Why One Cookbook Author Uprooted Her City Life & Moved to Maine
It was December 1982. I had a dream job: Culinary Editor of Food & Wine magazine. I was 26 years old and in love with a man who grew up in New York City. I also happened to be in love with New York (as a suburban girl, I had always dreamed of living in the city). There was no way I was going to give up my job or my zip code.
I landed an assignment to write about the best restaurants along the New England coast. That summer we spent several long July weekends eating in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, saving Maine and southern New Hampshire for last.
Maine was my special place. As a young child my family spent several weeks each summer visiting my grandparents at their rented cottage on Kezar Lake in Center Lovell. My most distinct memories were not what Maine looked like, but of its tastes and smells: the Saturday night lobster dinners, everyone wearing red and white plastic bibs, and my first bite of the bright-red crustacean. It was sweet, salty, and juicy. I remember thinking it was like eating the ocean. And there was the deep, earthy, piney aroma that permeated the Maine woods. On cool summer nights, rather than simply turning down the air conditioning like my parents did at our suburban New York home, there was the seductive smoke of burning wood that curled out of the chimney of that old-fashioned cottage to chase away the chill.
My most distinct memories were not what Maine looked like, but of its tastes and smells: the Saturday night lobster dinners, everyone wearing red and white plastic bibs, and my first bite of the bright-red crustacean.
When I was around 10, my parents sent me to sleep-away camp in Maine. And again there were special lobster dinners and the smell of the woods. One day we went on an outing to a lake town with clusters of touristy gift shops. Among the lobster postcards and lobster bubble gum, I found a miniature pillow with a hand-painted pine tree on the front that said “Greetings from Vacationland.” I inhaled and there it was: the piney scent of my Maine childhood. I kept this souvenir in my bedroom, next to my real pillow, into my teens. When times were hard, I would pull out that little scented pillow and inhale. The ersatz pine connected me to a time and a place that always made me feel calm and safe.
In early August 1982, we were on the last leg of the assignment, and spent several days in Maine eating our way south from Camden to Portland and then down to the seacoast. We were smitten. John had an idea: What if we left the city and moved to Maine for a year? We could sublet our apartment (a dark, ground-floor, one-bedroom with gates on every window where street noise poured into our living room) and rent a place in the country. I had just sold my first cookbook and John would be a freelance reporter for NPR. I was hesitant to give up city life, but we would be back soon enough. It would be our version of a year in Provence, or Tuscany — a New England adventure.
Why we ended up moving to Maine in mid-December, the bleakest month of the year, I don’t recall. We would wake up each morning and struggle to light a fire in the wood stove (New York City doesn’t provide much training for properly lighting wood stoves). As the cast iron eventually heated up, and we watched the snow drifts grow higher, I became increasingly worried. When the darkness descended a little before 4 p.m. each day, we gave each other a bleak look that translated to Wow, we made a BIG mistake moving to Maine in the dead of winter.
We called friends and family in the city to pick ourselves up, but they seemed busy and jovial getting ready for holiday parties and shopping. So when all else failed, one of us would bundle up and go to the local fish store a few miles down the road. There was never any doubt about what we would buy. Lobster equals Maine and if we were going to become Mainers we needed lobster. We would buy the largest ones we could afford, and marvel at how inexpensive they were (in those days they really were cheap, particularly in comparison to New York City prices). I would steam them and as we dipped the sweet, juicy meat into hot melted butter with nothing but a squirt of lemon, we would smile at each other, as if to say, Yes! This is why we moved to Maine — to enjoy this bounty, have some land, garden, and live a better life than NYC in the ’80s offered. And for a short while, with bellies full of briny lobster, we were happy again.
There was never any doubt about what we would buy. Lobster equals Maine and if we were going to become Mainers we needed lobster.
We made it through that winter. We never moved back to the city. A small town in southern Maine became the place where we got married, and raised our two daughters. We became part of a community here, getting involved with local politics, the school system, and the ever-growing food scene. I wrote 15 cookbooks here, all influenced by the passion and dedication that Maine farmers, fishermen, and chefs bring to this state.
And every summer when the onslaught of visitors begins — family and friends from the city — we serve them lobster. Sometimes it’s simply steamed, but more often these days it’s grilled or roasted, made into salads or lobster rolls. As our friends crack open the iconic red shells, and slurp up the briny juices, every so often, one of them will look up from their plate and say: “Wow, this is the life. You know, maybe we should move to Maine, too.”
Kathy Gunst is a James Beard Award-winning journalist, cookbook author, writer, and resident chef for NPR’s Here and Now. Her latest book, Soup Swap (Chronicle, 2016) is about bringing people together in the most delicious way possible — around a steaming bowl of soup! Find more from Kathy on Kitchn and elsewhere at her site, KathyGunst.com.