Eat Like a Mainer

Alex Van Buren
Food Features Editor
July 22, 2014

All photos: Erin French, The Lost Kitchen

Fancy parties have their time and place, sure, but there’s a lot to be said for the charms of low-fuss, ingredient-forward, grab-what-you-got parties. Or, as Maine chef Erin French puts it, “celebrating the season and the friends and that moment… with no pretentious worries about, ‘Oh my God, we have to have this perfectly prepared,’ but a focus on friends and family.”

Although French—who runs The Lost Kitchen in Freedom—grew up in a small Maine town eating hum-ho casseroles, she’s seen a real shift in the ethos of her fellow New Englanders over the years. “I think there’s a very conscious way of thinking about food here: People are thoughtful about where their food grows from, who grows it, and how it got to the table. [It’s] kind of a heartland of farmland.”

So party like a Mainer this summer, because they know how to stay chill and make the best of what’s fresh. Here are French’s top tricks:

Just bring produce. In Maine, she said, where “95 percent of my friends have gardens,” people don’t tear their hair out trying to pull together a trendy side dish. Instead, guests show up with arms brimming with eggplant, or tomatoes, or “a crispy bunch of beautiful kale.” (Don’t garden? No problem: Find a great grocer or farmer’s market, and look for what looks and smells wonderfully fresh.) 

Shop local. That means local beer—you’ll want to have a six-pack tucked under your arm in addition to that basket of blueberries—and local produce. If you’re on the road, do pull over at that roadside stand (after you’ve stopped off for ice cream, of course).

Littleneck clams festooned with edible flowers and herbs. 

Every night is not a lobster party. Although tourists think of Maine as the land of blueberries and lobsters, French says it’s all about (literal) sausage parties: “Sausages are a really big thing. A lot of people are making their own sausages and raising pigs.” So if that’s what your local vendor has in spades, just have rolls and fixins on hand (mustard, mayo, yadayada).

Decorate with food. Get too much of one thing? Then get flexible: “Last week a friend came over with a big basket of chard and kale from her garden,” says French. “First we made a ‘floral’ arrangement out of it because she brought so much of it, then we sautéed some with lemon, garlic, salt and pepper. With the leftovers the next morning, I made an omelette.” (Reduce, reuse, recycle!)

Stock up on bread, citrus, olive oil, and salt. That way, no matter who shows up with what—whether hot dogs or a basket brimming with eggplant—you’ll have some way to handle their contributions. 

And have a killer vinaigrette ready to use on everything. French swears by pickled shallot vinaigrette: Slice 1-2 shallots into thin rounds, put them in a bowl, cover with red wine vinegar, and allow to sit for 15 minutes. Pour in olive oil in a 3 parts oil to one part vinegar ratio. Mix; season with salt. Use for vegetables, salads, and anything else you think could use it. (This is a good tip for any summer party.)

Sometimes it’s OK to be the Maine stereotype. Although French said that people typically aren’t bringing expensive lobsters to parties, she admits that sometimes she acts like “a tourist—I’m not gonna lie; I totally had a clam boil the other night, and had clams and lobsters. We all do it because it’s delicious. We all crave having a lobster and some clams, and corn with butter.”

So there you go. Act like a Maine-i-ac this summer. You won’t regret it.

Erin French outside her restaurant.