I was feeling neighborly, so when the family next door broke the news that they were moving, I asked if there was anything I could do to help. Next thing I knew, I was knee-deep in a larder full of books. “Take as many as you like,” urged my neighbor Louise, “you’ll be doing us a huge favor.” It was a veritable treasure trove of books on cooking that had been stashed away for decades and, ultimately, forgotten.
By way of introduction, that’s how I found What’s Cooking Down in Maine.
Before local and sustainability became the buzzwords they are today, Maine folk used what resources were around—pork, deer, potatoes, apples, roadside greens and, of course, lobster—to feed their families. Willan C. Roux, the author of this book, is one such Mainer, and his collection of recipes for simple, down-to-earth meals comes from another local resource: the people who live there (or did—the book was first published in 1964). Some of the recipes included were passed down for generations, others invented by friends of his at the time, still others according to local lore, but all are shared in a palpably personal tone with anecdotes to boot, straight from the mouth of Roux. Like the food he describes, his style is basic. His humor is ham on wry. Here’s a telling example from the chapter called “Meat and Such:”
Baked Chicken Legs
There’s a modern touch to this one: aluminum foil. I like the simplicity and brevity of Arlene Lubee’s recipe: Dip chicken legs in canned milk, roll in seasoned cornflake crumbs, place on a cookie sheet lined with aluminum foil, thick side up. Bake in 350 to 400 degree oven until brown. No need of turning. Try the same with pork chops. Any questions?1
You needn’t fear any long-winded reminiscences, however; his stories are quick and colorful, fun and funny, and always relevant. Here’s one of my favorites:
On an Engine’s Exhaust Pipe
This may sound pretty silly to you, but if you ever have a chance to do it, don’t miss it. It happened this way: Carl Skillings and I were codfishing one fine fall morning, near Half Way Rock, and doing all right until the dogfish found us. It was getting on toward noon anyway and we were hungry. We hailed a friend of Carl’s who was hauling traps near-by and borrowed a couple of lobsters from him. In no time the tails were split, the claws removed and cracked, and they were laid end to end on the exposed exhaust pipe. (We discarded the bodies.)
Soon we were eating them with cold beer as a chaser. Food for the gods? Well, maybe not, but at the time it seemed so!2
I found myself lulled into the rhythm of Roux’s writing from the outset—like listening to an amicable uncle—and to my utter delight, in the first chapter no less, I thought I’d met my maker (of food, of course) when my eyes fell on the following recipe name: “Back Cove Lobster Glop.” I will not include the recipe in this review, for in this case, the name’s the thing!
Of special note are the recipes strewn throughout the book that hail from L.L. Bean (the founder of the company of the same name) and “Chicken a la Chamberlain” (that’s Joshua Chamberlain—great fun for any civil war buff who likes to cook).
The scope of What’s Cooking Down in Maine is not grand, nor is its presentation grandiloquent. If it’s highfalutin or frilly you are after, you will be hard-pressed to find it. The fanciest it gets is its design, which I’d sooner call cute: modest illustrations of Maine food (or food to be) by Warren Spaulding, with child-like limericks underneath, serve to divide the chapters. In a postlogue of sorts called “Hail and Farewell,” Roux reminds us: “This book does not pretend to be all-inclusive: it is a sampler. Thus if it whets your appetite and brings you into a closer rapport with all Maine cookery, it will have achieved its purpose. And I will have done you a favor.”3
Caveat emptor: this book cannot be bought at Barnes & Noble or Powell’s. It should not be any problem, however, to order it from a local used book store (the book had nine printings). It is readily available online through Amazon, Abebooks, AddAll and Ebay, to name a few.
1 Willan C. Roux, What’s Cooking Down in Maine (Maine: Down East Books, 1964) 70.
2 Roux 5-6.
3 Roux 127.