By the sea, by the sea, by the beautiful sea

Portland, Maine is the kind of place that sneaks up on you. Or maybe it’s a self-selecting town where the people who live here all really want to be here; I’ve never heard any resident say a negative thing about the place, it’s all passionately understated joy with an undertone that says, “We get it.” If you’re not Portland’s type, it lets you move on down the road without a twinge. If you are its type, it gets its hooks in you so gently, so gradually, you don’t know it until you find yourself as happy here as everyone else.

We spent two years house hunting – first in Brooklyn, then in Cold Spring, then in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, near Brendan’s family’s farmhouse – until one day we realized with a eureka ping that Portland had been there all along. All along, we’d been flying in and out of its easygoing little airport with the lobster “Welcome Home” signs, eating at its restaurants, admiring Casco Bay on the Eastern Prom, and then one day the gentle hooks had sunk in enough and we got it.

And so we spent a lot of last summer looking at various old houses all over the peninsula – this one was the 13th. It wasn’t for sale. Brendan saw the “for rent” ad and called about it, on a hunch. We both wanted this house, wildly, the instant we walked in, and although I was sure it would cost far too much and didn’t even want to ask, Brendan had another strong hunch and called the owners in Salt Lake City. Within two days, they had agreed on a price that we could pay. The sale was conducted over the phone, without realtors, with civility and honesty on both sides.

The woman who had lived here before us, Madeleine, turned out to be my former classmate at Reed, and has become our friend. The tenants we inherited are so interesting and responsible and great, we never want them to leave. Our contractors are excellent, kickass, scrupulously honest; they try to save us money. I love the hardworking, funny, dedicated women at the soup kitchen. I love the wisecracking, game women I take Pilates with, especially our instructor. I love the dark, wry, understated sense of humor and the fierce work ethic that manages somehow not to be puritanical or self-righteous – I get it.

On Saturday, after our headlands walk, Brendan and Dingo and I went to the Farmers’ Market down in the park, by the fountains, under the trees. There was the usual bounteous array of food, as well as a tightrope walker, a bluegrass band, and many calm and friendly dogs (as are all the dogs here; Portland has none of that weird Brooklyn neuroticism of both animals and owners). It felt like a 19th century country fair, matter of fact, here we are. We bought organic chorizo, 5 big stalks of rhubarb, 4 beautiful lettuces, a soft cheese dusted with spices, and big ripe tomatoes, and then we were out of cash.

At home, I washed and trimmed the rhubarb and cut it into four-inch pieces. I mixed 2 cups total of apple cider vinegar and rice vinegar with maple syrup, honey, salt, peppercorns, fresh sliced ginger, cardamom pods, sliced Serrano peppers, and cloves. I let this mixture boil for five minutes, then turned off the flame and added the rhubarb. When it had cooled, I packed the rhubarb into a container and poured over it as much of the liquid as it would hold. The pickles taste spicy and exotic and fantastic with cheese.

Yesterday at 3:00, after working all morning and into the afternoon, we had a Memorial Day picnic on the Eastern Prom. I made deviled eggs with capers, mustard, mayonnaise, smoked paprika, and chopped dill pickles, and packed three kinds of cheese and gluten-free crackers to eat with the rhubarb pickles, a bottle of chilled rose, an apple for Dingo, and chocolate-covered strawberries. We sat on a picnic table overlooking Casco Bay. We had that corner of the world almost to ourselves, although it was a bright, warm, sunny holiday; everyone no doubt had decamped for the beaches north and south of town. Sheltered by the trees, out of the wind, warm in the sun, we three sat in a row and feasted together, looking out at the sailboats trundling over the blue water and the shaggy green islands beyond.

Later, at home, we fell instantly into a triple coma of a nap. I regained consciousness at 7:30 to find Dingo fed and walked and Brendan hard at work again. Down in the kitchen, I hauled out the farmer’s market chorizo and a string bag of littleneck clams and opened a bottle of cold orvieto. In olive oil, I sautéed a lot of garlic, two medium leeks, two tomatoes, a jalapeno, and a red pepper. I stirred in 2 diced potatoes and the chopped chorizo, then added a cup of the white wine and a cup of chicken broth and 2 bay leaves, and simmered it until the potatoes were soft. Then I squeezed in the juice of one lemon and stirred, arranged the clams on top, covered the pot, and let it simmer till the clamshells opened. I added a big handful of minced Italian parsley, and we feasted for the second time that day.

Very early this morning, our bedroom flashed and banged with thunder and lightning, an intense electrical storm. Dingo crept in and we all huddled together, feeling safe in our house. At about 8, when I walked Dingo, the air was humid, cool, dark, and sweet-smelling. The soaked dark sidewalks were strewn with vivid pollen and petals.

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About Kate Christensen

eater, citizen, enthusiast, curmudgeon
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9 Responses to By the sea, by the sea, by the beautiful sea

  1. Natalie says:

    Your weekend sounded lovely! Thank you for sharing!

  2. annazeide says:

    Now I want to move to Portland.

  3. tim says:

    It is people like you who ruined Seattle…now everyone moved there… :-)

    I would bet there is a Community for lesser Portland…It’s okay it didn’t work for Seattle either.

  4. evy says:

    wow- you cook like my mother cooked- like second nature, free of worry. inspiring!

  5. Jen says:

    I’m inspired to visit Portland!

  6. Marisa says:

    I grew up in the west coast Portland, but reading this makes me think that Maine’s version might be a better fit for me these days. Also, I love that you put serrano peppers in your pickled rhubarb. I’ve done it with lots of spices, but no heat. I’ll have to try your way next time.

  7. Jen Marie says:

    I an so quickly engaged by your writing. Such a treat on this fine Saturday morning.

  8. Annie says:

    I totally understand and agree about that feeling that Portland has- there’s just something lovely about it that everyone who lives there knows and enjoys. I try to make the 45-minute drive up there fairly often and always look forward to it. Also, I love how you weave recipes into paragraphs and they are still interesting to read :)

  9. nicole says:

    My brother lives in Bath, and while I am a Californian through-and-through, there really is something about Maine …visiting this summer will remind me yet again what a special place it is, and I can’t wait.

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