News Feature

Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, July 26, 2012
Food history you thought you knew
Sandy Oliver explains and debunks

by Alice Wilkinson

Sandy Oliver is a real historian, but before you let that skew your idea of what she’s like, you need to see her in person. An audience of about 40 spent as much time laughing as listening, and almost as much time adding facts and memories about food to what Oliver said.

Oliver’s talk on Saturday, July 14, was called “21 Things you Need to Know About Maine Food,” and was originally scheduled to be held in the orchard at the Historical Society. But the heat and mosquitoes dictated that it be held inside—and it ended up in the IHT barn.

The first thing Oliver did was comment on the title of her talk, saying “it’s more like 27, but I rounded it down.” She didn’t count as she went, and it seemed like more, but no one wanted her to stop.

She began her talk by doing a little survey: how many people had gardens, made pickles, had eaten certain things and the one question that received no response: does anyone here hunt? No hunters in the audience, but plenty of people who have neighbors who hunt. It seemed that almost everyone had a story to share, from the woman originally from Vinalhaven whose grandmother had cooked for logging camps to people who remembered Marie’s molasses doughnuts.

Risking alienating a Maine audience, Oliver admitted that she loathes whoopie pies, while making the connection between the ‘20s and “making whoopee” and the pies themselves, which she said is a good example of commercial food adopted into home kitchens.

Another one is Needhams, originally from a Marjorie Standish cookbook, “complete with that block of paraffin.” Indeed, the original recipe does include paraffin, a wax petroleum product, which makes the chocolate smooth and shiny. It’s all right if you want to eat petroleum, Oliver says, but she covers her Needhams with ganache.

Getting back to the whoopie pie, Oliver said it was the Berwick Bakery’s answer to Drake’s Devil Dogs. The convention at the time was to make a chocolate cake with white icing rather than chocolate, so the combination already existed.

With a nod to the possible Pennsylvania connection, Oliver talked, with dislike, about the traditional fillings for whoopie pies—Crisco-based or marshmallow fluff-based. Despite her dislike of the traditional whoopie pie, she is positively scathing about the gentrification of the whoopie pie, which now comes in many flavors and has culminated in their sale in “high-end New York bakeries.” She asks, “Why would you want them?”

Much of her talk centered on the difference between food for “hard-times” and other food, and she categorizes much of traditional Maine food as “hard-times” food. And sometimes, she said, food moves from that category into the luxury category, depending on who is eating it and where.

An example she gives is lobster. Even in the 19th century, when Mainers could allegedly walk out onto rocks and pick lobsters up from the shallow water, lobster was being shipped to Boston and eaten by the wealthy. In an aside, she said that lobster wasn’t served “rough” (in the shell) until “rusticators” (summer people) began eating them.

So, while lobster was a luxury in Boston, in Maine, if a child took a lobster sandwich to school for lunch, the implication was that his family couldn’t afford bologna, which was store bought.

Clams, too, suffer the same fate—a family wouldn’t happily admit to having clams for dinner, because they are subsistence food, even though they are a delicacy for people who don’t dig them.

Another hard-times food, chowder, was first made from real fish scraps, beginning with the pieces of cod that didn’t get salted down. When Oliver asked how many in the audience had eaten (cod) tongue and cheeks, a few hands went up. It’s not clear how many people were about to find some tongues and cheeks to cook up, despite Oliver’s enthusiasm about the taste. Now you can buy chowder scraps at a fish store, but there are recipes that start with filets of white fish.

The other key ingredient in chowder, besides the potatoes, is salt pork, a traditional Maine hard-times food. Salt pork figures in baked beans, as well. While she was talking about baked beans, Oliver dismissed the notion that Native Americans had taught settlers how to make baked beans, using bear fat and maple syrup. And, she added, if anyone heard that to disregard that immediately because it was NOT TRUE. For one thing, bear fat was prized enough to be “almost sacred,” and for another, “we came to this country knowing how to make baked beans.”

There are stories, Oliver said, of families where baked beans was a staple, a pot always on the supper table, except when company dropped in, when it would be whisked away.

A lot of energy has always gone into preserving food, from salting fish to making pickles, and Oliver talked about two foods many in the room were unfamiliar with.

The first is slack-salt fish, fish which is not as salted as salt cod. The drying process is completed in open air, and people would eat it as it dried, tearing off strips like jerky, and indeed, one woman talked about tearing off a strip every time she walked by the clothesline, where the fish was drying.

Another unfamiliar food is muddy water or Riley water pickles. The pickles, cured only with vinegar, mustard, sugar and salt are strong enough that Oliver says, “when you take them out, they will cut through the fog between your ears.”

Oliver moved on to wiggles, smothers, French Canadian food, fiddleheads, and one which everyone had to know about: swaggon, with a long A, like the A in bacon. Swaggon is beans simmered on the stove until they are very soft, when milk is added. It’s a bean porridge.

To learn more things you need to know about Maine foods, Oliver’s newest book, Maine Home Cooking, will be available in September, although it can be pre-ordered now.