Archive for Wednesday, October 24, 2007

In seaport, diners connect with food

October 24, 2007


I had occasion last week to sample the local cuisine in Portland, Maine, a dining experience that may be described as seafood and more seafood.

Having spent most of my life in Kansas, I am always a bit startled to find saltwater fish and shellfish on my plate. Don't get me wrong; I like seafood. It's just that in Kansas, which is about as landlocked as a state can be, seafood is an import. It's almost foreign food.

People my age and older didn't grow up in Kansas eating saltwater fish, crustaceans or mollusks. Fish sticks and canned tuna were the closest many of us got to seafood during the 1950s and 1960s. With the exception of an occasional dinner on a family vacation, I didn't really have an opportunity to eat much seafood until I spent five years in California during the 1970s.

I quickly made up for lost time, though I never really made peace with oysters. But in all other things seafood, I have been an enduring fan.

Even so, when I'm planning a menu in Kansas, my thoughts don't automatically turn to seafood. It has only been 10 to 15 years that most large supermarkets in metropolitan areas of the Midwest have stocked saltwater fish and shell fish at all, much less offered inventory that is reasonably fresh. Nor have the aquariums displaying the kettle-bound crabs and lobsters been present in Kansas grocery stores for very long.

As a result of the long-standing availability problem, seafood is something of an acquired taste for many Midwest natives, and we simply aren't in the habit of buying it.

Being in a city like Portland, however, where I could smell the ocean even when I couldn't see it, eating seafood suddenly was my first thought. There, eating fish and shellfish is both part of the daily routine and an important aspect of the local culture, with deep ties to the city's history.

Sitting in a waterfront restaurant last week, eating the product of the same sea that lapped outside the door, reminded me of dining years ago at a steakhouse next to the Emporia livestock sale barn. There, visible through a plate glass window, had been lunch on the hoof.

Many of us, often the urbanites among us, live lives disengaged from the source of our food. Not so the patrons of that Emporia steak house - or the residents of Portland, Maine. Through proximity to the sea and the city's historical and economic ties to fishing, forgetting where food comes from is not an option for Portlanders. The place and seafood are one.

Portland's waterfront is refreshingly under-hyped. Although there are interesting shops nearby, the area doesn't exist to trap tourists. J's Oyster, a bar and restaurant located on the downtown pier, is a noisy dive full of colorful locals that serves good food in cramped quarters. A whole lobster is just 20 bucks.

I ordered the lobster Pernod, a liqueur-flavored pasta dish, which was billed as a customer favorite. Oddly, the food in this ragtag place was cheap but upscale.

The previous night, my group dined at a Mims Brasserie across the street from the waterfront. I had an excellent halibut steak topped with pesto and ground pecans. It was a simple but elegant dish that easily could be replicated at home.

The one thing missing, though, would be the ambience of the waterfront. That belongs to Portland.

When she's not writing about foods and gardening, Gwyn Mellinger is teaching journalism at Baker University.


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