Seared salmon from Suzuki’s in Rockland (Photos by Nancy Harmon Jenkins )
Seared salmon from Suzuki’s in Rockland (Photos by Nancy Harmon Jenkins )
Although Maine has a rich and storied cultural history, Mainers have never been known for their culinary sophistication. Fisherman Obideah Smith pretty well summed up classic Maine cuisine in the 1943 book “Village Down East,” a portrait of turn-of-the-century Lincolnville by artist and author Will Davis.

“‘Druther have b’iled salt cod an’ pork scraps than beefsteak!” exclaimed Smith. “And turn up your nose, if you like, but we ‘Down Easters’ is likewise fond of light-salted dry fish — et raw: ‘strip fish’ we calls it. It’s tastiest when a good hot sun cooks it ‘cheesy.’ Awful nice stripped off and et with baked pertaters!’”

And that was pretty much a standard diet for Mainers living on the coast, says Camden author, cook and food historian Nancy Harmon Jenkins. Making her remarks at the Penobscot Marine Museum’s “Our Evolving Fisheries History Conference” in Belfast on April 8, Jenkins says her mother, who was born in 1907 near the Oyster River in Thomaston, would often talk about surviving all winter long on salt cod. 

“Salt fish, mostly cod, but sometimes salt mackerel or herring or even bony alewives cooked in a variety of ways but often just plain boiled and served with boiled winter vegetables,” Jenkins told the audience. “Doesn’t sound very appetizing.”

Often Maine cooks would simply mash the fish together with a massive quantity of potatoes to create a hash. Very occasionally fish was fried, but most often it was broiled, stuffed or baked. There was also “mock oyster stew” with salted cod used in the place of the oysters or a salted fish loaf like a meatloaf baked in the oven. And sometimes they would even pick up some lobsters from the local pound, an enclosed area in the water where fishermen stocked their catch. 

“Now if lobster sounds like a luxury to us today … the steady diet of salt fish must have been monotonous to the point that it would just take away your appetite,” Jenkins added. 

But while Jenkins’ mother would never serve salt cod because she considered it “too wormy,” many old-timers remember it fondly as comfort food. Lincolnville resident Nancy Heald says strip fish was a big treat growing up, even better than candy or chips.

“My grandmother kept a whole cod hanging in the unheated, walk-in pantry,” she said. She would go out and strip off a piece about 3 or 4 inches long and inch wide and less than an inch thick — sort of the size of a carpenter’s pencil.” 

Poring over 19th-century Maine charity cookbooks, like the ones put out by ladies’ guilds and church groups, Jenkins has found a trove of classic recipes like salmon loaf with egg sauce, which is still eaten in parts of rural Maine. 

“Even in those days there was very little salmon in Maine and the farmed salmon industry had not yet started,” said Jenkins. “So it was canned Alaska salmon.” 

But in some cooking circles Maine salmon was a prized dish, noted Jenkins. The eminent chef and cookbook author Fannie Farmer once said the best salmon came from the Penobscot River with an average weight of 15 to 25 pounds. 

“The few salmon that we manage to catch and release today are nowhere near that weight,” said Jenkins.

One of her mother’s favorites was baked haddock stuffed with savory sage and onion stuffing served in egg sauce — “the height of gastronomic complexity.” Others, like “shrimp pea wiggle” — a can of shrimp, a can of peas in a white sauce made of milk and butter — can be “difficult to love.” 

“I have to try it one of these days but it’s not going to be sober,” Jenkins added. 

Then there was clam casserole — an old potluck supper favorite. Heald says her favorite was finnan haddie, a smoked haddock originally from Scotland that Mainers liked to cook in chowders or pan fried in butter or bacon grease with a spash of milk, which diluted the salt, she said. 

As for the authentic Maine chowder, well, it’s not like the “thick, library paste glop” found in touristy spots, says Jenkins. No, she declared, the true Maine coast clam chowder is more like the kind served by Mrs. Hussey to Ishmael and Queequeg at the Try Pots Inn on Nantucket in “Moby Dick.” As Melville wrote, “It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuit, and salted pork cut up into little flakes; the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt.” 

Lobster was served on special occasions like cook-outs and picnics, and while there was always lobster stew, lobster salad and lobster Newburg, Jenkins says her father never saw a lobster roll until after World War II. By then salt cod was on the way out and canned, frozen and processed seafood came into vogue. There was lots of canned tuna fish, canned sardines harvested locally and, of course, frozen fish sticks. 

“Sometimes it’s the only way to get kids to eat fish,” she added. “You keep it bland and tasteless and load it with salty, sugary breadcrumbs and you deep fry it in lots of fat.” 

But Mainers didn’t historically eat a lot of swordfish because although it was caught in Maine, the valuable fish was usually sent to the Boston and New York markets where it could get a good price. And while scallops, clams, crabs and lobsters were always popular, few Mainers dared to try mussels back then. 

“Mussels we had to learn to eat even though they were perfectly edible and delicious and all over the world people were eating them,” said Jenkins. “I think we thought they might be somehow poisonous.… Like winkles, they were food of poor people who couldn’t afford the richness of halibut or lobster.” 

Unfortunately, just as Mainers have gotten a taste for mussels, it’s estimated that about 60 percent of the wild blue mussel population has disappeared from the shores of the Gulf of Maine, according to a recent study by researchers at the University of California Irvine. Researchers have posited that the collapse could be linked to ocean acidification and climate change as the Gulf of Maine is heating up faster than 99 percent of the world’s oceans. 

And as for the endagered Atlantic cod, salted or otherwise, the fish that was once the food of poor coastal Mainers and slaves in the antebellum South today fetches $13 a pound or about $25 a pound for the more if caught by hook.

The Evolution of the Maine Marine Diet

With the collapse of the Atlantic cod fishery due to overfishing along with globalization and the Internet revolution, old Obideah Smith would probably be scratching his head at the seafood dishes Mainers consume today. With the changing climate in the Gulf of Maine, previously uncommon species like bluefish, squid and monkfish are becoming more common in local waters. 

“Squid is still scorned today by cooks who don’t know what to do with them and are kind of put off by their octopus-like appearance,” said Jenkins. “But cleaned up and tidied, they’re good sliced up into convenient rings and served up as golden, fried calamari.”

And the influence of different far-away cultures has also had a major influence on local cuisine, with flavors from Asia, Latin America, the Mediterranean and Africa making their way into local dishes. Jenkins noted that Long Grain’s Thai fish chowder would probably shock Mrs. Hussey at the Try Pots Inn. Then there’s the fish tacos at Home Kitchen and the thinly shaved raw flounder served with greens at Suzuki’s in Rockland.

“If you told me in 1980 that raw fish would be consumed all over the country, I would have said, ‘You’re out of your mind,” said Jenkins. “There’s no way Americans will ever eat raw fish except for oysters and clams.”

Jenkins recalled the time several years ago when a group of young Japanese tourists visited Captain Andy’s to buy some live lobsters at the captain’s take-out on Route 1 in Camden near the state park. 

“And Captain Andy said to them, ‘What are you boys planning to do with those lobsters?,’” recalled Jenkins. “‘Do you have a pot big enough to cook them in?’ because he was ready to give them one of his kettles, and they said, ‘No, we’re going to eat these raw.’”

“Not my lobsters, you ain’t,” Captain Andy reportedly replied before promptly snatching back the lobsters and refunding their money.

The future will certainly be much different as ocean temperatures rise and ocean acidification becomes more of the problem. Jenkins foresees a day when there is a limited supply of lobster, no shrimp, no mussels, no cod, no tuna and very few scallops. But there’s still potential in what has been historically trash fish, such as sea snails and the invasive green crabs. For instance, she says whelks cooked in a marinara sauce is delicious and tastes similar to a clam sauce. And recently chefs have begun experimenting with baked and deep-fried green crabs, which have been blamed for decimating clam and mussel populations. 

“[Green crabs] are very crunchy and very delicious and if we can eat them all up we are going to be doing mother nature and the clams a big favor,” said Jenkins.

 And farmed fish, shellfish and seaweed will likely continue to be part of the picture. Currently the University of Maine’s Center for Aquaculture Research and Maine Sea Grant have been developing programs to farm seaweed like winged kelp and sugar kelp as well as the yellowtail amberjack, a fish from the Pacific coast with a taste similar to tuna. Jenkins noted that the Maine Aquaculture Association and the State have also been developing protocols for raising salmon. 

Certainly, as she noted, it’s been quite a journey in the kitchen from salt fish to whelks, green crabs and farmed salmon, but one Mainers will adapt to.  

“It’s a long, long road from one to the other, but it’s been a very exciting road and I think it looks exciting from this perspective for anyone who cooks and anyone who eats fish going ahead.”