Every summer when I was a kid growing up in Maryland, I would spend a month with my grandparents living on Cliff Island, Maine. I never got tired of waking up to fresh baked muffins despite seeing my breath in the morning air. Later at lunch, we would grab lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, and carrots from the garden to make a fresh salad and watch the boats go by our beautiful westward view of Casco Bay. Those summers were filled with garden chores and cooking assignments, but they were also filled with the love my grandparents shared with our family and friends. My daughters are now the same age as I was when I went to Maine and I find myself searching for a way to share that sense of community through food.
Getting food to an island is something that is not taken for granted; our weekly schedule was set around food. Cliff Island was about 2 hours ferry ride outside of Portland, so “going to the grocery store” was an all-day affair. We would check our stocks against a meal plan in the morning and then catch the 10:00am ferry to get to the city by lunch time. After a quick bite, we would walk to the grocery store where they would have just enough of everything stuffed into the smallest store I ever knew. Our groceries, including frozen and refrigerated items, were packed in those old chaquita banana boxes. We shopped there because the store would take our boxes (and everyone else’s) by cart over to the freight bay at the ferry terminal. It was clear us “islanders” were a huge part of their business.
When I was young, I would hang over the rail of the ferry and watch these huge, dark tanned, bearded sailors throw our grocery boxes through the air from the dock to the ferry one-by-one until all the pallets were emptied and the ship was ready to shove off. The big excitement on the ride back was whether our grocery boxes were packed on the outside (facing the sun) in inside to stay cool. I only remember that it was hard to tell one chaquita box from another. At each stop, the muscled men would toss the right boxes onto the right dock until we reached the end of the line, our stop, where our boxes would be tossed and neatly stacked. They did a great job and my grandparents knew that at $1/box, this summer work would put these local island boys through school.
Our arrival at the Cliff Island dock was always full of fanfare. Younger kids would jump into the big wake of the ferry, the older kids would be showing off their tans and our family would be there to greet us with big smiles and all the family carts. The stronger ones like my cousin and I would load the grocery boxes into the carts and we would all work together to push the carts up the hill, past the recreational center and down the gravel road to our house. We were lucky; folks with houses on the other side of the island had to wait for the one island station wagon to pickup and delivery their boxes. Finally, we would unload and then unpack the boxes while the rest of the family quizzed us on our Portland visit and all the ferry gossip.
Every day in Maine was a lot of work and a lot of fun that will be among the best days of my childhood. Food was not about completing another errand, but about connecting with the grocer, the dockhands, the passengers and our family that bound us together. The birthday cake was chocolate because thankfully this time our grocery box was in the cooler middle of the stack. The salad was fresh because it was literally picked 10 minutes ago and the dressing was made from scratch. Our dinner that night was a celebration of all that was accomplished when we left our house at 9:30 that morning. And this is what I want to teach my daughters every Saturday as we drive to Maynard, meet our friends at the Co-op, help pack our own grocery boxes and head back home to make chocolate cake and fresh garden salad.
-By Rob Olney (Owner #326)