C’est Maine, Mon Ami

I LIKE how countries start to lose their identity at the edges – the way the osmosis of language, food and values works across national borders. Canada is just across the St. John River, and Route 1, winding southeast out of Fort Kent, offers panoramic views of two nations at nearly every curve. Half the stations on the radio seem to broadcast in French.

I listen, and for a while practice my comprehension. And I keep an eye out, as I enter Frenchville, for Dolly’s Restaurant.

During my research, I had stumbled upon the Federal Writer’s Project’s ‘American Guide Series’ – 48 state guidebooks, together with an ancillary series of Highway Tour books, including U.S. One: Maine to Florida, published in 1938. It quickly became my bible for the trip.

Staggering in both simplicity and ambition, the project was designed to support out-of-work writers [sic] during the Great Depression. Roosevelt launched it in 1935 under the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration, and at one point it employed no fewer than 6,600 writers, editors, historians, researchers, art critics and cartographers. And what a team! Notable contributors included Conrad Aiken, Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow, John Cheever, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, John Steinbeck, Studs Terkel, Richard Wright and Dorothy West.

Unique among the guide’s painstakingly detailed, mile-by-mile site descriptions is a list of recommended local food. While the book concedes that many of the regional delicacies had disappeared from menus even by the time of publication, there were still restaurateurs who “…catered to the discriminating minority.”  The list of dishes was mouth-watering: Apple Slump, Old-Fashioned Pan Dowdy, Baked Indian Pudding, Red Flannel Hash, Eggs Canadian… And that was just for the chapter on Maine.

Another useful guide, Virginia Wright’s Route 1 Maine, had recommended Dolly’s for its Acadian fare, and though I wasn’t quite sure what that was, I was eager to give it a try. Food would definitely be a sub-theme on this trip.

Dolly’s was  easy to find, as it turned out, its big glass windows as natural to the locale as a spaceship.

As I sat down to study the breakfast menu, I became keenly aware of the glances from the waitress and the three men with whom she was joking. We studied one another surreptitiously. It was hard to pretend I was anything but a visitor; the Mass plates on my Jeep seemed positively luminescent in the gray dawn.

Sadly, I could find nothing unusual on the breakfast menu and ended up ordering corned beef hash and eggs.  Then I tuned into the conversation across the room.

It was like surfing the local radio stations.

“Well, I thought Alain and Richard were au garage, mais il y a personne.  Si tu veux, we can drive back down there this afternoon. Not sure anyone will be around, mais je crois qu’ils ont besoin de l’assistance.”

They all talked that way, shifting back and forth in mid-sentence. I loved it.  It made me feel… cosmopolitan. I listened more closely. They knew I was listening, but didn’t seem to mind.

“Trump just wants to change things,” one of them said. But he said it apologetically – not like he supported the Donald, but like he was defending him against what, at that point, looked like the impossible odds of winning. The waitress, whom I’d surreptitiously christened ‘Dolly’, exploded.  “He can change his shorts for all I care!”  They all laughed, and looked over at me to see my response.

Democrats in Frenchville? Not what I’d expected. When the talk turned to gun control, I thought, okay, here it comes. But, no – they were measured, and thoughtful, and all of them seemed to support stricter regulations. I wondered if this was the influence of a kinder, gentler Canada, mere hundreds of yards away, or simply the tolerance and flexibility of border people.

I discovered later that Aroostook County has voted overwhelmingly Democratic since George H.W. Bush was elected in 1988.

As Virginia Wright explains in her book, most of the people who live along this stretch from Fort Kent to Caribou will tell you that the border is largely a formality. Predominantly Franco-Americans, they descend from the Acadian settlers who built homes on either side of the St. John River long before it became a national boundary.

Given its distant beginnings, Acadia still casts a significant shadow. A colony of New France as early as 1604, it once encompassed parts of eastern Quebec, the Maritimes, and Maine as far west as the Kennebec River. Although officially conquered by the British in 1710 during Queen Anne’s War, ‘Acadia’ is still used to refer to regions of North America historically associated with the descendants and culture of the former French region.

As I waited for my corned beef hash, I idly opened the lunch menu. Et voila!  Right at the top was listed ‘creton et ployes.’ I quickly thumbed through my phone for a translation: buckwheat pancakes, cooked on one side only, and covered with a spicy pork paté.

Mon dieu!  Would I be able to manage it aprés le hash et les ouefs? Non, I thought. Maybe I can eat just un petit peu, and have them put the rest of it in a sac de chien. That way I could manger it for dejeuner in the voiture. Bon idée!

Mon dieu!  Would I be able to manage it aprés le hash et les ouefs? Non, I thought. Maybe I can eat just un petit peu, and have them put the rest of it in a sac de chien. That way I could manger it for dejeuner in the voiture. Bon idée!

But I wasn’t sure I was ready for pork paté just yet. I decided instead to continue my cultural education with a visit to Acadian Village in Van Buren, just down the road. The park includes no less than 17 historic buildings, including a 1790s log home, a general store, a blacksmith shop, a gristmill and a replica of an 18th Century log church.

It sounded great, this parc d’exposition, and I pointed the car southeast again.

They must have heard I was coming, though, because it was, of course, fermé.

 

Go to Chapter 3, ‘Why Am I Here?’, here.

Photo: Grange hall, Cushing, Maine.

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