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Celebrating the tastes of Maine

Maine's culinary identity is, increasingly, so much more than just blueberries and lobsters.

It's artisanal cheeses, locally raised pork and lamb, and wild mushrooms foraged right here and sold at farmers' markets. It's French-Canadian fare and ethnic delicacies from around the world made with Maine ingredients. It's smelts in February, rolled in corn meal and quickly fried, and heirloom apples in September baked into a pie.

So says Nancy Harmon Jenkins, native Mainer and nationally-known food writer.

"I was born and raised here, and I have to tell you that when I was growing up, when you went out to eat, basically you went to a steakhouse or you went to a lobster place," she said in a recent conversation from her home in Camden. "There wasn't anything else, really. There wasn't any recognition that ethnicity was something of interest in terms of food. And it was very hard to find things. We had a lot of in-season, good, local vegetables, but try and find a clove of garlic in the state of Maine."

Jenkins is chairing a food festival in Camden Sept. 15-17 called "Maine Fare" that she hopes will become an annual event.

Maine Fare is a harvest-time celebration of Maine foods, chefs, farmers, food artisans and fishermen. The idea is to showcase Maine foods in a way that will draw more national attention to the state, cook up new economic opportunities, and help Maine create its own unique culinary identity.

A similar food and wine festival was held in Camden last year, but it was in early summer. Jenkins wants it to be tied to harvest time, when there are more local foods available, and also to the Common Ground Fair that will be hosted the following weekend by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners' Association.

"My idea was that people who come from away could come here for Maine Fare, spend a week going around visiting restaurants and cheese makers and farmers' markets and so forth, and then go on to Common Ground the following weekend and have a nice Maine vacation," Jenkins said.

'TASTINGS' RECEPTION

Maine Fare opens Friday night, Sept. 15, with a gala "Tastings" reception at the Camden Yacht Club on Bay View Street from 6 p.m. until 10 p.m. This portion of the weekend is a collaboration with MOFGA, which has held similar tastings events the past two years. The food will be prepared by regional chefs using only Maine-grown organic ingredients.

Advance tickets for the tasting are $50 for MOFGA members and $60 for nonmembers.

Many well-known Maine chefs will be participating in the entire weekend, including several from Portland.

Melissa Kelly and Price Kushner from Primo in Rockland will be at the Friday night tasting, as will Josh DeGroot from Lupines at the Newcastle Inn.

Lee Skawinski of Cinque Terre in Portland will be among several chefs offering intimate cooking classes Saturday and Sunday in the kitchens of local inns and bed and breakfasts.

It's a great chance to learn from the best Maine has to offer.

Rob Evans of Hugo's in Portland will be teaming up with Jason Kennedy from Browne Trading Company to do a class focused on the selection, handling and preparation of Maine seafood.

Others offering classes are Stephanie Brown of Seagrass Bistro in Yarmouth, Alan McGrath of the Harraseeket Inn in Freeport, Elmer Beal of the Burning Tree in Otter Creek, Rich Hanson of Cleonice in Ellsworth, and Brian Hill from Francine Bistro in Camden.

ALL-STAR PANEL DISCUSSION

On Saturday, Jenkins will give a keynote address at the Camden Opera House, which will be followed by a panel discussion called "Eating Local in a Cold Northern Climate."

Among the panelists will be Sam Hayward, chef at Fore Street in Portland, and Barbara Damrosch, who writes "A Cook's Garden," a column in the Washington Post. The panel will be moderated by Leslie Land, author of the "Garden Q & A" in the New York Times.

There will also be a Maine Fare Marketplace from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday in the Knox Mill Center on Washington Street, where vendors will be offering samples of breads, cheeses and other foods, and cooks and farmers will be doing demonstrations. Admission is $10.

Molly O'Neill, former food columnist for the New York Times and host of the PBS series "Great Food," will have a booth at the marketplace Saturday to gather recipes from the public for her "One Big Table" cookbook project that has been 10 years in the making.

"One Big Table" has been called "the most ambitious gathering of recipes and food stories since the WPA foodways project." O'Neill plans to whittle down an estimated 100,000 recipes to 750 that will be published in the book. Some are family recipes, some are regional. Some are what she calls "stone soup" recipes that create a great dish out of few ingredients.

If you'd like your recipe to be considered, bring it with you to the Maine Marketplace Sept. 16. Better yet, says Jenkins, bring a sample of your dish for O'Neill to taste.

Other activities on the plate for the weekend are tours and lectures at Merryspring Gardens, including a guided wild-mushroom foraging expedition, and a vineyard tour and wine tasting in Lincolnville.

For a full schedule of events, go to www.mainefare.com.

Terms such as "locally grown" and "farm-to-table" are so overused these days that the more cynical among us wonder whether they have simply become marketing tools for restaurants looking to cash in on a trend.

Jenkins said she, too, is "awfully cynical about it."

"There's a certain kind of restaurant you walk into that it's all about lip service," she said. "And then you see asparagus on your plate, and it's October."

She added, however, that she thinks many Maine chefs are actually paying attention and doing their best to offer fresh, local ingredients on their menus. She tossed off the names of Mark Gaier and Clark Frasier at Arrows in Ogunquit, Rich Hanson at Cleonice, and Elmer Beal at The Burning Tree.

"I think we're really lucky here," she said. "Melissa Kelly, she's got a whole backyard full of vegetables and pigs up on top of the hill that are serving her restaurant."

MORE WORK TO BE DONE

That said, there's still a long way to go, according to Jenkins.

She thinks Maine cheeses and meats are not getting the attention they deserve. Heirloom apples, too, need to be made more available to consumers.

"I love smelts in season, and I love Morse's Sauerkraut when it comes out in October and November," Jenkins said. "But you go into a local restaurant, and try and find Morse's Sauerkraut on a menu, or smelts on the menus. Or tinker mackerel, for that matter. You just don't find it."

A food festival such as Maine Fare could be key, she said, to getting people to pay more attention to these overlooked Maine foods.

"I'd like to see these kind of fairs happening all over the country in various regions," Jenkins said. "I think we focus on Emeril Lagasse and Wolfgang Puck and Todd English and people like that, and we then turn our backs on our own local traditions. And those are really important because that's where the good food really begins, and that's where it ends, too."

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:
mgoad@pressherald.com