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September 14, 2009

Maine Fare: “Telling the Maine Food Story”

Maine Fare discussion panels held on Sunday at the Knox Mill in Camden were dynamic. The panel entitled “Telling the Maine Food Story” was moderated by Don Lindgren of Rabelais Books in Portland. Panelists included Nancy Harmon Jenkins, food writer, author and journalist; Peter Smith, photographer and author, Portland Psst!; Merrill Williams, editor and publisher of Maine Food & Lifestyle magazine; Margaret Hathaway, goat farmer and author of The Year of the Goat and Living With Goats. Discussion centered around Maine writers’ roles in moving the food agenda forward, both nationally and within Maine.

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L to R: Margaret Hathaway, Nancy Harmon Jenkins, Merrill Williams, Peter Smith, Don Lindgren

Themes included: What is unique about Maine’s food scene? How do publishers and writers decide what to cover? What are the most important issues facing Maine’s sustainable agriculture? How can writers make a difference in the movement?

Lindgren started off by discussing all the media available today to convey a story: traditional book form, cookbooks, magazine news, and of course, the electronic media. Nancy Harmon Jenkins talked about starting out as an archaeology writer, sliding in the back door of food writing by living part time in Maine and part time in Italy. A native Mainer, Jenkins says, “Food in Maine is endlessly fascinating.”

Merrill Williams discussed being in California with West Coast chefs before moving to Maine. When beginning her magazine, people asked her what she’d do after talking about the two Maine foods–blueberries and lobster. Her mission: to connect readers to the people who produce the food we eat. “We put a face to the food source, develop a connection, and delve into the back story.” The debate with the health issue/food industry, which Michael Pollan has helped open up discussion for, is a national problem. “Until we tackle food problems, we can’t resolve national health. Solutions to the problems we face are right down the street from where we live,” Williams says.

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Peter Smith discussed his parents owning a food co-op during what he calls “the hippy organic movement.” He is fascinated by the way food is politicized and in studying food as a counterculture. “Food is a great way to tell a story,” he says.

The Big Story (Lobster), as Nancy Harmon Jenkins discussed, is critical on a local but also a national level. The problems Maine faces are problems the nation as a whole faces with food: rural, political, environmental, and financial.

Margaret Hathaway talked about sustainability, slowing down, and getting closer to the food, of which there is a rich tradition in Maine. “Maine” as a brand has increasing viability, she states.

Don Lindgren concluded by saying vital information to the food consumer is missing, on different levels, and food writers can play a vital role in that education and promotion of Maine as a region. Regionality in telling the Maine food story can be an impediment but also a powerful platform. Jenkins said one of the problems with Maine food writing is falling into the trap of romanticizing Maine.

Continuing more farm-to-table writing is important. “Even in cities in Maine, there is access to farming and fishing and a strong legacy of valuing those industries,” says Smith.

“Maine has the oldest and largest organic farming and gardening organization in the country. MOFGA is all about making a living off the land and making that connection,” says Jenkins.

One thing is for certain. You don’t have to go far in Maine for a great food story.

Melanie Hyatt is the editor of Maine Food & Lifestyle and the Plating Up blog.

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