One Night in Aroostook (And the World’s Your Oyster): Part I
I wasn’t entirely sure why I had the urge to drive North 300 miles to Eastern Aroostook County, the Northernmost county in the state and so-called “Crown of Maine.” I had this vague idea that I wanted Jillian to see “The Other Maine,” as it is called when some fringe group inevitably calls for the division of Maine into two states every five years or so, usually under such divisive issues as gay marriage and abortion, under the basic premise that anyone elected to govern lefty, liberal Southern Maine couldn’t possibly comprehend the needs of anyone living North of the West-East Potato Line, and vice-versa. I hadn’t been up to “The County” myself in about seventeen years, when my well-intentioned mother sent a blue-haired teenage version of myself up to buy a dog from a breeder in Caribou, a four-hour trip riddled with more strange stares than I had experienced either before or since, where every stop at a gas station for a cream horn made me feel like I had just arrived from another planet.
I was anxious for Jillian to experience this version of Maine, to see that, in fact, the state is MOSTLY trees and potato farms. Why, there aren’t even major roads through most of the Western side of Aroostook, where town names give way to cryptic designations like “R5-D17.” For all of Maine’s beauty, for as many lighthouses and lobster buoys there are, that many consider iconic emblems of the state, there is, quite simply, a whole lot more STATE up there. Maine isn’t Portland, not really, and it isn’t Brunswick, the Midcoast, or any of the places with which I am so familiar. For us to really begin to understand Maine, we have to see all of Maine; the parts you have to drive through an hour of pine trees to get to, the parts where the potato farms outnumber the people, and the parts where you’re a stone’s throw from Canada, and where everyone speaks French.
Jillian: I feel the need to interrupt, here. The first time I came to Maine, we only went as far as the Mid-Coast. We were in college, visiting Malcolm’s brother, and it’s possible I looked a little peculiar. Hair in Princess Leia buns, a short black coat with a Fraggle-blue collar, a flame-embellished skirt over jeans, and lots of silver jewelry, I maybe wasn’t blending as I thought I did. I caught strangers staring openly at the Pikwik and the Navigator. I am obviously much older now, and completely mature. I don’t draw attention to myself with ostentatious dress or accesories. I’ve become ladylike and demur. We still managed to attract attention, as we delved further into the North. We were totally polite, ingratiating, and quiet, and yet, when we walked in to the convenience store inquiring about an ATM, the clerk regarded us with, I wouldn’t call it withering disdain, but like we asked her where we could find the gay marriage and caviar store. I left unfazed but perplexed. I have lived in Maine a whole year, lady! I am no longer an oddity! Still, I was happy to be a tourist in the wilder portion of my new state. It is wide open and beautiful in autumn, though strange and spooky and somehow haunted, where the barns are falling down and potato fields reach across miles to mountain horizons. It seems like the end of the line.
Because there was really nothing to shape this trip, I called on our Facebook and Twitter followers to help guide our journey. They provided almost our entire eating itinerary, providing us with some great tips on where to stop, and what to see. We didn’t get to as many places as we would have liked, due mainly to the fact that I ate gravy at every meal and was usually stuffed for hours on end. With that said, here’s the first round of some of our favorite places to eat outside of “America’s Foodiest Small Town.”
When we lived in Mexico, I would spend the hottest days wearing a sweater in the air conditioning, thinking cool thoughts as I perused Dysart’s online menu. Located just outside of Bangor in Penobscot County, Dysart’s is something of a Maine institution, serving home cooked truck-stop food since 1967, when founder Dave Dysart designed the restaurant’s first menu around his memories of the best foods he’d ever eaten at Northern Maine logging camps. The menu reads like an ode to the red-suspendered set, with big plates of pot roast, dinner rolls the size of your fist, platters of crusty homemade corned beef hash with runny eggs, all fueled by unlimited cups of thin coffee served in thick, bottomless mugs. Everything is light on seasoning, and leans toward stick-to-your-ribs, comforting classics.
I tried a bowl of Dysart’s yellow-eyed baked beans with baked ham ($10.99), a dish so popular that Dysart’s goes through over 4 tons of the beans per year. I was astonished by the pile of food placed in front of me; a huge, thick slab of ham, compete with an anemic-looking slice of canned pineapple on top, a big bowl of creamy, classically Maine coleslaw, and a cup of beans. The ham was fine, if a little boring; I chose to focus much more closely on the beans, a thick, warm, not-too-sweet bowl of pure happiness. Dabbed with a little ketchup, I finished the bowl immediately and, ignoring the menu’s request that I “ask for more if [I was] still hungry,” swiped a huge buttered dinner roll through the remaining liquid in the bowl.
Jillian opted for the “Grand Gobbler” sandwich ($7.99), a huge platter that celebrated all that is starchy, refined, and processed. Thick slices of white bread hid piles of sliced, roasted turkey and stuffing, with a paper cup of cranberry sauce on the side. One taste, and I regretted my order immediately; the assembly of her ingredients told me that the Hot Roast Beef Sandwich was the way to go at Dysart’s, and I kicked myself for mis-ordering for the rest of the day. This was a mistake I would not make the next day; stay tuned.
Jillian: Sorry, but I have to interject, again. You are correct, in the sense that my order was perfect. It is my new goal in life to make the perfect food order for the particular dining establishment I’m in. When in Dysart’s, “Get the Gravy” is practically stamped on the walls and the aprons of the surly waitresses. Breakfast at a truck stop is classic, practically cliched, almost amateurish. A good, greasy burger is too ubiquitous; I paused here but kept thinking. And obviously, no one is here for the salad. As I am not a fan of bottomless beans or roast beef, I found what made the most sense for the environment without stepping outside my personal taste. Stuffing is maybe, secretly, my favorite thing in the world. And stuffing crammed between bread, making sweet carb-on-carb love, is almost too sensual to be true. The turkey, to me, is just gravy. Alas, there was no actual gravy. The Grand Gobbler is not a hot turkey sandwich, no sir. The turkey is cold. Let me say it again, THE TURKEY IS COLD. And herein lies its genius. Hot (well, warmish) stuffing, cold turkey, mayo, cranberry jelly, on white bread, the whitest bread I’ve ever seen: thick, soft and bearing very little resembance to actual wheat, from which it must have, once, very long ago, I can only assume been. It’s a sandwich a person would actually compile at midnight, hours after the holiday meal. The stuffing gets zapped in the microwave but you get impatient and slap the turkey on, straight outta the fridge. I ate it all up, peering under turkey stragglers on my plate for any last remaining bits o’ wonderful, moist, pablumish stuffing.
There’s something about being on the road, even an hour from home, that makes you crave a place like Dysart’s. At any other opportunity, you might well turn your nose up at the short-tempered waitstaff, or at the communal seating, tables filled with fellow travelers, on the road to somewhere, making a quick stop for classic Maine food. Ultimately, you don’t come to Dysart’s because you’re craving a culinary experience; you visit because you want to feel, just for a few moments, like you’re among friends and family. Dysart’s makes you feel not like you’ve been driving for hours, but like you’re sitting around the family dinner table. It’s a welcome relief.