By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 2005 Gourmet Magazine
Cole Farms waitress Dawn Ross grieves as she arrives at our booth with a steaming-hot plate of franks and beans: “The red hot dog is going the way of beef liver,” she laments. We have come to inland Maine, east of Sebago Lake, looking for vintage DownEast meals. Of all the nation’s regional cooking styles, none is as endearingly candid as what you get in an old Maine diner. Forget such culinary values as creativity and sensual delight. The ones that matter here are parsimony and plainness.
Opened as a farmland diner in 1952, Cole Farms can still be relied on to serve such parochial arcana as boiled dinner and mince pie in the autumn, corn chowder every Wednesday, and a choice of sweet beverages that includes both milkshakes (no ice cream, just milk and flavoring) and frappés (what the rest of the world knows as milkshakes, made with ice cream).
We want to call the kidney beans on our lunch platter puritanical: no syrup, minimal sugar, only hints of spice. Each one is a distinct, sturdy packet with silk-smooth skin and flavor that is pure bean. (Pea beans—smaller, firmer, and more elegant—are also available.) With these simple legumes come a brace of blubbery frankfurters with skin as enthusiastically red as a maraschino cherry. Such naughty wienies have long been a favorite at lunch counters throughout the state, but these days red franks seem to be as scarce on local menus as the once popular liver ’n’ onions, which, like franks ’n’ beans, is part of the Cole Farms repertoire every day.
It must be noted that Cole Farms has made plenty of changes over the years. Remodeled and expanded at least a dozen times, it now offers salads with fat-free raspberry vinaigrette dressing alongside such longtime specialties as clam cakes and chicken pot pie. Even morning muffins aren’t quite as dour as they used to be. “We’ve tweaked them over the years,” says proprietor Brad Pollard. “People want their muffins sweeter. You have to keep up.” Such changes notwithstanding, a Cole Farms muffin is demure, nothing like a cloying cake-batter pastry.
A good measure of Cole Farms’ personality is its American chop suey, listed on the menu side by side with “Campbell Soups.” Rarer than the red hot dog, it is an archaic New England staples-stretcher once popular with housewives: ground beef mixed with elbow macaroni and a vaguely Italian tomato sauce. It is bland as can be—closet comfort for those of us who sometimes wax nostalgic for school lunch.
The enduring regional value we like best at Cole Farms is the importance of pudding. The lineup is the same every day: tapioca, bread, Indian, and Grapenut. Indian pudding, the rugged cornmeal samp sweetened with molasses, is served hot under a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Grapenut pudding comes as a cool block of custard with a sweetened crust reminiscent of a swanky crème brûlée. Swanky, it is not; Yankee, it is.
Percy Moody started Moody’s Diner in the early 1930s so that the people spending $1 per night to stay in his cabins on old Route 1 would have a place to eat. His son Alvah recalls the windows being covered with black gauze during World War II to prevent sighting by enemy airplanes. That was when the diner was an open-all-night way station for truckers hauling fish out of Rockland or Belfast who appreciated a piece of pie and a cup of coffee at two in the morning.
Although it has grown over the decades, it remains a place where hidebound ritual reigns. Alvah Moody delights in telling of the time the family was expanding the diner and considered replacing the severe straight-back wooden booths with modern seating. “Everyone complained,” he says. “Even the carpenters who were going to make the new booths complained. So we had them make new ones exactly like the old.”
Moody’s is no longer open around the clock, but it remains one of the top spots along the coast route for predawn breakfast. When the doors open at 4:30, morning muffins have been out of the oven long enough that you can pull one apart without searing your fingertips. Through the cloud of steam that erupts, a constellation of blueberries glistens in each fluffy half. “It’s a good thing you came on Thursday,” says waitress Cheryl Durkee when we slide into a booth. “I think the girl who comes in today makes the best cinnamon rolls. They’re the tallest.” Durkee also warns that the 1.33-ounce jug of maple syrup that costs $1.50 is enough only for two pancakes, so anyone who gets a stack of three should consider purchasing a second jug.
Thrift is a pillar of traditional New England cooking and a big part of Moody’s echt-Maine character. This is not the place you come to splurge on a full-bore shore dinner or a $12 lobster roll; in fact, the restaurant’s 208-page cookbook, What’s Cooking at Moody’s Diner, doesn’t contain a single recipe for lobster. But it does offer “mock lobster bake” made with haddock fillets. Haddock, which costs less than just about any other edible fish, has been served with egg sauce every Friday for as long as any of the Moody family can remember. (At last count, over 20 Moodys worked in the restaurant and at the motel and cabins just up the hill.)
The menu is a primer of Northeast diner fare: meatloaf and mashed potatoes; hot turkey sandwiches; a panoply of chowders, stews, and soups; corned beef hash; baked beans with brown bread; and a fabulous selection of pies, including a legendary walnut pie that is actually a gloss on southern-style pecan pie but, as Alvah Moody proudly notes, “not sickening sweet.”
One of the most démodé Down East essentials, on the menu every day, is tripe. Marinated ribbons of cow stomach are fried in crust that sings harmony to the meat’s tang. Tripe isn’t unique to New England (cooked with posole, it’s a legendary hangover cure in the American Southwest), but a lot of old-timers hereabouts consider it their soul food. Alvah Moody says tripe is the best meal on the menu. He recalls that several years ago Moody’s tripe supplier went out of business and it was unavailable for six months. “All of our regulars complained. They depend on us, and they come from Portland and Augusta to eat tripe because no one else makes it anymore.”
Alvah’s sister Nancy says that the Moodys were raised eating tripe so as not to waste any part of the animals they butchered. She tells us that a lot of customers who see it on the menu assume it is some sort of fish.
And Cheryl Durkee, our ever helpful waitress, looks up from her order pad with a look of horror when we tell her we would like a plate of it for lunch. “Are you kidding?” she asks. “You’re not from around here. How could you like it?”
“Alvah says it’s great,” we reply.
“That would be Alvah,” she says affectionately. “To me, tripe is a sour sponge soaked in vinegar and deep-fried.”
Did we mention that one of the cardinal virtues of a true Maine diner is probity?