I live in a typical little coastal village in eastern Maine — although ‘typical’ depends on one’s perspective. We live amidst achingly beautiful scenery, made only more beautiful by the clear light refracted from the ocean. We have little white houses, and we have big white houses.
We have people and institutions: Lobstermen. Carpenters. Internet tycoons. Media personalities. Doctors. Lawyers. And maybe even Indian Chiefs. A woman who has legally changed her name to Jesus A. Christ. World famous musicians. Saturday night contra dances at the town hall. A Pentecostal Church, an Episcopal Church, and everything in between. We have an extraordinary library whose shelves hold the works of scores of writers who have lived here. We have boats: Shabby dorys. Fishing boats (fewer every year). Sleek yachts (more every year).
I could go on, but you get the idea. We may look typical, we’re not. We dress in L.L. Bean drag against the harsh realities of our weather, and even in summer parties up here might not make the Sartorialist, but at dinner you are just as likely to be seated next to someone back from a diplomatic mission to Istanbul, or an editor at a renowned literary magazine as that lobsterman — who in turn might be the son of a famous poet, or the carpenter, who might also be a Juilliard trained musician. You might even sit next to me.
We also have artists, and world class cooks. Over the next few months, I’m going to mention a few of each. Today’s post is a tale that combines the two.
In the 1940s, architect Benjamin Thompson, as a young member of The Architect’s Collaborative, was in the area working with Walter Gropius on a project for international affairs specialist Arnold Wolfers. Thompson’s mother Lynne, a Midwesterner gone New York, was looking for a quiet place to write and came up to have a look, and stayed.
Soon, she and her partner Dorothy Heywood, heiress to the Chester Shoe Company, had purchased a traditional French style manor house along the shore, at happily depressed post-war prices. They had Thompson’s son Ben, not yet the famous architect he would become, remodel the house, until it was no longer traditional or French. Mrs. Heywood had worked for the Betty Parsons gallery, and she and Mrs. Thompson had assembled a fine collection of modern art, including works by Picasso, Rothko, Motherwell, and Klee.
The two women had big ideas, and a desire to do good in the community. Mrs. Heywood bought into Rowantrees Pottery, a well known crafts organization that had been started by Adelaide Pearson during the Depression to boost the local economy. Thinking beyond our borders, Mrs. Heywood opened a Rowantrees showroom in New York, also probably designed by Mrs. Thompson’s son.
Thompson & Heywood, as they were known in town, offered to show their collection of modern art at the library as a fundraiser the likes of which the town had never seen. To temper the radical art, home-baked blueberry pies were offered as refreshment, lest the sight of all that modern art offend too many. Mrs. Thompson was an enterprising sort, and decided that it would be jolly if she were to air-freight one of the pies to Picasso (‘a rising Spanish artist who is becoming well known’) in France, that he might partake of it even as one of his works was being unveiled in little Blue Hill, Maine.
History doesn’t record if he did so (and trust me, idle curiosity has led me to check the index of more than one Picasso biography), or if the pie, more likely, arrived smashed and runny, but one is amused to ponder Picasso’s reaction.
The show was controversial — our little equivalent of the 1913 Armory Show (there tends to be a time lag up here) — and a huge success. So were the pies. Emboldened by their adventure, Thompson and Heywood decided to start a business — the Rowantrees venture in New York had already folded — one that would combine art and food, as their fund raising exhibit had.
They bought an old storefront on the village Main street, and added to it one of the most radical buildings of its day in Maine. It was designed by Cooper Milliken and known as The Pavilion, giving yet another aesthetic jolt to a village heretofore known best for its simple 19th century white houses. Neither woman cooked, but Thompson learned, and took to it as a duck to water.
Whether they made money, ever, is doubtful, but their restaurant was a critical success, and everyone came, even the New York Times. I remember the place well from childhood — it was like catnip to me, so exotic and unlike anything else in our world.
I remember the scent of the exposed wooden rafters, cool slate floors, a wall of glass overlooking the harbor, the wildly distorted slopes of the walls, the smells of good food, the paper shades hanging from the ceiling the big handmade jewelry worn by the owners.
Only later did I learn that those shades were by Noguchi, and came from Design Research, the famous home design business started in 1955 by Lynn’s architect son, or that the very plates on which one took afternoon tea of lemon cakes were from Denmark. The art was modern, consigned from the Metropolitan Gallery in New York, the sleek home furnishings for sale were consigned from Design Research, and all of it was unlike anything sold up here before.
All good things come to an end, and by the 1960s Thompson and Heywood, exhausted, wound down the business, and in their seventies, moved to Cambridge, leaving only one local restaurant, the TA-CO (after Theodore, Alton, Cynthia, and Olive, the owners) with its baked bean Saturdays, the Drugstore lunch counter, and the Barnacle lobster shack as dining venues. All three are still missed by those old enough to remember.
The story would end here, except that in 1965, Thompson penned a slender cookbook and memoir of the adventure, a marvelous little slice of mid-century style, Picasso & Pie.
In it she chronicled their times in the restaurant trade, their big adventure in bringing the new to Down East Maine, and most of all their recipes, many now delightedly dated, and adapted for the limited and simple ingredients.
They are based on many sources from old Maine & mid-western favorites to then modern cuisine and range accordingly from simple to sophisticated, and are still delicious. It is impossible for me to be objective — maybe it’s a terrible cookbook (I don’t think so) — but it’s a slice of my childhood preserved, and I love it. Copies often show up on eBay, and to my surprise, one was on Amazon recently for $90.00.
There’s much more to this tale, including the amazing building and the Design Research connection, and you can read about it here in an article I wrote for the current issue of Portland Magazine. Should it be inexplicably unavailable at the local news stands in Kansas, the article can be accessed online by clicking HERE.
We’ll go out with a some recipes from Picasso & Pie (c) 1969, (Price Stern, Sloan, Publishers). Remember, they’re from the fifties. I take no responsibility for reactions from food snobs:
2.5 quarts water
Thin cut peel of one lemon
Small amount of tangerine rind
Small stick cinnamon
½ cup sugar
4 cups blueberries
2 tbs. cornstarch
Simmer the blueberries, lemon rind and tangerine rind in the 2 ½ quarts of water until the berries are soft.
Strain and put the berries through a sieve or puree them finely in a blender. Return to strained juice. Mix the 2 tablespoons of cornstarch in about 1/2 cup of water and add to mixture.
Simmer 5 minutes.
Chill to iciness and serve with whipped cream which has been sweetened to taste. Dust the cream lightly with cinnamon.
Note: This Ambrosia belongs to the scandinavian Fruit-Soup family and can be made from several varieties of fresh, canned or frozen berries. Naturally the amount of sugar added will depend whether or not the fruit base has been pre-sweetened. Freezes and keeps.
Serves 20 — when served from a punch bowl in small cups. As cold soup, serves. 20.
CHAMPIGNONS FLAMBEES (Burnt Mushrooms)
1 lb. mushroom caps
6 tbs. butter
1 cup sherry
2 tbs. brandy (or a little more)
¼ cup heavy cream (a little more)
Season carefully, washed and trimmed mushrooms, with plenty of salt.
Saute in a chafing dish in butter until brown.
Pour in Sherry and simmer until nearly dry.
Pour brandy over mushrooms and light.
When flame has gone out, stir in cream.
Serve with a green salad.
Note: If sherry does not cook down fast enough, pour off, and add again after brandy has burned off. Serves four.
COUNTRY WEDDING CAKE
(Recipe from Mrs. Lawrence Pickerin, Deer Isle, Maine). To our way of thinking, the best and most satisfactory cake we have ever tasted IN OUR WHOLE LIVES!)
1 ½ cups sugar
¾ cup shortening (1/2 cup better and ½ cup vegetable shortening A MUST1)
2 ¾ cups cake flour
2 ¾ tsp. baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
1 tsp. vanilla
½ teaspoon lemon extract (more if your extract is old)
Add sugar slowly, and beat until light.
Add sifted dry ingredients alternately with milk starting with flour and ending with flour. (the hard and fast rule here is that you add one-third of your dry or your liquid each time, mixing just enough to moisten before the next addition).
Mix as little as possible.
Bake in a tube pan for about an hour.
Oven set at 350 degrees.
Or, this recipe fills two ½ lb. pans.
Cool on rack, and powder with powdered sugar.
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