Fall storms making a meal of dinner

This photo makes no sense without the context of the column. Youll just have to read on!
This photo makes no sense without the context of the column. Youll just have to read on!

Greetings, long-suffering readers! Man, it’s been a while since I published anything here.

That’s not to say that I haven’t been writing in the interim – oh no! – but I’ve had a mad couple of months, what with my Mum’s visit and another piece of news that will be revealed later this week, all things going to plan.

Anyway, I’m a couple of columns behind, both of which are from Mum’s visit to Maine. Read on for the first one…

“The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”

– Paraphrased from John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, 1937

There couldn’t be a more fitting quote in all of literature for how my week went this week. But while I was robbed of my original column idea, it potentially saved the palates of The Girlfriend and The Mother on Wednesday night.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. As I’ve mentioned ad nauseum in this space, and as some of you may have learned if you’ve spent any time in Augusta or Hallowell this week, my mum’s in town for a visit.

Despite her coming all the way over from Australia, I didn’t make any particular requests for goodies from home to be squirreled away in her suitcase. In exchange for showing her around this great state over the course of a couple of weeks, there was really only one thing I was hoping to have: her lasagna.

I’m somewhat handy in the kitchen, but lasagna is one recipe that I’ve never been brave enough to attempt, because I know I’d never come close to replicating Mum’s dish, thus tarnishing my own memory of it.

We’ve managed to dine out a few times, at both some of my old standbys and some newly discovered restaurants, to great success. But hey, what sort of ungrateful son would I be if I didn’t at least cook a meal for my mother while she’s here? I mean, it’s the least I can do.

If you hadn’t already deduced this, I’m the type of guy who loves to kill two birds with one stone. Convenience is important to me. So I decided I’d marry the concept of making Mum dinner with a column concept that’s been floating around in my brain for a while.

A few months ago, The Girlfriend unearthed a cookbook that’s a decade older than we are. Keep Cooking – The Maine Way by Marjorie Standish. The moment I laid eyes on it, I was fascinated. When I opened the cloth-trimmed hard cover, I was surprised to note that it was published by the Maine Sunday Telegram and printed right here in Augusta by something called KJ Printing. I know those initials!

A brief flick through the book revealed culinary classics with some dishes that boggled the mind, not to mention the stomach. In particular, there were a lot of salads that involved combining flavored gelatin, something I’ve never seen outside of the dessert course, with seemingly unlikely ingredients such as cottage cheese, chopped pecans or even horseradish.

I immediately envisioned cooking a grand meal “the Maine way,” alternating between traditional dishes and something a little more quirky, and putting the results – positive or otherwise – on the record. My enthusiasm was counterbalanced by The Girlfriend’s (completely reasonable) wariness to sit down for a nice slice of Jell-O with her meatloaf, so I put it on the proverbial back burner for awhile.

After being treated to an incredible dinner in Portland for my birthday on Tuesday night, though, it felt like I ought to return the favor to The Girlfriend and The Mother and put together a feast from the pages of Marjorie Standish’s book. I received encouragement on Twitter from a fellow former newspaper employee, who said jelly salads were his own grandmother’s speciality, and that my mother would “love it.”

For the main course, my eye had been immediately drawn to Slumgullion: a beef and onion stew which Mrs. Standish suggested be served over mashed potatoes. Honestly, it was the name rather than the contents that lured me in, but the finished product did sound delicious. I thought the Maine Succotash would be another fine accompaniment, and another fun dish to pronounce.

I couldn’t have resisted the opportunity to serve up something gelatinous, so I’d drawn a bead on the Surprise Salad, in which I’m guessing the surprise was going to be the tabasco sauce or the mayonnaise mentioned in the serving suggestion, rather than the raspberry Jell-O.

With these in the back of my mind, I had every intention of putting together such a meal Wednesday afternoon, after I was relieved of my work duties for that night. But shortly after my schedule cleared, the weather did the opposite, and the rainstorm that had pelted central Maine all day decided to drop a tree on some power lines up the street from my house, relieving me of my electricity supply.

Huh. There goes that plan. This meal might have looked better in the dark, but I guarantee it would have come out more palatable had I been able to see the ingredients or follow the recipe without the need for candlelight.

Selfishly, my first thought wasn’t, “what are we going to have for dinner?” but “there goes my column idea!” But all in all, that’s been a running theme of my time here in Maine: no matter how well-laid your plans are, you can’t control the weather.

(And don’t worry: this story had a happy ending. Mum had the foresight to throw together her famous lasagna while she still had daylight, cooking it with the gas stove-top and oven. Mother: 1, Mother Nature: 0.)

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