Six years ago, on our first trip to Maine, we went to a restaurant that came recommended by the locals. We like these sorts of places: You know the food and the service will be good. Plus, we like to act as if we belong; as if we’re in the know; as if we’re, above all, not tourists.
This restaurant was really more of a shack than a restaurant and it specialized in fried clams. It was a dive, but sometimes the worst-looking places turn out to be the best, so we remained stalwartly hopeful.
We went into the dining room and discovered that all eight of the tables were full of the memories of previous diners: stacked plates, empty corncobs, piles of clamshells, a forlorn-looking exoskeleton of a lobster that an hour before had been swimming in a tank labeled: Caution. Keep hands out.
We seated ourselves at a table still laden with crumbs and waited. Fifteen minutes later the waitress swiped two menus from a couple’s table and handed them to us. The waitress was thin and deeply tanned and had a gravelly voice.
“Evening.” She ran a rag across the oilcloth covering our table and removed a stack of plates to an adjoining table. “What can I get for you?”
“Steamer clams,” V said.
“Me too,” Filibuster added.
Squints asked for clam chowder.
“We use full-bodied clams here,” the waitress told me, a note of warning in her voice. “We put the whole clam in. Last week, a little boy saw one in his chowder and thought it was an ear. He refused to eat it.” She laughed long and hard at this while we arranged our faces in polite smiles.
We waited for nearly an hour before our waitress showed up with our dinners. “Here you are,” she said, dealing out our meals.
“Ever see any moose around here?” My husband inquired, spoon poised over his bowl of chowder.
“Oh, yeah. Bear too. Just down the road a bit.” She pointed and gave my husband directions and disappeared.
“How are the clams?” My husband asked the girls after the waitress had left.
“Good!” They smiled. But then, the smile fell from V’s face: Plink!
“There’s an eye in this clam.”
“There’s no eye in your clam,” I said.
“There is too.” She pointed. “Right there.” She pushed her plate away and refused to eat any more.
Another family came in. The waitress eventually sauntered over to them. Someone ordered chowder. “You know, we use full-bodied clams here,” she said. She relayed the story about the little boy and the ear in his soup.
They laughed long and hard at this: “Haw, haw, haw.”
“They must be from Wisconsin,” the father said.
“Done already, hon?” The waitress came up and gestured to V’s full plate.
She nodded miserably.
And I looked at my husband and felt inferior, somehow. I felt like a tourist.
* * *
This trip, we decided not to go back to that restaurant, but we made a point of returning to The Fisherman’s Inn, a restaurant in quiet Winter Harbor that brings back great memories.
Last time we went to The Fisherman’s Inn, Squints wasn’t even in school yet. The waitress set a glass of water before him.
“What do you say?” I prompted.
The waitress laughed. “I’m trying to teach my brother please and thank you, but my dad thinks teaching him bow and stern is more important.” She shook her head. “He knows bow and stern, but he doesn’t know please and thank you.”
She gave us a lesson in mussels, which are caught by raking along the shoreline. She told us they’d fill an eighty pound onion bag with mussels and get sixty cents for it. “We do pretty well,” she said.
It’s so easy to fall in love with the beauty and apparent simplicity of a place. But beneath that simplicity, I realized, there was a difficult life; an honest life, where people lived with the seasons and lived among bears and moose. Where people depended upon the sea and worked harder than most people are willing.
I looked at my husband, tried to picture the five of us hauling in eighty pound bags of mussels.
Perhaps it was better to be a tourist.
Labels: Boys, Daughters, Family, Girls, Maine, Service Animals, Sons