A couple months ago, back when I was kicking around ideas for this blog, I went on vacation with my family in Maine. Two dinners we ate at two very different restaurants point to ways the local foods movement is currently being carried out in new and old ways.
1. Flatbread Company, Somerville, MA
This former candlepin bowling alley, now pizza restaurant/candlepin bowling alley was described to us by our friend as "Hipster pizza with bowling. But really good!" The refurbished space was bright, inviting, and decorated with fanciful drawings on chalkboards that listed the names and locations of farms that supplied key pizza ingredients such as goat cheese and "nitrates free pepperoni." The ingredients for pizza were super-fresh since they hadn't travelled far, and we could find the place where they originated, most in Massachusetts, a few in Vermont and New Hampshire, but few ingredients besides the olive oil that came from more than 100 miles away.
Restaurants that showcase local ingredients are the exception rather than the norm in most places, but a pizza restaurant seems like a smart way to begin. There aren't too many ingredients for pizza--though the menu did feature a number of local cheeses and free-range, chemical free meats. And pizza is something most everyone enjoys, so it's hard to claim that this type of local foods eatery is only for an elite class who can afford such things. There were, however, hipsters drinking microbrews. But such is to be expected in Davis Square.
It made me envision a day when ingredients' origins might be listed on a menu much the way calorie counts are required to be on fast food and other menus. Visiting McDonald's or Denny's or the local bistro we could see how much of the meal came from California, Chile, or Argentina or our own back yards and make more informed choices.
2. Shaw's Fish and Lobster Wharf, New Harbor, ME
I have been going to Shaw's since I was a kid and it was called Small's. It's located in the small fishing town of New Harbor, a working fish and lobster village wrapped around a small inlet up the coast from Pemaquid Point. From the deck you can look out to Muscongus bay and see Monhegan Island, a view I never get tired of revisiting.
When we went to dinner here with some friends who were visiting us for a few days, our 5 year old had his first taste of lobster. "What are you eating?" he had asked our friend L. "I'm having a lobster," she said. "I want lobster," he immediately replied. We explained that he could have a lobster roll, but it would be too tricky to eat a whole lobster himself since you have to break open the shell. Neither my wife nor I eat shellfish, but Boog had tried shrimp before and liked it and wanted his own lobster. When our friend's lobster came, bright red, resplendent with claws and antennae stretched out, Boog was fascinated. He'd only experienced lobster in the grocery store tank where he'd waved hello to the creatures crawling on top of one another, claws sealed by yellow rubber bands.
"He doesn't talk," Boog remarked as L. took apart the lobster claws. He seemed genuinely puzzled that the animal wasn't alive anymore. "Can you eat the eyes?' he said, poking a black eyeball.
"Actually, you can," our friend said. "It's bitter, so not a lot of people eat it, but it's edible. I was in Japan recently and my Japanese friend ate a whole lobster--head, eyes, brains, guts, everything."
Earlier that day we had watched lobstermen in the harbor pulling traps. "Do you remember those guys we saw getting the lobster out of the water?" we ask Boog. "Well, that lobster you're eating came right out of the water down there." What better time and place, I thought, to begin a local foods education than at Shaws?
There were no organic ingredients at Shaws, and there was certainly beef, chicken, and other ingredients that did not come from Maine on the menu. But mostly people come to Shaws for an intensely local experience--to breathe in this salt air, sit on this one deck, and eat the local lobster, fish, and some of the best chowder on the Maine coast. It's this kind of local foods restaurant based around a product that can be found best in that one place that suggests a different kind of local eating experience. One where there may be many kinds of people--locals, tourists, families, though fewer hipsters--and no need for a chalkboard listing the origins of the main ingredients.