Pies on Parade: my new favorite Rockland festival
Rockland — On a seriously cold Sunday in the middle of January, when few tourists likely give 10 seconds thought to the coast of Maine, people from all over our state did the smart thing and came to Rockland. Rockland was serving pie.
I sat on a stool in the kitchen of the Captain Lindsey House, surrounded by busy cooks making preparations for the big day. The Barnes family, who run the inn and were involved with starting the Pies on Parade event, had invited me to stop by before things got busy.
“You can’t swing a short cat around here without hitting a Captain Barnes,” said Captain Noah Barnes as he crowded around a table covered with hundreds of luscious berry tarts along with his mother, Captain Ellen Barnes, and his father, Captain Ken Barnes. Noah is the master of the schooner Stephen Taber, a position he inherited from his parents. The three worked together to fill tart shells with bittersweet chocolate, toasted almonds, sweet cream cheese filling, three kinds of fresh berries and a twinkling glaze. There was some brief discussion about whether to add brandy.
Hanging around underfoot, I was offered an advance sample. Delicious. I may or may not have also been offered the privilege of sticking my little finger into the dish of hard sauce intended for the mince pies (“we’re calling them Cornish meat pasties, because a lot of people think they won’t like mincemeat pie,” explained Ellen). I suspect a few of those folks will be changing their mind after today.
This is the seventh year that the Historic Inns of Rockland have hosted Pies on Parade. “That first year was great,” said Noah, remarking on 2005. His mother added: “People had such a good time… in that blizzard. There were about 50 people.” This year, 500 tickets were made available, and I heard later in the day that every single one had been sold.
That’s a lot of pie.
The event is a fundraiser for Area Interfaith Outreach, which provides a food pantry, some heating assistance and other services to local people in need. More than that, it’s a celebration of Rockland’s emergence as a haven of both quality comfort food and sophisticated dining, a year-round destination and a place where locals can find a special treat or enjoy a night out — no more need to leave town for a better than average meal. Ellen Barnes mentioned the old saying, “You can do good while doing well.” The Historic Inns have adopted AIO as “their” cause, but this charitable function also brings business to the inns. All four, she told me, were full for the weekend. Not bad, considering it is January.
A bit later, I was chatting with Carol Thompson, proprietor of the Pastry Garden bakery and owner of one of the many Main Street businesses participating in the event since it has expanded from just the four inns. We compared notes on our memories of the Rockland of 30 years ago.
There’s no way anybody would ever have dreamed of something like this happening in Rockland, back in those days, we agreed. We remembered the local food offerings of the early 1980s, especially in the cold weather, as a bit sparse. We used to joke that they’d roll up the sidewalks after supper was over at the Chuck Wagon. Now, merchants like Thompson invite locals to come out at night, and not just to the bars. Friday and Saturday “Bistro Nights” at the Pastry Garden, as well as new options for fun like musical events at Rock City Books and Coffee and shows at the Strand point to a Rockland rather unlike the industrial city of the past.
So much has changed. I suppose I could get nostalgic about motorcycle gangs, men in suits clustered around the back table of the Rockland Coffee Shoppe running the city with their names on their coffee cups, and my job at the sardine factory. I could make gentle fun of the just slightly gentrified, gallery-heavy Rockland Main Street of today. Nah. I like the good food too much.
Thompson’s pie selection, a chai-spiced maple walnut tart, was the sort of dessert I could have easily made into a meal, but there were a couple dozen other “pies” around town to sample! I resolved to leave room.
There was hot turkey pie at Sweets and Meats (where I was also issued a real metal fork to carry around and use through the day, an excellent idea, saving on trash). There was wonderful pizza at Brick’s, red berry pie at Rock City and apple almond tart with fresh whipped cream at Rustica. I am no food writer and I cannot manage the fashionable lingo, but the delicate chipotle pecan tartlets with Kahlua cream at the Park Street Grille were an absolute delight. Everything offered, be it traditional pie, tart, pizza, quiche, one-bite dessert or creative interpretation somehow related to a pie, deserves more refined description than this writer is good for.
Project Puffin offered a tabletop ocean filled with “cream puffin sweetie pies,” cream puff seabirds with frosted cookie puffin heads complete with the colorful beak. I haven’t heard the word “cute” used so many times in rapid succession since the Monhegan teacher got her new puppy. Somebody spent a lot of time making all those puffins. Yum.
Rockland still being something of a small town, even if the food around here has become genuinely high-class, I kept running into people I knew. In one store, I reveled in the food while the thoughtful proprietor asked after a neighbor from Matinicus who hasn’t been well lately. At the Waterworks, the waitress who brought a warm serving of shepherd’s pie to my table (perfect for a cold day,) was Sam, a friend of my kids’ from the island. Friends like Suzanne from the Island Institute and Rolf and Sue from Knowlton Moving were making the rounds and I crossed paths with them repeatedly. We’d pass on what we’d discovered as we met on the sidewalk. “Clan MacLaren has paninis.” “Those Meyer lemon things at Fiore are really good!” At times we almost sounded like children on Halloween: “Rockland Café is giving out whoopie pies… whole whoopie pies!”
At the Lime Rock Inn, where I took care of some most excellent Key Lime Rock Pie, newsman Don Carrigan’s cat, Togus, was holding court for his adoring public. Togus got almost as much attention as the pie. Almost.
Enjoying a sample of blueberry pie at the Brown Bag, open Sundays now, by the way, I wondered if I had room for any more. On, just the same, to the Berry Manor Inn, where I tucked into a slice of traditional apple pie (a favorite) and thought then that I might be too full to continue. But walking back downtown, I decided a good hike in the cold might warrant one more treat, and I headed to Amalfi’s, hoping not to have missed the chance at a piece of the chocolate mousse pie. Things were quieting down; Lily Bistro and a few others had already run out of goodies. I pulled my hat down and considered that it was about time to duck back into Rock City for a mug of strong tea.
I was lucky. Amalfi’s had just a few pieces left, and a few other stragglers and I ended our pie day with a bite of chocolate. I took my treasure and walked up the sidewalk, back toward Main Street and my car, eating as I walked. As the afternoon light began to dim and the temperature began dropping into the single numbers, that borrowed metal fork started to remind me of the old line about “don’t put your tongue on the pump handle.” I’m not kidding.
I love my job.
Eva Murray lives on Matinicus Island and is a Herald Gazette columnist.