Portland exhibit celebrates Maine's food identity, traditions, culture

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PORTLAND — A new exhibit at the Maine Historical Society tells the story of Maine foods, from blueberries to lobster to whoopie pies and everything in between.

Maine Eats” opens Friday, March 2, and will rely on historical and contemporary stories of individuals and communities to answer the question: “Why are we so passionate about what we eat?”

“The food we eat shapes our lives and identities, and everybody eats,” curator Tilly Laskey said, “which makes this exhibition immediately relevant to everyone.”

She also noted “Maine has a unique landscape for food, (including) the long coastline and rivers (that) provide fish and seafood, fertile farmland, and the woods for foraging and hunting.”

The opening of “Maine Eats” coincides with the annual Maine Restaurant Week celebration and is also “a statewide initiative designed to bring the topics and issues surrounding food to the forefront,” according to a Maine Historical Society press release.

“Maine’s identity and economy are inextricably linked to food. Sourcing food, preparing food, and eating food are all part of the heartbeat of Maine’s culture and economy,” the press release adds.

“Now, a food revolution is taking us back to our roots in Maine: to the traditional sources, preparation, and pleasures of eating food that have sustained Mainers for millennia.”

What makes the exhibit special, according to Laskey, is that “visitors will have the opportunity to interact with Maine’s food story in creative and fun ways that engage the senses, from food scents … to a social media recipe exchange.”

In deciding which foods to highlight, Laskey said the Maine Historical Society started with the obvious, such as lobsters, blueberries and potatoes and then “built the rest of the exhibition around personal stories, historically important events, and fun anecdotes.”

She said that reliance on mostly local resources has created “a uniquely Maine cuisine” that’s based not only on what’s easily grown and harvested here, but also on the “waves of immigrants (who) have introduced exciting cultural traditions, adapted to local food sources.”

Overall, Laskey said, the exhibit celebrates Maine’s food traditions.”We want visitors to experience the diversity of Maine food, and to think about how food shapes their individual lives, along with Maine’s identity and economy,” she said.

It also digs deeper into those topics. “For example, (we’re) looking at how the warming of our oceans is affecting the fisheries, how food insecurity impacts Mainers, and how organic farming (has) changed Maine’s culture,” Laskey said.

And, she said, the exhibit will look at not only current “innovative practices like ethical harvesting and organic farming” but also the historically important “industrial inventions for canning and processing food” that started in Maine.

To create “Maine Eats,” Laskey said the society “collaborated with over 80 people and institutions, from all regions of Maine.”

Some of those collaborators include Marie and Dell Emerson, who are small wild blueberry growers, as well as Dr. Fred Wiseman, a Wabanaki scholar and ethnobotanist. Their stories will be highlighted on the “My Maine Stories” web page.

Through “Maine Eats,” Laskey said, “we want to provide as many opportunities for our visitors to experience, learn about, and remember Maine’s food stories” as possible.

For example, she said, “Amato’s invented the Maine Italian sandwich in Portland in 1902. That’s a fun fact, but how do you remember that story? How can you connect an Italian immigrant experience to today’s experiences?”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

These new Mainers work in gardening plots created by the Somali-Bantu Community Association of Maine near Lewiston.

Edith Comstock works at the R.J. Peacock Canning Co. in Lubec in a photo taken in 1980, part of “Maine Eats,” a new exhibit at the Maine Historical Society in Portland.

This huge lobster was a popular attraction in Eastport around 1925.