If you love a good Maine Italian sandwich, here’s your chance to really get into it. Literally. “Be” the sandwich. Cover yourself in condiments. Take a #sandwichselfie.

The Maine Historical Society on Friday launches a major new exhibit on Maine food called “Maine Eats: The Food Revolution Starts Here,” and one of the displays is a life-size soft sculpture of a ham Italian sandwich that visitors can lie down in. The sandwich, made at the College of the Atlantic just for this exhibit, is one of several interactive displays designed to tell the state’s food story in more creative ways.

The silly foam Italian, in addition to perhaps making you hungry, is intended as a hook to grab your more serious interest in the history of the sandwich, which was invented at Amato’s on India Street in 1902.

“Maine Eats,” which encourages people to look at local food differently and more deeply, is the most comprehensive – and longest-running – food-related exhibition the historical society has ever cooked up. It won’t close until Feb. 9, 2019, and between now and then visitors can feast on programs featuring local chefs, well-known food writers, and thought leaders who are helping to shape Maine’s food economy.

“Some of us are foodies, some are not, but I think it’s a topic that everyone can relate to,” said Steve Bromage, executive director of the Maine Historical Society. “We wanted to get at that personal connection – how does food provide meaning and connection in our own lives? – but we also wanted to step back and look at how significant it is to the economy of the state. If you look at economic development, the food sector is clearly going to be a really important one. And how does sustainability impact that? If you look at environmental change, part of that is what does the landscape look like, but part of that is what kind of food we can produce and what happens with the lobster and blueberries and everything else?”

The exhibit is also the culmination of experimentation the museum has done in recent years with different ways to present material to the public, according to Bromage. In addition to showcasing photographs and objects from the historical society’s collection, the exhibit will tell about 60 “food stories” from Kittery to Presque Isle. Both digital (#maineeats) and in-person recipe exchanges will be available – a hunter, for example, has contributed a recipe for mincemeat – and visitors are encouraged to bring in their own recipes to share. At the “food smells of Maine” station, visitors will sniff infused essential oils and guess what it is they’re smelling. (Yes, one of them is lobster.)

A Rosemary brand blueberries label from about 1916. Photo courtesy of the Maine Historical Society

IT’S LOBSTERMAN!

Lobsters, blueberries and potatoes are often “the usual suspects” in discussions of local foods, and “Maine Eats” is no exception. Look for a 1993 comic book called “Lobsterman: Maine’s First Superheroes” featuring Lobsterman and his faithful sidekick Clamdigger (one of Bromage’s favorite items in the exhibit). Wild blueberry growers have contributed blueberry rakes, and the Presque Isle Historical Society sent potato tags and other items from an old wooden chest that served as the mobile office of Edwin Parkhurst, a well-known Aroostook County potato farmer.

In “Maine Eats,” these iconic foods are the jumping off point for delving into other local foods – everything from poutine to baked beans – and linking Maine’s past with its present. A 1924 venture to raise trout in the state will be covered in the exhibit, accompanied by a piece from food writer Barton Seaver on aquaculture and “the future of fish in Maine.”

Old Nep, a lobster trapped in Eastport in 1925, weighed over 30 pounds. Photo courtesy of the Maine Historical Society

A contemporary corn basket made by Passamaquoddy artist Geo Neptune will link the story of the Corn Mother, the first woman in the tribe’s creation story, with issues that are relevant today.

“It’s telling a very ancient story about Corn Mother, who sacrificed herself as a living person in order to feed her people,” said Tilly Laskey, the curator in charge of the exhibit. “The piece that Geo made is called GMO Corn Basket. The corn basket has all different sorts of colors in it because that’s what happens to corn when it gets genetically modified. It becomes something different. That’s the contemporary reality of what happens to our food as it gets modified.”

Other stories will cover Wabanaki food sovereignty, describing the ancient cultivation methods and seed-saving practices that are once again being embraced by modern tribes, and the evolution of the Wolfe’s Neck Center for Agriculture & the Environment in Freeport. The Wolfe’s Neck Center began as an organic farm in the 1950s “at a time when people didn’t really know what organic farming was,” Laskey said. In addition to telling the story of its original owners, Lawrence and Eleanor Smith, the exhibit will describe the farm’s current foray into “carbon neutral farming,” Laskey said.

“We can’t show every story about Maine food – that would be impossible – so what we’re trying to do is show really engaging stories from individuals.”

There will also be engaging pieces that stand on their own, such as colorful food labels and two prints titled “EAT/DIE” from artist Robert Indiana’s private collection.

Bromage said “Maine Eats” will borrow more extensively from other collections than previous exhibits have done, bringing other perspectives from around the state into one place. It’s a byproduct of the growth of the Maine Memory Network, which now has 270 organizations as members, all sharing their collections online – and now in Portland, for this exhibit. From the Aroostook County Historical and Art Museum comes a colorful painting of flowers done by a German prisoner at Camp Houlton, a POW camp that operated at the Houlton Army Air Base from 1944 to 1946. More than 1,000 POWs lived at the camp, and many of them were sent to work in the potato fields, where they became friendly with the locals, Laskey said.

In 1945, three prisoners gave the flower painting as a wedding gift to John D. Willard, a camp guard, and his bride-to-be, Marion Corneil. On the back of the painting, the inscription reads “For a happy marriage.”

“Maine Eats” includes stories about food in Maine today. In the photo above, Halima Mohamed, Ahmed Baraki, Hassan Barjin and Muhidin Libah garden in plots near Lewiston in 2017. An online component of the project collects personal food stories and recipes. Courtesy of Muhidin Libah

‘EATS’ ONLINE

“Maine Eats” will also connect local foodies with a new section of the Maine Memory Network called “My Maine Stories,” where users relate their personal stories on a variety of topics. The historical society has created a food section on the site where people can share their food stories and recipes. Already on the site, for instance, are stories from Fred Wiseman, a retired professor who collects heirloom seeds once used by local indigenous peoples; Kim Smith, who writes about making potato doughnuts with her grandparents in Hodgdon (and includes a recipe); and Brian J. Theriault, who writes about his 95-year-old father, Edmond Theriault, a prolific picker of fiddleheads.

Laskey has her own food story, one about how the ham Italian sandwich soft sculpture came to be. (No, it doesn’t belong to Amato’s, a sponsor of the exhibit.) Years ago, Laskey saw a similar sculpture at the Chicago History Museum. It was a hot dog bun that visitors could climb in to “become” a Chicago hot dog, she said, “and then you throw in pickles and onions and other things that a Chicago hot dog would have on it.”

Maine Historical Society’s new exhibit on Maine food called “Maine Eats: The Food Revolution Starts Here,” includes a life-size soft sculpture of a ham Italian sandwich that visitors can lie down in. The sandwich, made at the College of the Atlantic just for this exhibit, Courtesy of College of the Atlantic

“People were taking pictures and having so much fun with it,” Laskey said, “and I just thought it was such a good way to engage people with a subject and get them thinking more deeply about it with a fun hook. As we were talking about this exhibition, that idea kept surfacing.”

By coincidence, the design firm the historical society hired to help plan “Maine Eats” was the same person who had come up with the idea for the Chicago museum. He still had all the drawings, and suggested that the historical society adapt them to an Italian sandwich.

Take a #sandwichselfie, and you’ll have a fun food story to tell, too.

Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: MeredithGoad

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