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Digging Up Maine's Best Recipes

Linda Greenlaw, the Maine fisherman turned best-selling memoirist, is now something more: a cookbook author. She and her mother, Martha Greenlaw, talk about gathering ideas for their new collaboration, Recipes from a Very Small Island.

A perfectly clear August day in Maine usually means fishing boats—a bay full of them. But today most of the lobstermen haven't bothered to head out. Why go to the trouble when the season has been so slow? One of the few people pulling traps is Linda Greenlaw, who may be the world's most famous fisherman. "Not that I consider lobstering fishing," she says.

It doesn't have the excitement of swordfishing, the skill for which she first became famous as one of the captains in Sebastian Junger's blockbuster book The Perfect Storm.

I've taken the mail boat out to Isle au Haut to meet with Linda and her mother, Martha Greenlaw, and talk about their new cookbook, Recipes from a Very Small Island. The plan is for Linda and Martha to prepare lunch, so I can sample a few of the recipes. "But when we invite you for lunch," says Jim Greenlaw, Linda's father, when he and Linda meet me at the dock, "you have to go out and catch it first."

Linda Greenlaw isn't exactly the sort of person you'd expect to write a cookbook. She's spent most of her adult life at sea. In The Hungry Ocean, her best-selling 1999 account of her experiences as a swordfish-boat captain, she confesses, "My most vivid memories of cooking include numerous times when, upon opening the refrigerator, all of its contents cascaded onto the galley floor and rolled back and forth across the linoleum with the motion of the boat, sour cream lids opening, pickle jars shattering." And in her 2002 book, The Lobster Chronicles: Life on a Very Small Island, Linda writes of standing before her mother's kitchen cabinet, worrying over what to prepare for a first date: "Capers, crystallized ginger, 11 different vinegars, seven mustards, polenta, wild rice, couscous, risotto, and pastas I did not recognize; I was certainly well stocked. If only I knew what to do with it all." Not surprisingly, Martha is the acknowledged chef in the Greenlaw family. Which isn't to say Linda isn't a good cook. But when her New York editor, Will Schwalbe, vice president and editor in chief at Hyperion, visits Isle au Haut—the 12-square-mile Penobscot Bay island where Linda, her parents and some of their extended family live—Linda takes him to dinner at Mom's.

Those dinners led to Recipes from a Very Small Island. "At first, we wanted to include only Maine ingredients," Linda says, "but that would have limited us to deer meat, lobsters, blueberries and clams, so we went New England-y."

Once Linda, Jim and I are on Penobscot Bay, I realize why so few lobstermen are out on such a beautiful day. We don't catch much. In late August, the waters are full of "shedders"—soft-shell, or recently molted, lobsters. Unlike hard-shell lobsters, shedders aren't packed with meat. Open one and water will come spilling out of it. Yet soft-shell lobsters are tender, less chewy and more flavorful. Or so some locals claim. Jim tosses undersize lobsters, countless crabs, a starfish and a female lobster, her underside covered with black eggs, back into the sea. Once we've pulled 14 traps, we have nine lobsters. "Normally, we'd have 40," Linda says. But nine is still plenty for both lunch and the lobster stew that Linda plans to make for a sick neighbor, so we turn from the view of the distant Camden Hills and make for the fir trees of Isle au Haut.

Back on land, Linda and I hop into her dilapidated pickup and head for the island's only market. Inside its small confines, cake mixes, bike helmets, canned goods, frozen meat and a single head of romaine lettuce are for sale. As Linda goes to pay for cream, a friend behind the counter asks, "Did you check the date on that?" Headaches like needing to check the date on the cream helped generate the Greenlaws' new cookbook. "Much of New England is comprised of small towns where you can't get things," Linda observes. This has always been one of Martha's complaints. Recipes from a Very Small Island makes the most of what New Englanders can find. We've got the lobsters. Linda dug clams yesterday for our appetizer. And someone on the mainland has harvested local sweet and tangy blueberries for dessert.

Linda lives down the road from her parents. Standing on her back porch, one might think there's not another human being in the world. What you see is the blue of the sea, the gray and green of distant islands, and woods all around. Inside, Linda's home is neat and relatively unadorned, though there's a stainless steel and bronze swordfish over the fireplace and some magazines fanned out on the coffee table. The kitchen is small but pretty with an old-fashioned enameled stove, a granite-topped island and a broad sink, into which Linda dumps boiled lobsters to cool before picking out the meat.

Martha arrives at Linda's house, ready to prepare stuffed clams for our lunch. A self-taught cook, she grew up on a mid-Maine dairy farm, where, as she recalls, "Every Sunday my mother would do the baking and a different sibling could pick the pie for the week. Lemon meringue or banana cream or whatever." Indeed, many of Martha's mother's recipes appear in Recipes from a Very Small Island.

The cookbook isn't just a family affair, however. A recipe for stuffed clams made with three different kinds of meat came from Dick Ames, a good friend of Martha's. Diana Santospago, the innkeeper of the year-old Inn at Isle au Haut, shared her recipe for baked stuffed lobster. Much of the Greenlaws' work involved sorting through these offerings to create a cookbook that included the full range of culinary influences on New England, from Portuguese to Irish.

"I was going through these with Mom," Linda says, waving an index card with a recipe from the elderly aunt of Linda's buddy and fishing mentor Alden Leeman.

"This one says soup. 'Okay, soup,' I thought, 'the old-timers made a lot of soup.' I started to read the index card to my mother. 'Five pounds of fat.' Ew, I thought. 'One cup of lye.' My mother reached over and took the card. 'That says soap,' she said."

Lunch is, as I expect, delicious. We start with Dick's buttery, meaty stuffed clams, then move on to a Greenlaw family favorite, lobster salad with peas, basil and lemon zest. The dish is a decided contrast to the ubiquitous Maine lobster roll. No mayo! I love the freshness of lemon zest and green peas mixed with the lobster meat. We're too full to eat dessert right away, so Linda decides to dig clams for me to take home.

At the beach, Martha and I look for the holes in the sand that indicate where the clams are, and Linda starts digging. (Some call these clams "pissers" since they squirt salt water when dug up.) At first Linda finds only "mudders," shells filled with wet sand. Once she's on to the actual clams, she can't stop, even when her mother says it's time to go. "Oh," Linda says, still digging, "you always want to get one more."

Later, we relax on Martha's back porch and, finally, finish our meal with blueberry buckle, a recipe handed down from Martha's mother, with a crunchy cinnamon crumb topping that's like the one on a coffee cake. It's the sort of homey dessert I associate with Maine, though I can't remember the last time I ate it.

In The Lobster Chronicles, Linda describes her mother as a real book lover, so before I depart, I give Martha some novels I brought for her, along with my assurances that she shouldn't feel any obligation to read them. "Oh, no," she exclaims happily, rejecting the idea, "there are two things you always want when you live on an island: fresh produce and books."

As for me, I am happy to walk away with tomorrow's dinner: a bag of clams and a great recipe for how to cook them.

Debra Spark is a novelist and writer in Maine. Her most recent book is Curious Attractions: Essays on Writing.

Published August 2005
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