Every year since 2002, I have allowed someone else to pick five books on my reading list.

When the semifinalists for Canada Reads, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s literary “battle of the books” are announced each winter, I purchase all of them, no questions asked.

I was a bit skeptical for the first few years, never having heard of several of the authors chosen for the contest’s exclusively Canadian shortlist, but Rohinton Mistry’s gorgeous multigenerational epic, “A Fine Balance” and Paul Hiebert’s witty, long-forgotten pseudo-biographical “Sarah Binks” convinced me. That’s how my 18-year addiction took hold.

When the showdowns begin each spring or summer, I follow along on the Canada Reads Facebook page, download the podcasts and live-stream the CBC’s televised episodes where, one by one, books are defended by celebrity champions, then eliminated until a single winner remains.

As I watch, I also keep my tattered copies nearby so I can scream-quote my favorite passages from losing semifinalists at my screen. I’m not proud of this behavior.

This year, I started to wonder what a food-centric, Maine version of the contest might look like. A longlist might top out at 50 or more books, so I whittled my selections down to five (two of which come as a pair) of my favorite contenders in my imaginary Maine Reads competition.

I won’t (can’t) eliminate any of them. I’ll leave that up to you.

Boiling Off: The Story of Maple Sugaring in Maine (2020)

Cover courtesy of Down East Books

With Maine Maple Sunday rescheduled, then transformed into a pared-down, pandemic-friendly yet out-of-season Maine Maple Weekend this October, I’ve been missing stopping by sugar shacks on a snowy afternoon. Reading John Hodgkins’s layperson’s history of maple syrup in Maine has provided an ideal stopgap.

A retired engineer and professor who also served as the president of the Maine Maple Producers Association, Hodgkins is the right person to share an insider’s perspective on sugaring. In “Boiling Off,” he interweaves personal stories of his family’s sugarbush in Temple with a historical narrative that starts slow and, thanks to new technology, accelerates to warp speed around the turn of the millennium.

Sugaring has gone from spiles and buckets to vacuum pumps, plastic tubing, reverse-osmosis devices, “flash boiling,” and touchscreen-powered evaporator pans that now allow the state to produce nearly three-quarters-of-a-million gallons of syrup a year, a ten-fold increase since the mid 1980s.

My favorite section: A lively chapter about fighting an unlikely enemy of maple sugaring: Pseudomonas geniculata, a pesky bacterium that creates sticky biofilms that clog tubing and reseal tapholes in trees. Proctor Maple Research Center’s inexpensive solution? Plastic, 35-cent backflow regulators, one-way tubing valves that house tiny, free-floating plastic balls to prevent little single-celled pests from wreaking havoc on the trees and lines. Hodgkins tests the valves and increases his yield by 80%.

My favorite quote: On why we use color-grading as a proxy for flavor: “That tasters can perceive a taste change at the point of a grade change is no accident. It is taste, I suspect, that controls the range of color grades we use today.” He continues, “The categories of maple syrup are defined by the syrup’s taste. Syrup that tastes good is pancake good, syrup that doesn’t taste good isn’t, a truth in the Maine maple syrup industry since the time of Stephen Titcomb (the Farmington producer who first boiled Maine maple syrup) in 1781.”

How to Cook a Moose (2015)

Cover courtesy of Kate Christensen/Islandport Press

Kate Christensen’s food-focused memoirs comprise the matched set I referred to earlier. Her most recent non-fiction book (the title of which is a riff on the title of a wartime cookbook by M.F.K. Fisher) is, at first glance, the more Maine-centric of the two. It tracks her life after moving from Brooklyn to Portland’s West End, where she and her husband renovate an old Victorian she nicknames the “Yankee Palazzo” and settle into their new life.

Christensen anchors her exploration of Maine in recipes for Newcomer’s Clam Chowder, Harissa Haddock, Lobster Thermidor and, naturally, moose two ways: an Ina-Garten-inspired Moose Bourguignon and a less-appealing-sounding Alaskan homesteader’s treat, Jellied Moose Nose.

My favorite section: Not a continuous stretch of text, but vignettes scattered throughout about familiar restaurants like Fore Street, Primo, The Lost Kitchen, The Holy Donut and recently shuttered Vinland.

My favorite quote: “If you’re not Portland’s type, it lets you move on down the road without a twinge. If you are its type, it gets its hooks in you so gently, so gradually, you don’t know it until you find yourself as happy here as everyone else.”

Bonus: Blue Plate Special (2013)

Cover courtesy of Kate Christensen/Anchor

Very little of Christensen’s first memoir is explicitly about Maine: just a short postscript, a teaser for what would later become “How to Cook a Moose.” No, this book is more about Christensen’s backstory, from baking during dark teenage times in New York’s Hudson Valley, her education at Reed College in Oregon and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and eventually to her more than two decades in New York.

As a displaced former New Yorker — someone who thinks of Maine as my own personal epilogue — I can’t deny my enduring soft spot for “Blue Plate Special.” Last week, when I spoke with Christensen, she laughed and told me she wasn’t surprised:

“I moved to Portland in 2011 and turned 50 in 2012. There as a certain kind of commemorative, half-century autobiographical urge I felt,” she said. “Blue Plate Special” “came out of having found my place in the world, which was Maine; and finding my people, who are Mainers; and my true love, who was a native of this area. I don’t get into it in ‘Blue Plate Special,’ but the food here undergirded it. I wrote that book sitting at my kitchen table in Portland, feeling surrounded by support and love.

“Maine is the happy ending of that book. Maine is the reason for that book. I couldn’t have written it without being where I wanted to be. I feel like Maine is the impetus for writing it.”

Taste, Memory: Forgotten Foods, Lost Flavors, and Why They Matter (2012)

Cover courtesy of Chelsea Green Publishing

David Buchanan’s urban-agrarian adventure tale describes his quest to expand on his Portland backyard-based “quasi-farm and conservation project,” a patchwork quilt of tiny borrowed plots of land where he resurrects lost or vulnerable, heritage varieties of edible plants.

His ultimate goal, under the rubric of the Slow Food movement’s Ark of Taste project, is to lease an urban or suburban plot of farmland where he can re-introduce some much-needed biodiversity to local crops, everything from buckwheat to apples to blackberries.

Buchanan intercuts his own story with revealing side-expeditions that help convey how biodiverse planting helps keep food interesting-tasting as well as resistant to diseases like fireblight, a contagious bacterial illness that kills many heavily-farmed varieties of apples, like Jonagold, Gala and Honeycrisp.

My favorite section: Buchanan and fellow food preservationist John Bunker’s exhaustive search for an elusive, native yellow-skinned “Blake” variety apple tree to graft. After months of research and tramping across Southern Maine, Buchanan eventually stumbles across one woeful-looking specimen growing along the side of the road near a highway on the outskirts of Portland.

My favorite quote: “The ideal I’m striving for is a regionalized, ecological agriculture that builds soil and fertility through plant growth, and matches the right plants to the right place. From the conventional grower’s point of view, this lack of uniformity is a weakness, because it doesn’t maximize production under any one given set of conditions. Seen from a more ecological perspective, however, it means the garden continues to evolve, to change with the seasons and shifting weather patterns. The world isn’t static, and neither should be our approach to producing food.”

The Year of the Goat: 40,000 Miles and the Quest for the Perfect Cheese (2007)

Cover courtesy of Lyons Press

Margaret Hathaway, a former manager of New York’s West Village institution, Magnolia Bakery, is struck by a “Eureka” moment when she samples Ronnybrook Farm Dairy’s Creamline milk. The tasting sparks to life a dream to be closer to nature, to flee her urban life and… become a goat farmer.

With her then-boyfriend (now husband), photo editor Karl Schatz, she plots her escape from the city, but those initial plans go nowhere. In perhaps the most New York turn of events, the couple share their “goat saga,” with Schatz’s psychotherapist. He recommends they embark on a gap-year of visiting working farms to decide, once and for all if goat farming is for them. “Dr. Fraum tossed out a Rorschach blot in front of us, and in it we saw goats and a path out of the city,” Hathaway writes.

Their first stop is Schatz’s parents’ home in Maine. After being toasted with an enthusiastic “Goat get ’em!” the two spend the next 12 months traveling from Tennessee to Oregon in a Hyundai Santa Fe they’ve dubbed the “Goat Mobile.”

Along the way, they get engaged, plan a wedding, explore the tight connection between goat-farming and Maine’s Somali immigrants, attend livestock auctions and even visit a goat chariot race.

Spoiler alert: The couple wind up right back where they started and establish their own goat farm in Gray.

My favorite section: The duo’s detour to Chicago where they learn about William “Billy Goat” Sianis, who brought his pet goat to the World Series in 1945. When he and his pungent-smelling companion were turned away at Wrigley Field, he apparently returned to a tavern he owned — appropriately named “The Billy Goat Inn” — and put a magical curse on the Cubs. The spell doomed the team never to win the Series until team owner Philip Wrigley personally apologized for refusing entry to the goat.

The curse (or just plain bad luck) seems to have held until 2016, when the Cubs won the World Series for the first time in over a century. With Sianis and Wrigley both long gone, what changed?

Some chalk it up to chance and savvy draft picks, others to an October, 2016 advertising campaign on the part of local vegetarian stalwart The Chicago Diner, wherein locals were urged to test out a meat-free — and specifically, goat-free —diet.

My favorite quote: Hathaway’s description of her wedding day at Wolfe’s Neck Farm, where she was propelled down the aisle “to the soft bleating of goats,” toward a reception featuring a homemade wedding cake: “a traditional, whiskey-doused British fruitcake wrapped in marzipan, slathered in royal icing, and topped with two plastic goats. Between one’s horns, I’ve glued a little white veil.”

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of three recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association. Contact him at: [email protected] Twitter: @AndrewRossM


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