The Maine Attraction: Getting a Taste of the Chellie Pingree Experience
ROCKLAND, Maine — Once aboard the boat that will speed us to North Haven, a Connecticut man opens up about his affinity for the Pine Tree State.
“It’s just waves and rocks and sky. It’s very relaxing after a year of work,” he said of his annual sojourn north.
A Camden, Maine, resident relates how he and his wife make their way across the white-capped expanse for dinner at least once each summer; he hopes to spend a night at Nebo Lodge sometime in order to take the full measure of the island.
So go the conversations aboard the Equinox, the privately owned boat tasked with moving mainlanders across the 12 miles of open water that separates Maine Democrat Chellie Pingree’s dining empire from the contiguous United States.
Equinox Captain John Morin calculates he’s transported some 2,200 people to North Haven over the course of this summer. And he loves to educate them about how their patronage benefits the community at large.
“You are supporting a revitalization of what once was,” he proclaims, before allowing travelers to disembark. Morin notes, “Vinalhaven got rocks, so they quarried and fished,” while North Haven had rich soil, so they planted. He also praises the opportunity Nebo affords local youth, hailing the restaurant as the second largest employer on the island “after the schools.”
Navigating one’s way from the harbor to the lodge is a fairly simple, if not entirely self-explanatory affair. You cut through the marina lot. Hang a left at the postage stamp-sized post office. Turn right just after passing the clapboard-sided American Legion hall. Then hike up a short hill until the light-festooned porch emerges from the surrounding foliage.
Inside, guests are ushered to tables outfitted with fresh flowers and mix-and-match place settings. The walls and ceiling are wrapped in gleaming wood. A dormant fireplace promises toasty nights come fall.
Young women — some opting for the comfort of Toms, faded jeans and colored T-shirts, while others sport ruffled blouses, knee-length skirts and scuffed loafers — flitter about tending to everyone’s needs. One server confirms she’s an educator moonlighting during the break. (“When you live here, you wear many hats,” the graduate student said.)
Everyone appears to be all smiles, from the mother-daughter two-top who appear to be doing some much-needed catching up to the foursome of gift-toting ladies raring to have some fun.
“This is so tacky,” one overly enthusiastic partygoer declares once the bubbly starts flowing. “But I wanna try . . .” she says as she leans toward the birthday gal, “a selfie!”
The excitement only increases once dishes begin to arrive.
Watermelon slices draped in roasted peppers and dotted with lime-cilantro vinaigrette is the embodiment of freshness. The pickled fruit is sweet and sour, the ringlets of fired poblanos plenty meaty. Crumbled goat cheese adds tang and creamy richness to the toothsome composition.
Crostini gets an intoxicating makeover courtesy of delectable fungi and distilled spirits. The grilled bread is smothered with big, fleshy mushrooms (foraged on the mainland “where they have hardwoods,” my server noted) rendered absolutely irresistible by a soak in a heavy cream sauce spiked with cayenne, cognac and white wine. Minced garlic adds piquancy to the broth, while fresh parsley injects some bitterness.
“Do I get a bib or not?” a neighbor jokingly (we think) inquires after her lobster Bohemienne is presented.
That lady was on to something.
The lobster feast (one of head cook Amanda Hallowell’s favorites) features pre-cracked claws and tails coated in a sauce reminiscent of the mushroom bath. Except shells don’t absorb liquid. So the cream-based lacquer increases the difficulty of handling the already slick lobster parts (and probability of inadvertently wearing home a clump of herbs or some stray onion). Once you’re through, though, the underlying meat is blissfully sweet and succulent.
“All the ingredients were just so . . . fresh,” announced one happy camper as she exited the restaurant.
“I’m so full, I think the boat might sink,” quipped her packed-to-the-gills spouse.
“There used to be a huge mink farm on the island. So there’s quite a few left,” the shuttle bus driver says after a jet-black runaway slinks across the roadway on the drive to the Turner Farm.
The property lies some three miles to the northeast of Nebo Lodge. It’s not a particularly long trip (15 minutes, tops). But on an island inherently devoid of human congestion, it’s fun to scour the ruggedly beautiful landscape for signs of additional life.
As the van wends its way toward the stately looking barn, the breadth of Pingree’s ecological vision comes into sharper focus.
“We give people a chance to see everything that we do,” Pingree said, encouraging everyone who steps foot on Turner Farm “to really go behind the scenes and see the animals and the vegetables in the field, and ask questions from the people who grow them.”
Farm manager Brenna Chase greets us as soon as we arrive. Giving everyone the lay of the surrounding land, she invites us all to stroll the grounds while staff put the finishing touches on the cocktail service and hors d’oeuvres.
A few of us wander off to take a gander at what’s growing in the wood-fired hothouses. Others, perhaps less inclined to regularly commune with nature, glean a thing or two.
“I didn’t realize they really did that,” one urban dweller said after hearing the pigs noisily grunting as they nosed the clay-like earth in search of food.
Once the barn doors slid open, servers streamed out hoisting aloft trays dotted with caramel-colored libations.
The boozy welcome featured Jim Beam rye doctored with local syrup and garnished with a lemon twist. “A spring product, but it smells like fall,” Hallowell later explained about the maple syrup used to sweeten the homespun old fashioned.
Freshly shucked local oysters (“as the crow flies, maybe half a mile,” one server said of the distance the locally cultured shellfish had traveled to be there) whet the appetite. The terrifically briny specimens were well complemented by a bracing red onion-shallot-champagne vinegar mignonette.
Pingree and her husband, S. Donald Sussman showed up, with friends in tow, a short while later. “I love the barn suppers and try to attend when I am home,” Pingree said of her penchant for the “special occasion” dinners.
Once seated, Pingree and Hallowell took turns thanking everyone for joining them, making a point of highlighting the fact that everything we would soon be savoring sprung into existence mere steps from the doorway.