A Maine Field Report with David Coggins
E.B. White lived on a farm in Maine in a lovely white house with a view of the water. He wrote wonderful essays about his life there and once said, “I would really rather feel bad in Maine than good anywhere else.” It’s hard to argue with such a terrific writer, but the more time you spend in the state the more you agree with him.
I attended college in Maine, in ancient times, and we would gather round the fire with our quill pens and write poetry in leatherbound books. No, not at all. We went to bar called the Blue Goose, which is still there, and you could order pizza from the place next door. They would deliver right to your booth in the back next to the foosball table.
If you didn’t read the menu carefully you would miss the fine print, which said ALL PIZZAS SERVED WITH MEAT. That was pointed out to undergraduates, who presumably should have been expert in source material, when they enquired why their pizza had arrived covered in ham. If you wanted to have a cheese pizza you had to specify no meat and that cost extra. Yes, eccentric.
Maine has that individuality and strength of character. We all love the dramatic rocky coasts, the lighthouses, the sailboats, but there are eccentricities hiding in plain sight. The fastest way north is the interstate, which bears the wonderful sign that greets you when you arrive: ALL MAINE POINTS. But that just gets you places faster. I prefer the smaller Route 1, which takes you through towns and past businesses that sell everything from ice cream to handmade sweaters to medicinal marijuana (which would have surprised E.B. White).
The range of what you find as you drive up Route 1 is wide and deep. With our friends from Drake’s we decided to visit some of the places where you can enjoy that Maine feeling. We started in Portland’s Old Port at the fish market and stopped by J.’s Oyster, an establishment that is not exactly a dive bar but doesn’t aim much higher than that. When you’ve finished some bracingly good oysters, you might think you’re in the world’s greatest establishment that serves Bloody Marys in a plastic cup.
Maine invites a lot of discussion about lobsters rolls, the discourse you might say. I don’t get too caught up in it. My feeling is that a lobster roll tastes better when it’s eaten outside and you didn’t have to wait in line. My better half, Emilie Hawtin, has actually graduated to the crab roll, which also has its pleasures (it’s certainly lighter!). We usually stop at Sprague’s in Wiscasset while the partisans line up at Red’s across the way.
Farther up is one of my favorite places is Chicken Barn Books. Talk about truth in advertising. Chicken Barn Books is absolutely immense, with antique dealers on the ground floor. Upstairs are books, magazines and printed matter, arranged by category, some quite unexpected (Paranormal Romance, anyone?). People understandably lose their bearings here. There’s also a great Maine History section and you start to think about getting a shingled house on the water and, who knows, maybe a small wooden sail boat.
I would put Belfast on your list. It’s a good town with a few bookstores, including Craig Olson, an excellent dealer. Lincolnville is a good small town with a smartly restored motel. Moody’s Diner, where I first went with my parents about thirty years ago, now sells merch. It’s still great, but it’s such an institution now that you have to budget your time. We also ate well at Nina June in Rockport.
When you feel like parts of Maine are getting a little too aggressively artisanal then stop in any outpost of Midcoast Marine Supply. I enjoy any place that sells rope by the foot, but they also have rubber boots, tidal charts, wetsuits, rain jackets, white cotton gloves that help you haul your lobster trap up out of the water (no word on whether Drake’s will start making these soon).
Maine is big-hearted, unfussy and rewards people ready to get out there. It’s not too proud of itself, though it has a lot to be proud of. In that spirit, when E.B. White’s house was for sale, he specified that it couldn’t be made into a museum dedicated to him. That’s the spririt.