Today’s sandwich is the cheeseburger from the ‘Keag Store in South Thomaston. Ours was topped with griddled onions, iceberg lettuce, ketchup, and mustard.
Location: 4 Elm Street, South Thomaston
Notes: It dawns on me that I haven’t visited the ‘Keag Store (pronounced “Gig,” as a helpful note on the sign explains) since 1986. The last time I was at the small store, it was to play a stand-up arcade version of the Nintendo Entertainment System, the kind of machine where you pumped quarters into the coin slot, to feed a timer that would allow limited play of the same games we were playing in our living rooms, only for money and without the benefit of being able to save your game. Located on the Weskeag River in South Thomaston, where Route 73 curves at 90 degrees to lead back to Rockland’s South End, the ‘Keag is the kind of classic Maine corner store that people like Linda Bean try relentlessly to copy and commodify, the kind of place with a few tables scattered among some basic grocery staples, where regulars eat big plates of lasagna with sliced white bread and tap rubber booted-feet on the store’s wooden floor.
The menu includes sandwiches, a wide range of homecooked specialties, such as beefy chili and baked macaroni & cheese. There’s also an entire section of the menu that leans heavily on the store’s busy deep fryer, including french fries, chicken strips, as well as jalapeno poppers (!) and egg rolls (!!). Though the store continues to draw acclaim for their lobster rolls, served somewhat non-traditionally on a toasted round hamburger bun, I decided to break my long absence from the ‘Keag with an old fashioned cheeseburger, with a 59 cent beef jerky stick and a cold Moxie while I waited.
After just a few minutes, my burger and chips appeared, served on a blue tin plate. It was pretty standard-issue stuff: a frozen pre-formed hamburger patty that was a little too firm, even after a thorough flipping on the griddle, the grilled onions contributing some additional flavor, the white American cheese melting over the sides, and the iceberg lending the requisite crunch. It wasn’t an award-winning burger, but at $2.75 for a large, quarter-pound cheeseburger, it was hard to find fault with. I’d certainly eat it again before I went to Burger King.
The cheeseburger was just fine. But the real pleasure derived from lunch at the ‘Keag comes from what happens in the few minutes you have to soak up the atmosphere before your lunch arrives. In the span of the five minutes I waited, I got to walk across the street to look out at lobster boats on the water while using a portable toilet, got to puzzle over the merits of the ‘Keag’s homemade American Chop Suey, marveled over the continued existence of Chef Boyardee boxed “Pizza Dinner Kit,” got to snack on some loose beef jerky, and got to hear one of the regular customers loudly and good-naturedly ask one of the kitchen staff, in a thick Maine accent, if she thought her bad attitude might be due, in part, to the timing of her monthly cycle. At its best, lunch at the ‘Keag offers a glimpse into the lives of the people who work and eat there. I left smiling, satisfied, and down less than five bucks. And if that’s not what lunchtime in Maine is all about, then I’m not sure what is.