As Ralph Waldo Emerson told us, “life is a journey, not a destination”—and if that journey takes you along the verdant, winding roads of Maine, chances are you’ll learn a lot without even realizing it. Maine chef Laura Cabot shares her story of finding her cooking inspiration in an unlikely place.
Here I am, a former city girl in my 50s, a “recovering restaurateur,” as I once told Tony Bourdain, living in Maine as the owner Laura Cabot Catering, a small but durable catering establishment rapidly approaching its 30th year in business. Learning catering was an offspring of my time at The Pine Cone Cafe, a destination fine-dining establishment on the Medomak River in Waldoboro, Maine. As its chef/owner for 23 years, I worked with local growers, farmers, and fishermen, sourcing everything locally and in season, putting us well ahead of the movement that would come to be called “farm to fork.” I attribute this sensibility to one exceptional woman: Flossie Jipson, my first Maine kitchen inspiration.
It took me some time to get to Maine. I started as a crunchy chick who opted out of college to learn specialty baking in a macrobiotic bakery in Philly. Before I knew it, at the tender age of 20, I owned the joint. My first business, the Grateful Bread (named on Jerry’s birthday), was a period piece: an organic bakery in 1970′s Germantown, and keeper of the holistic flame for several years in that community. It thrived until I began my love affair with the state of Maine.
Coincidentally, I’d met a guy at the age of 19 while traveling in Jamaica, a guy with a family farm in Pittsfield, Maine. Two farms, actually—and a dyed-in-the-wool Maine grandma named Flossie. Doug’s granddad had his own farm across the country road from Flossie. Yes, they were married because she got knocked up as a young woman, but they never cohabited. They just continued to live across the road from each other with their parents until their parents died and voila! Two farmhouses across the road from each other and a couple of aging cranky Mainers sharing a piece of breakfast pie and not much else.
Doug and I got engaged and decided to take the plunge into country life. We moved to central Maine and I began to learn about rural living. Doug’s grandpa, a former railroad worker, had passed, and we moved into his 1920s time capsule of a farmhouse. Nothing had changed, from the pressed back farm chairs to the harvest table, fancy black cookstove with the hungry woodbox to one side, old Ironstone china, and cast iron cookware.
I was especially enamored of the kitchens: a summer kitchen and a winter kitchen with no running water—a slate sink with a pump in the summer kitchen had to suffice during warmer weather. Lard buckets, pie safes, canned goods, and seriously old blue Mason jars stood in their places. Every single piece of an earlier American life was still there.
Summer was heady. I took to gardening like a hen to young beet greens. We made hay, gathered eggs, fed the horses, pulled carrots, pitched manure, and cooked in that wonderful airy kitchen. I’d never planted a seed and followed it through to the kitchen table. Or dug in the dirt (what! and break a nail?), cooked a vegetable fresh from the garden, seen a shell bean, picked wild Wolf River apples, or tasted a real carrot! It was an epiphany and I never lost that thread. This sensibility steered me through decades of restaurant ownership and kept me ahead of the culinary curve.
I learned that to get hot water in the kitchen in winter, I needed to go out into the “dooryard” and throw a bucket down the well to keep the tank attached to the wood stove full. I learned all the ins and outs of that fancy cookstove, all the nuances of a cast iron flattop, and the types of wood needed for certain dishes.
Flossie showed me her way of making applesauce one autumn morning, a task made more entertaining because she kept her oldest friend, a red hen, in a box by the stove in the kitchen during cold weather. So it was just us three that morning peeling apples, with the old red hen getting her share.
As the days grew shorter we pondered seed catalogs, already dreaming of the next season’s gardens. I rapidly realized that winter would be harsh. December rolled around and I found myself shivering under three hand-spun quilts, counting the frosty square head nails in the ceiling of the bedroom.
Two cold Maine winters killed my love affair with Doug, although we’re still friends. But nothing can ever take away the culinary horse sense and garden wisdom I gleaned from Flossie during my early years in a Maine country farmhouse. Even after receiving a culinary degree from La Varenne in a historic French chateau in Burgundy, I’ve still never found a better cooking experience than the one on the Square Road in Pittsfield, Maine.