The Cookbook That Keeps Memories of a Maine Inn Alive
Jeanne Hodesh on Cooking as an Act of Love and Tool for Connection
My cookbooks live on a shelf above my writing desk. Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking and The New York Times Cookbook passed down to me by grandma, The Vegetarian Epicure and In Pursuit of Flavor by my mother. Nestled between them is a slim spine you won’t find anywhere else—it’s long been out of print. The laminated cover, designed to protect from spills, has rippled with age; stains from vinaigrette and Carlo Rossi merlot bloom across the title, Recipes from a Down East Inn.
When I want to cook for someone I love, I turn to this volume first. Pull it off the shelf, and a photograph of a New England summer repast hints at what’s inside: a piece of broiled salmon with lemon and egg sauce spooned over the top, new potatoes tossed in butter and chopped parsley, shortcake with a cloud of soft, whipped cream floats on a generous pool of strawberries. To the side, a pitcher bursts with magenta peonies and lupine picked in the garden that morning. If you look closely at the background, you’ll notice a painting of a white clapboard house dappled by blue shadows of trees, and a dock leading out to the water where I am from.
When my parents started driving up to Maine they stayed in a friend’s tree house. In the city my mother worked as a set designer, while my dad filleted fish at a restaurant in Midtown. He dreamed of opening a place of his own, but knew he’d never make a profit if he didn’t own the property. Manhattan real estate was out of the question, so they kept exploring points north. When they found the inn, the front porch was covered in astroturf, the third floor left skeletal by a fire. I was three months old when they opened for business in May 1984.
For the first few seasons we lived in room 15. My mother ran the dining room, my father the kitchen. They removed the astroturf and rebuilt the veranda, restoring the New England hotel to its 19th-century luster. Along the walls and wrapping the pillars of the dining room, my mother painted a mural of our town. Every storefront and house was accounted for, the inn at the center of it all. An only child, I made friends with the chambermaids, tagging along as they stripped beds and cleaned toilets. At night I perched atop the ice cream cooler, watching the choreography of the kitchen as chefs called Order up! and waitresses hoisted trays of lobster and seared scallops high atop their shoulders. By the time I was 11, I was bussing tables.
My dad sourced bluefish and crabmeat from fishermen who were married to the waitresses. Salads were composed of speckled romaine rowed across the Penobscot Bay in a canoe by Eliot Coleman, a farmer famous for his organic growing methods. Teddy Kennedy came to stay once. So did sailors in search of a hot shower after days spent at sea. To many locals it was solid seasonal employment, and to summer people—everyone from the author Mary McCarthy to the singer Don McClain—it was a scene.The idea behind the cookbook was to make a souvenir, something visitors could buy at the front desk when they checked out to return to Boston or New York.
In the off season, the inn’s pipes were drained. Various projects ensued. One winter, I watched as my dad hunched over the keyboard of our Macintosh desktop, tapping out a collection of recipes. The idea behind the cookbook was to make a souvenir, something visitors could buy at the front desk when they checked out to return to Boston or New York. Working with a colleague who had been an editor in her previous life, my dad pared down menu items to quantities suited for home cooks. The chapters mirrored a season at the inn. Alongside the recipes, my mother drew illustrations in ink, the pages of the cookbook now her opera stage, the inn’s rise and fall of action, our family’s story. There is my dad plating poached eggs and corned beef hash for breakfast, my mom arranging iris and coral bells in vases, me with my chin propped on my hand, watching as a cook ladles blueberry jam into jars. Spring in the Garden commenced with Billi Bi, a mussel bisque, The Camden/Castine Yacht Race was epitomized by crabmeat cakes with mustard sauce. The Glory of September brought scalloped potatoes and baked Indian pudding, and finally, venison steak with game sauce and spaetzle to tuck into under the Hunter’s Moon.
On an evening in November, just after another season had ended, my dad sat me down. We lived in a house across the driveway by then, which is where we were when he told me he had news. Night falls early at that time of year in Maine. I looked out our living room windows through the dark, trying to decipher the familiar silhouette next door, but I couldn’t. Nor could I make sense of my dad’s words as they hung in the air. “We’ve sold the Castine Inn, and we’re moving—to Michigan.”
The following summer we would return to my father’s hometown. He would re-open the housewares store he’d owned before my parents embarked on their adventure east. No more living in the shadow of their work, no more panicking when a cook quit in August. My mother would have more time to paint. It would be better for all of us, they promised. But the inn was 13 and so was I. It was inconceivable to me that we could just leave it behind, and yet, all the beds in the 21 rooms, my mother’s mural, the garden, and the view of the harbor from the kitchen window stayed put. We moved on.
What we did take with us was a box that contained the last of the cookbook’s print run. It was shelved in the attic of our new house, along with the barbies I was too old to play with, but hadn’t been able to throw away. When I left for college a few years later, I took a copy with me, proof that the place where I was from existed in some material way beyond my memory. In my writing workshops, I wrote thinly veiled fiction about our family’s old life in Maine. The feedback I received was consistent: it all sounds very bucolic, but what does the character want? To me it was obvious: I wanted to go home, but no route could take me there.Not unlike the sailors who stumbled up to the inn hoping to find a vacant room, I was now the wanderer far from home.
By sophomore year I fell in with a group of friends who took turns cooking Sunday night dinner. In mid-October, as my slot approached, I pulled out Recipes from a Down East Inn. Until then, I hadn’t intended to cook from it. But there on page nine was a dish I’d ordered countless times: tomato bisque.
Worried my friends wouldn’t have enough to eat, I made a double batch. I had to scour several dorms to find pots big enough for the project, and as they boiled, I kept turning the flame down to keep the contents from overflowing. Cans of Budweiser clicked open around me, as I hopped from the counter to the stove, fretting over how to puree the soup without a food mill. But no one else seemed to care that it was chunkier than the version I remembered. The group swarmed in with mugs and spoons stolen from the dining hall. And then the common area fell quiet. A roomful of eyes looked up at me.
“How’d you do that?” someone asked. “Is there more?”
The pages of the cookbook that laid open on the counter got splattered with tomato juice, but I didn’t care. As I stood at the sink, washing off the cutting boards and tossing out onion skins, the boys I was too shy to talk to came over to the stove to scrape up the last spoonfuls. When I turned around, the pots were empty. Until I made the bisque myself, I couldn’t have told you why it had been my favorite dish on the inn’s menu. Now I knew: the key was a tablespoon each of caraway seeds and honey.
The next year, I studied abroad in India. During the days, I tried to wrap my head around grammar lessons in Hindi. At night, I came home to a language I understood: my homestay family fed me curried okra and endless stacks of chapati. Not unlike the sailors who stumbled up to the inn hoping to find a vacant room, I was now the wanderer far from home. I appreciated every measure the Mehtas took to make me feel welcome. In gratitude, I gave them a copy of the cookbook, a portal to my own geography. In the coming years, I would leave copies with a couple I met in France, a travel buddy who returned to Australia to settle down, a chef I interviewed whose intensity reminded me of my dad back when he cooked breakfast on the line. By then I was a long way from the tiny Maine peninsula I’d first known. Each copy of the cookbook I gave away felt like a seed I was planting with the hope it would one day yield a return.
As the remainder of the cookbook’s stock dwindled, I kept it alive by cooking from its pages. For my best friend’s 25th birthday, I referred to page 43 to bake a batch of chocolate walnut brownies. At the party, a colleague of hers grabbed me by the arm. “You have a gift,” she said, looking me deep in the eyes, as she reached for another. Really? I thought. All I’d done was follow a recipe.Maine is a vast state, with hundreds of small towns that are difficult to access along the jagged coastline.
When my roommate got married on her boyfriend’s roof in Williamsburg, I turned to page 13 to bake the chocolate souffle cake I remembered from the inn’s Tuesday night buffet. For a colleague’s birthday, our department transformed the conference table into a picnic, then I brought out the almond cake served with ladles of cherry sauce from page 73.
We’d been on three dates when the guy I was seeing texted me a picture of fried clams. Beyond the picnic table where he was about to dig in, I could make out familiar rapids. A chill ran up my arms just thinking of the shock that came with dipping a toe in that water. When he had mentioned he was driving from Brooklyn to his uncle’s cabin in Maine, I shared a list of favorite places from my childhood. Now he’d gotten away from his relatives for the afternoon to follow my directions to the Bagaduce Lunch. I stared back at those clams—a delicacy I hadn’t tasted myself in over 20 years—and knew I should have been moved. He liked me. Instead, I was overpowered by a longing I don’t think I’ll ever shake.
Before he left, I’d asked him where his relatives’ cabin was. He said he wasn’t quite sure, but it was on a lake. I left it at that. Usually when I ask people where they’re going, I’ve never heard of the place. Maine is a vast state, with hundreds of small towns that are difficult to access along the jagged coastline. Besides which, we didn’t vacation in the summer when I was a kid. During the inn’s peak season our fun was had closer to home, driving to the Bagaduce for clams, or dashing out to a nearby swimming hole on my dad’s break between cooking breakfast and helping the crew prep for dinner.
Back at his aunt and uncle’s that evening, he texted again. “Have you ever heard of Alamoosook Lake?” My heart clenched. I hadn’t put our swimming hole on my list of places to go.His aunt came back and shoved her favorite cookbook into his hands. The pages, just like my own, were splattered with years of use.
His aunt’s family had been summering there since she was a girl. When he returned from his fried clam expedition, she pressed him with questions. Where had he snuck off to? “No one knows the Bagaduce Lunch, how’d you find out about that place?” At last he confessed he’d been seeing a girl who grew up in Maine. That in fact her parents had owned an inn, and she was writing a book about it. His aunt’s eyes grew wide, then she ran into the kitchen. She came back and shoved her favorite cookbook into his hands. The pages, just like my own, were splattered with years of use.
When my mother sketched an illustration of me as an eight year old, balancing on the bow of a schooner, there was no way she could have predicted the woman I would become. That I would travel and write and have lovers. It’s been well over a decade since the last time I stopped in to see the inn. The mural still decorated the walls, but it wasn’t the same. In Brooklyn, I pull the cookbook off my shelf, and leaf through its pages. Every time one of my friends has a baby I deliver a batch of tomato bisque. It is as if I am opening the front door of the inn itself, welcoming in a new guest, and sharing the oldest comfort I know.
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