My Grammie was from Bingham, Maine, a small rural town with a current population of well under 1000 people, that prides itself on being the midway point between the North Pole and the Equator. Like many parts of Maine in the “olden days”, Bingham was a logging town and most of my male relatives worked in this industry. Like all children in the area, my Grammie was educated in a one-room schoolhouse that still stands today.
My grandmother put the home in home-maker! She could turn any room into a piece of art that should have been featured in magazines. She designed, upholstered, stenciled, painted (beautiful scenery), worked with tin and she always knew exactly which couch pillows would tie the entire room together.
Grammie was a staunch Democrat and was never shy about voicing her political views. Once the discussion of immigration came up and she told me about a sheep-herder relative of ours who came over as a stowaway on a ship that landed in Canada. She explained how he studied as an apprentice in the pharmaceutical industry and without proper paperwork simply slipped into Maine. “So our family has no business telling others they can’t come”, she told me.
She was also extremely proud of her Maine heritage and there was no taking the Maine out of my Grammie. With her lively Maine accent, she once gave me directions by telling me to make a right where “the big pine tree used to be”. She and my grandfather knew every dirt road in the entirety of Somerset County. In the evenings they enjoyed going for a drive and purposely getting lost, exploring every nook and cranny of their world.
On May 31, 2018 my Grammie died in a nursing home in Bingham, just down the street from everything she had known for her 96 years, from the house she grew up in, to the scenic Kennebec River to the Thompsons restaurant, which changed ownership more times than she could count. I am saddened to think that I won’t get to see her again, but I take comfort in the thought that she is once again exploring those mysterious back roads with my grandfather.
I found myself needing to take part in some sort of memorial to her and so I decided to make an “ofrenda”, which is a Mexican tradition during the Day of the Dead, where relatives make the deceased’s favorite foods. Being that she loved Maine so much and grew up with so many traditional Maine dishes, I thought I would try my hand at making some of these for her.
There are many meals that I remember only having when I went to Maine as a child, such as brown bread and baked beans. I also remember learning about Italian sandwiches and of course enjoyed the fresh blueberries when visiting my grandparents in August. I was delighted to find that all of these dishes I had come to be associated with Maine were either already vegan or could easily be made so.
One of the neatest dishes I ate in Maine was brown bread. But this wasn’t just any brown bread – this was round and had a distinctive molasses flavor to it. I discovered that this bread had a long history in Maine and was influenced by Indigenous groups who had also shared the Maine woods. This brown bread includes 3 types of flour: wheat, rye and corn.
The most interesting part of the bread is how you make it, which explains the roundness of the loaf. It is baked in a can (I used a coffee can) that is sealed with tin foil and twine at the top. The can sits in a bath of boiling water in the oven for 2 hours.
Since the only non-vegan ingredients in the traditional recipes were butter and milk, it was very easy to replace with vegan butter and almond milk.
An unexpected turn in the making of this recipe was that the coffee can I used had a lip at the top making it impossible to get the bread out. After brainstorming different ways of getting the bread out, I decided to open the bottom of the can with a can opener and the bread slid right out.
I was most excited about making this recipe because I got to use my antique iron caste skillet, that usually only decorates the wall in my kitchen. Traditionally, Maine baked beans are made with pork but it’s easy to make it cruelty-free by simply omitting it. I used this vegetarian recipe and substituted vegan butter when it called for butter.
One thing I was not anticipating with this recipe is how difficult it might be to cover my cast iron skillet and move it to the oven without spilling any of the flavorful broth. After several attempts (and a few cleanups), I ended up placing a metal baking tray in the oven, then covered the skillet with tin foil before carefully transferring it to the oven.
Three hours later, when I opened the oven to check on the beans, out poured this incredible instantly-recognizable aroma from my childhood, filling the whole house with memories of summers in Maine.
While the rest of the states argue over whether subs are called hoagies or grinders, Maine quietly calls them Italian Sandwiches, which, I must admit, does give the best explanation for what they actually are: long bread rolls filled with meats, cheeses and veggies. Talk about an easy dish to make vegan! You can use vegan lunch meats, vegan cheese and lots of great vegetables, like greenpeppers, tomatoes, sliced onions (white or red), lettuce, cucumbers, black olives and anything else you enjoy in a sandwich. Add some salt and pepper, oregano and some olive oil and you are good to go. Be sure to have a napkin nearby as eating can get messy!
As a child growing up vegetarian, we always ate Italian sandwiches with cheese, so when I make mine as a vegan adult, I simply use Chao or Follow Your Heart vegan cheese slices and all my favorite veggies. For me, it’s the quality of the bread and the olive oil that made this dish spectacular!
I thought long and hard about what dish to use the blueberries in. I could have made blueberry pancakes or a blueberry pie or so many other dessert treats. As my thoughts wandered to my childhood summers when I happily picked fresh blueberries around the shores of Lake Embden with my sister, only some of them actually making it into the bowl we were given to collect them in, I decided to just enjoy the blueberries the way I remember them with my Grammie – just the way they are.
The making of these dishes served as a memorial to my Grammie and I found my mind being flooded with memories. For example, as I poured the molasses into the bread mixture, I remembered my grandmother referring to someone moving slowly, being “slower than molasses in January”.
Grammie, I love you and hope you find happiness and peace in the afterlife. Thank you so much for all the wonderful memories and for being such a big part of my life. If I ever want to visit you, I know exactly where to go to feel your presence. Of course if you gave me directions, you would start with, “You can’t get there from here, don’t ya know”.