meat of the locally-sourced butcher shop next door, Maine MEat. Businesses feed businesses. Roots grow deeper.
This past winter, John and I spent close to two months in northern California visiting family. It was sunny every single day. That’s almost 50 days of winter sunshine. (Although, the California drought is another issue entirely.) We went to farmers' markets several times a week and were dazzled by the freshness and quality of the food — the vegetables, wine, olive oil, pistachios, the almonds, and the cheese. There is almost nothing produced inside of fifty miles that you can’t buy. When there are Meyer lemon, tangerine, and olive trees growing in your backyard, or massive rosemary bushes with tiny lavender blossoms, and tall, wild fennel growing alongside the highway, cooking locally takes on a whole new meaning. For weeks we ate at many of the great San Francisco restaurants. We cooked the limitless bounty of the farmers’ markets, ate copious amounts of Dungeness crab and West Coast lamb. Northern California is, simply put, food nirvana.
The night before we were supposed to fly home, my old friend Cat sent an email: “Don’t come home! I miss you, but it’s so effing cold you won’t believe it! You have been warned!” Cat has a flare for the dramatic, so I laughed. But then I checked the weather. The winter of 2015 on the Seacoast was a true test for even the most hardened New Englander.
We arrived home to a house wrapped in the thickest, bulkiest coat of snow in memory. And as I put on long underwear and multiple layers of clothing, I asked myself, why do we live here? It was enough to make a girl reconsider where she spends her winters.
Until I went to the Winter Farmer’s Market in Rollinsford. I saw chefs and old friends shopping, farmers I know selling CSA memberships, and a crowd of people wrapped in layers of down hugging one another. It was a big celebration. I filled my shopping bags with root vegetables and spicy greens, apples and dried beans, locally-raised beef, onions and shallots, Italian-style cheeses, and whole grain breads still warm from the oven. At home I laid out all of the food on our kitchen table. There were piles of white outside the window, but inside I had colors, textures, and possibilities.
I wrapped the beets in foil, put them in a hot oven, and made a salad with the fresh greens. I slowly braised the beef with the onions and shallots and carrots, adding fresh thyme and rosemary from the market. A knobby white bulb of celery root was steamed and mashed. The roasted beets, sweet and pink, were peeled and thinly sliced, then topped with fresh, creamy Italian ricotta. A meal, a Seacoast-grown meal, emerged.
Shopping at the farmers' market and cooking in my kitchen after such a long break was grounding. John came in from shoveling the roof, exhausted and hungered by the smells of the beef with sweet onions and earthy beets roasting in the oven. We sat down at the table, clinked glasses, toasted one another.