Seafood: Maine coast, 2012; Queensborough Manse, 1960s

The freshest possible Maine lobster, caught today and on one’s plate this very evening. Delectable … and far from the seafood offerings in Queensborough, Ont., when I was growing up there. Which were, by and large, fish sticks.

Tonight, our final night in lovely Stonington, Maine, was lobster night. When you are staying in a place that is practically – or, come to think of it, truly – the lobster-fishing capital of North America, it kind of behooves you to have lobster. And the lobster here is, as you might imagine, second to none. You buy it from someone who caught it, down at the Stonington Lobster Co-op or the Jones Lobster Co., and perhaps it will be fished out (so to speak) for you from a seawater cage below the dock that is right on the ocean. Better and fresher lobster is impossible to get, and it is delicious.

If you like lobster.

I personally am a bit ambivalent about lobster, recognizing its deliciousness and its too-rich over-the-topness in about equal measure. Not to mention what a pain in the butt it is to cook and crack open and eat. Is it worth it? To me, really not so much, though I do appreciate the general idea. For lots of other people I know, lobster – especially fresh Maine lobster – is an extraordinary treat, and I totally understand and appreciate that. But I would not suffer one tiny bit if I were never to eat lobster again in my life. Raymond is, I think, somewhere in between my point of view and that of the “must-have-lobster-while-in-Maine” school. And I suspect he is getting ever more skittish about throwing live creatures to their deaths in boiling water. He might not want to admit it, but I think my vegetarian-leaning ways are gaining a bit of a hold on him. And if you think that’s just foolishness, let me show you a brief video of our dinner tonight when it was still alive and wishing it could stay that way:

And here, because I cannot resist, is the classic scene from Annie Hall where Woody Allen and Diane Keaton are wrangling lobsters. You have to love the part where he suggests that they lure the one who’s run behind the fridge with a bowl of melted butter:

Anyway, all this to say that this is a long way from seafood that was served at the United Church Manse in Queensborough, Ont., when I was growing up there back in the 1960s and ’70s. Fresh live lobster? If we knew it even existed, it was at the very periphery of our knowledge. Were we interested in it? No. Seafood came in these forms:

  • Tuna casserole
  • An image from my childhood: the Fraser Vale elf, who appeared on a lot of frozen things in the Manse’s freezer.

    Salmon casserole (a bit of an aberration, I admit, but my mother must have found a recipe for it in one of the local church cookbooks that she used. She never used any truly useful cookbook like The Joy of Cooking, but that’s a story for another day. Sorry, Mum!)

  • Frozen Fraser Vale fish and chips. (Frozen-and-reheated-in-the-oven fish: not so bad. Frozen-and-reheated-in-the-oven chips? Gruesome.)
  • Fish sticks!

Fish sticks, cookie sheet, aluminum foil. What else do you need for a great dinner, aside from potatoes, another vegetable or two, and ReaLemon juice?

Now we’re talking. Fish sticks were then, and are now, cheap and actually quite tasty. And in the modern era they’ve wrestled the trans fats out of them, so they’re not actually deadly. Admittedly, frozen fish sticks are a long, long way from fresh Maine lobster (or clams, or crab), but they are what we had and what we could afford back in the day in Queensborough, and I won’t have anyone slighting them. I continue to harbour a (now-not-so) secret affection for good old fish sticks.

Though not for ReaLemon, that nasty metallic-tasting substance that came from lemon-shaped containers (or, if you needed a lot, a bottle). And that we always had at the Manse, for fish sticks or whatever. In later life I have discovered real true lemons, and they are very possibly the one thing I could not do without in my kitchen. (“What?” Lemons?!” my mother said when I told her this.) I would even put them above garlic. And I will tell you this: real fresh lemons make frozen fish sticks from the Manse freezer taste just that much better.

And I am happy to report that, even as I type this, there is a box of frozen fish sticks in the freezer at the Manse, just waiting for our return. And no, they have not been there since 1965.

Lamps for a kitchen that is far from built

The lamp with which I have fallen in love for the Manse kitchen. Only not in green.

Raymond and I spent a very pleasant day today in the small city – more like a big town, actually – of Ellsworth, Maine. It’s a place we’ve visited quite a few times before, and our favourite stops there (which I would recommend to anyone visiting that neck of the woods) include the wonderful kitchen store Rooster Brother (high-end pots and pans and kitchen accessories, nice foodstuffs downstairs), the Courthouse Gallery (from which we have been known to buy a painting), the Old Creamery antique warehouse, the brilliant restaurant Cleonice, and a store called J&B Atlantic that sells all manner of things, from gift stuff to hardware to furniture to antiques to lamps. And lamps are what this post is about, because we spotted a lovely one today at J&B Atlantic – and you can see it at left. It’s a pendant lamp whose metal shade is 10 inches wide (it also comes in 12 inches and 14 inches), and what I like about it are the clean, unfussy lines, the bright colour, and the fact that it’s got a very slightly industrial look and feel to it.

The very best part is that Raymond liked it too! Which is a bit of a miracle, because if there’s one thing we rarely agree on, it’s lamp styles.

Our first thought is that three or four of these pendant lights would be fantastic for replacing the rather worn-out ones that now hang over our kitchen counter in Montreal. We’ve been vaguely looking for new ones for a while, and these would work beautifully – except, as we discovered, they don’t come in the right colour, which for that kitchen (which has a bit of a Provençal feel to it, colour-wise) would be yellow or navy blue. The version we saw at J&B Atlantic was a lovely industrial-type green, but that wouldn’t be right at all in our Montreal kitchen. And when we inquired about other colour possibilities, we discovered that they were limited to green, red, black and white – as you can see at right (with colours helpfully written in) in this image taken from the website of the wholesale company in Tennessee that makes, or at least distributes, them, B & P Lamp Supply.

So no dice for the Montreal kitchen. Ah, but what about the Manse kitchen? The one where the plan slowly shaping in our minds includes a counter with stools where guests could sit and watch and chat as, at the sink/counter/stove behind the counter, those who live there prepare meals? In my mind’s eye the big bright kitchen in which that counter sits has beautiful turquoise (of course) plaster walls above bright white wainscotting and below a white tin ceiling. The sides of the counter would probably also be in white wood to match the wainscotting. The surface on top? To be decided. But for sure it would need pendant lights hanging over it, and three or four of these lovely lights in shiny white would be… well, they would be just the thing.

This is a goofy picture of me in the Manse kitchen, but it has the virtue of showing the general area where the still-imaginary counter (over which our new lamps would hang) would be. Basically I am about where the cook would be working (with the pantry behind me); if you were a guest in our kitchen (or Raymond taking a night off), you’d be sitting facing me. The photo also shows the existing turquoise plaster walls and the old white wainscotting, much in need of repair.

So we can order the lights. And then we just have to deal with the small matter of building a kitchen around them. What can possibly go wrong?

When the artists invaded Queensborough

The famous painting by the New England artist Winslow Homer, called Artists Sketching in the White Mountains. (It is in the collection of the excellent Portland [Maine] Museum of Art, where Raymond and I have seen it in person. The museum is a must-visit if you are in the terrific city of Portland.) It’s meant to be an amusing picture, I think – the row of painters sketching each other painting – but I’ve also always liked it because it reminds me of when the students at the Actinolite art school used to come to Queensborough all at once to paint and sketch.

In yesterday’s post I wrote about how the Queensborough area seems to hold an attraction for people of an artistic bent. Photographers, filmmakers, craftspeople and painters are to be found throughout the area. But this is not a new phenomenon.

When I was a kid growing up at the Queensborough Manse in the 1960s and 1970s, it was a common thing on pleasant spring and summer days to see the town invaded by “the artists.” “The artists” were students at the Schneider School of Fine Arts in nearby Actinolite – Actinolite being the only other hamlet, besides Queensborough, in all of vast and rocky Elzevir Township, Hastings County.

I expect this is one of the then-150-year-old log buildings moved to the art school when it was established in 1963. Now it’s almost 200 years old!

The school, no longer extant – more on that a little bit later – was founded by Mary and Roman Schneider in July 1963, so was very new when my family moved to Queensborough exactly a year later. The Schneiders, according to Jean Holmes’s history book Times to Remember in Elzevir Township, “came to Canada in 1950. Having become active in Toronto’s art world, they would come to this area (i.e. Elzevir) to paint. They loved the land and thought that it would be an artist’s dream,” and went on to purchase some land on the banks of the Skootamatta River just off Highway 37 at Actinolite. They moved two 150-year-old log houses from nearby Tweed to use for a studio and office, and the school was on its way.

(An online search tells one more about the Schneiders. According to the Canadian Women Artists History Initiative at Montreal’s Concordia University, Mary Schneider was born in Vilnius, Lithuania, and became a recognized painter in Eastern Europe; she married her husband, a professor of applied art, in Warsaw, Poland, in 1935. They were interned in work camps in Siberia during the Second World War. Once they established their school at Actinolite, “a number of Canadian artists, many hailing from Toronto, Montreal, and other urban centres, spent their art holidays” there.)

A favourite subject for the Schneider School artists: the old clapboard home, always very badly in need of paint, of our neighbour, Wallace Kincaid.

The shed/garage (and former blacksmith’s shop) that was attached to the property of Billy “Nub” Wilson. Just the kind of thing the artists loved to paint, much to our bemusement.

When I was little I didn’t know much more about the Schneider school than that it existed and that its students would regularly pile into our little village of a morning (whether they came in separate cars or were bused in I don’t know) and commence to setting themselves up in front of their easels at many different corners. They always favoured the buildings that we thought were ugly because they were old and maybe to a greater or lesser extent decrepit. (Of course I know now that such historic and perhaps faded buildings are much more interesting to look at, from an artistic point of view, than most modern and neat and tidy ones.) The often-vacant and very old (and unpainted) home of our neighbour, a bachelor named Wallace Kincaid who spent much of the year working somewhere far away, was a particular favourite.

The Manse as painted by Queensborough artist Norah Hiscock – a piece my father commissioned partly because none of the art-school artists ever chose it for a subject.

(We Sedgwicks always felt a tad slighted that never once did any of the artists plant themselves down in front of the Manse and tackle it as a subject; broken-down old garages that had once been blacksmith’s shops seemed, puzzlingly, to be of far more interest to them. That was why my dad commissioned Norah Hiscock, a fine artist who lived just outside Queensborough, to paint the Manse; her picture hung in the Manse living room all the time we lived there, stayed in the family afterward, and now that we’re back there Raymond and I have recently returned it to its same place at the Manse.)

For the kids (and not just the kids either) of Queensborough, it was an entertaining exercise to mosey quietly up behind an artist and look over his or her shoulder as he or she worked. As I recall they didn’t generally mind this, though you wanted to be quiet and unobtrusive. The two things I remember vividly are the smell of their paints, which I think were generally, or at least often, oils; and how their version of the building or scene they were painting would differ in intriguing ways from the actual scene one could see with one’s eyes. The eye of an artist was a mysterious thing.

The cabins on the art-school property. If you’re an artistic type, perhaps you can imagine yourself staying there and venturing out to picturesque spots like Queensborough to sketch and paint.

I was interested in this plaque, affixed to a small log building over the well that once served, and maybe still does, the little conglomeration. It commemorates the well having been donated in 1967 by a patron of the school, Mrs. Franc R. Joubin. Her husband, I have just discovered thanks to the wonders of the internet, was a very famous Canadian mining-industry leader who founded the Blind River (Ont.) uranium mines.

Not long ago Raymond and I drove into the laneway off Highway 37 that leads to what used to be the Schneider School and is now a place called Bridgewater Retreat. It was the first time I’d ever been there. We saw what I imagine was one of the 150-year-old log buildings (now considerably older than that!) that the Schneiders had first moved there; there are also several little cabin-type buildings, like in an old-fashioned motel complex, that I suppose were built for the artist students to stay in. It’s quite a pleasant setting and there seemed to be some kind of gathering of “wellness practitioners” going on there at the time of our visit.

Perhaps one reason I was thinking of the Schneider school and “the artists” today is that Raymond and I are in New England, where artists’ colonies – at places like Ogunquit and Monhegan Island, Maine, and Cape Ann, Massachusetts – are well-established and time-honoured things. It would be incredibly cool if the Queensborough-Actinolite area still had an actual arts colony/school. But then again, what it does have are a considerable number of artists in many media, still drawing inspiration from the landscape that Mary and Roman Schneider “thought…would be an artist’s dream.”

So the tradition, and the Schneiders’ dream, live on.

“Incite art. Create community.” (And suspenseful movie moments.)

The Stonington Opera House, a venue for theatre, music and movies in the beautiful Downeast Maine town of Stonington. (Photo by Annie Seikonia via flickr.com)

Edge-of-your-seat stuff: The new Mrs. Captain von Trapp keeps Gretl quiet as the Nazis try to find the fleeing singing family.

Do you remember the very first time you saw The Sound of Music? And do you remember how you absolutely stopped breathing and were perched on the edge of your seat during that scene when the von Trapps were hiding behind the tombstones in the convent as the Nazis were desperately trying to track them down? How one peep out of little Gretl (or any other of that mob of kids) would have given them away, and how the brave newlyweds, the Captain and Maria, huddled with them and shushed them and dodged the searchlights and you were just dying of fear that they would be found out?

Oh, man, I remember it like it was yesterday. I was maybe 9 or 10 years old, the movie (first released in 1965) was in re-release, and my siblings (or some of us, anyway) were taken to see it at the movies in Peterborough, Ont., by my grandparents (my Buh and Didi, whom I wrote about in a recent post), who had just retired there after a lifetime in Toronto. Despite the thrillingly happy ending of The Sound of Music, I remember still being weak at the knees as I walked out of the theatre because of how terrified I’d been during that hiding-from-the-Nazis scene.

What does that have to do with “Incite art. Create community”? Or Queensborough, or the Manse? Bear with me.

Raymond and I are in Stonington, Maine, one of our favourite places in the world and a place that I have in the past compared to Queensborough – in the sense that they both have something a little magical about them, and they both seem to attract the interest of people who are, well, interesting.

We’ve been here many times before, always at this time of year when the tourists are nowhere to be seen and it’s just us and the local people (many of whom are lobstermen; Stonington is one of the most important lobster-fishing centres on the east coast of North America) and the books we’ve brought to read. Over the course of those visits we’ve seen and done a goodly percentage of the many things there are to see and do on Deer Isle, the island that Stonington anchors on the very southern tip. But one thing we had never done until last night was to attend an event at the grandly named Stonington Opera House.

The Stonington Opera House as art: this is a painting by George Lee Crosby (bluehillartist.com), and you can see (and buy) this and more of his Maine paintings here.

You can read the history of this funky building here; the short version is that it was built as a dance hall in the late 19th century and has served the small community well as an arts centre (and occasional basketball court and even rollerskating rink) in most of the years since. These days, arts-minded people in Stonington, and Deer Isle generally, have made it their mission to see that it continues as a venue for the arts. This island is a place where you see bumper-stickers that say “Incite art. Create community” (offered for sale at the Stonington Opera House). It is a place that over the years has attracted all sorts of artists: painters, photographers, potters, performers and more have been drawn here by the beauty and, I think, the creative spirit of the area. And of course the more creative people who come, the livelier and healthier – including in an economic sense – the arts scene is. As the bumper-sticker says, the arts, and a commitment to promoting them, can and do help build a healthy and interesting community.

Our home away from home.

Throughout the year the Opera House plays host to live theatre, musical performances, community events – and on most weekends, movie nights. First-run films are shown on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. Often on our past visits to Stonington Raymond and I have talked about taking in one of those movies, but have in the end decided instead to go out to dinner or just stay in for the evening – which is a very strong temptation when you’ve got a cozy little nest (the American Eagle suite at the Inn on the Harbor, a pretty and friendly place that I cannot recommend highly enough) that looks out on the ocean, and there is a lively fire burning in the fireplace. And you have lots of good books to read.

The restored 1930s theatre seats.

But last night we actually did it, and were delighted with what we found: a warm, brightly lit place on a dark, cold, blustery night. A friendly chap at the ticket booth, and an awesome concession stand with a vintage (original to the house) popcorn maker (and organic popcorn), homemade ice cream and other great snacks, funky soft drinks and beer and wine (and merchandise, including T-shirts and the aforementioned bumper stickers). Beautifully restored wooden seats (with cushions) from the 1930s. And a good crowd of people (some of whom we’d met in church yesterday morning) out to see a good movie and socialize a bit with friends, neighbours and even two strangers from Montreal.

The movie in question was Argo, the Ben Affleck film about the 1980 “Canadian Caper” in which Ken Taylor, Canada’s ambassador in Iran, helped spirit six Americans (who’d escaped the besieged U.S. embassy in Tehran) out of the country in the midst of that long-ago hostage crisis. (Even I, ancient as I am, have to work a bit to remember those events.) What the film showed – not entirely accurately, as you can read here, but very dramatically – was that, while the Canadians did indeed play an important part, the friendly folks at the CIA in their extremely covert way – so covert that the operation was kept secret for many years after it was all over – were the ones who got the job done.

The suspense level gets really, really high toward the end of the film: will Affleck, coolly playing CIA agent Tony Mendez, get those six terrified people out before it’s discovered they’re not really Canadians, or won’t he? (Spoiler alert! Don’t read the rest of this paragraph if you intend to see the movie.) Just like in The Sound of Music there’s a happy ending (complete with a film clip of good old Flora MacDonald, long-ago MP for Kingston and the Islands and the Minister of External Affairs in Joe Clark‘s short-lived government – and I just have to say that it’s not every day you see Flora MacDonald in a Hollywood movie); but like on that long-ago night in faraway Peterborough, Ont., I was absolutely drained and shaky as we walked out of the theatre and back to the inn, still wired from all the suspense that had immediately preceded the denouement.

Okay, so Argo may not be high art, but it’s entertainment and it was shown in a great arts venue and the cash we all paid for our tickets helps keep that venue – and the arts in general in Stonington – going. And as far as I can see, a community with a healthy arts community is a healthy community period. (Kind of like the period at the end of the words “Opera House” on the opera house’s sign – have another look at the photo at the top of this post. Cool, non?)

Which brings me back – surely you knew I’d get there eventually – to Queensborough and area. In the months since Raymond and I have been spending time there thanks to our purchase of the Manse, we’ve discovered that a lot of artistically-minded people also call it home: painters and photographers and potters and musicians and filmmakers and more, just like here in Stonington. Drawn by the natural beauty (and probably the peace and quiet) of the place. And by the presence of like-minded souls.

The Queensborough Community Centre could certainly play host to arts-oriented events.

Now, Queensborough doesn’t and never did have an opera house. But it has the Queensborough Community Centre, the former one-room village schoolhouse where youth dances and community dinners and yoga classes and let’s-talk-history sessions take place now. (And that several of us think could be a great place to host artists and artisans during one of the studio tours that happen in the central Hastings County area through the year.)

The Orange Lodge building. Let’s dream big: could it be a venue for the performing arts?

Queensborough also has (though privately owned) a great big old hall, the onetime Loyal Orange Lodge. I haven’t been in that building since I accompanied my parents there one election day (it was often used as a polling place) way back in the 1960s, so I don’t recall for sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it has a stage. And even if it doesn’t, I bet it has acoustics. Just think: musical performances, open-mike nights, short- or long-form theatre – and maybe even movies! Wouldn’t that be something?

I think we should start with The Sound of Music. Take it away, Julie:

The crib corner, then and now

Where the crib for my brothers – first John, later Ken – was, once upon a time. Raymond and I bought the cedar chest (blanket box) that you see in the photo at the auction sale at the Melbourne place. We may very well make it into a reading corner. And the carpeting will soon, I hope, be gone.

This is the corner of the upstairs where the baby crib was. When my family moved into the Manse in July 1964, I was four years old, my sister, Melanie, was two, and my brother John was brand new, just four months old. (And as I’ve recounted before, you can imagine how my mother, busy with these three very young children and soon-to-start minister’s-wife duties, must have felt when Will Holmes, our neighbour across the street, greeted our arrival with the words, “Don’t drink the water!” Right. The water in the Manse’s well was not potable. Eleven years of carrying drinking water from the community pump ensued. We all survived it quite nicely, but my mother must have wondered on that July 1964 day whether she would.) Anyway, the crib for baby John was in that corner, and when my youngest sibling, Kenneth, was born at Belleville General Hospital two years later – he has the honour of being the only one of us four to be born while we lived at the Manse – he of course occupied the same crib corner.

Because I think people (readers) like (okay, also because I like) before-and-after shots – or in this case, after-and-before shots – here is the same corner back when baby John was in the crib:

John sound asleep in the crib, I guess in 1964, the year he was born. You can see why I have a soft spot for that corner of the Manse. (Photo by my grandfather, J.A.S. Keay)

It’s quite the feeling to stand in any particular spot in the Manse – like, say, the once-upon-a-time crib corner – and just know so clearly what used to be there. Like, a crib containing one or the other of my two infant brothers, now middle-aged (sorry, guys) men with children of their own.

But of course the Manse housed many more minister’s families than that of The Rev. Wendell Sedgwick. Between 1888 (the year it was built as the Manse for the long-gone Methodist Church in Queensborough) and our arrival in 1964, and from 1975 (the year my Dad took up new duties at the United Church of Canada‘s Seymour Pastoral Charge outside Campbellford, Ont.) until 2012, when Raymond and I bought it, the Manse has housed many ministers and their families. Including, I expect, at least a few infants.

Was this their crib corner too? Maybe it was; or maybe they used this corner at the end of the hallway, with a window allowing in lots of sunlight, as a reading corner. (Which is what Raymond and I may very well do.) Or maybe a minister’s wife or two used it as a sewing corner.

It’s kind of cool to think about the different ways that different corners of the Manse may have served different ministers’ families. But it goes without saying that my strongest connection is to how it served my own family. So this is the crib corner. Whether there’s a crib in it or not.

Queensborough from the air

Queensborough from the air: isn’t that nifty? Complete with pretty autumn colours. This photo comes thanks to Mark Kay and Jos Pronk, whose home/business is the large white building (formerly Bobbie [Sager] Ramsay’s general store) at top right of the photo. The Manse is at the far left, and you can even catch a glimpse of Raymond’s bright-red truck. The home of our neighbours Chuck and Ruth Steele (it was Chuck who alerted me to Mark Kay’s cool aerial photos) is the cream-coloured one with the green roof a bit to the right of the Manse. You can also (unfortunately) see the remains of the lovely old brick home that burned to the ground last spring in about the centre of the photo. (That mess needs to be cleaned up, and I don’t care who hears me say that.) (Photo from the Facebook page of Pronk Canada Inc.)

I love the way our friends in Queensborough keep us posted about what’s new even when we’re not there. This evening I was delighted to open my email and find a note from our friend and neighbour Chuck Steele letting me know that another friend and neighbour, Mark Kay Pronk, had posted some aerial photos of our little village on the Facebook page of Pronk Canada Inc., the business that she and her husband, Jos Pronk, run. (Jos is the guy who can do anything, absolutely anything, with metal – and who proved it by building a car, if you please, and an amazing one at that. You can read about it, and see photos, here.)

Mary Kay and Jos must have been up in a small plane over Queensborough sometime this fall, which would be a cool thing to do. The photos (you can see more here) are terrific and show off our little neck of the woods to great advantage.

It is such a nice neck of the woods! And seeing it from a different perspective only reminds us of that.

When was the last time you saw this sign?

Sometime in the late 1990s or early 2000s (I’m guessing, but I think that’s about right), whoever’s in charge of signage for Ontario’s provincial parks decided an update was needed. Goodbye, therefore, to signs like this one, replaced with a more “modern” blue-white-green logo, different typeface, the whole shebang. Nothing particularly objectionable, at least to my mind. But regular readers will have figured out by now that I’m a sucker for the way things used to be; so you can imagine how delighted I was the first time I spotted the sign above on a stretch of good old Highway 7 (the Trans-Canada Highway) just east of Sharbot Lake, pointing to Sharbot Lake Provincial Park. What a great reminder of the days (the 1970s) when we liked our colours weird and loud.

Now I look for that sign every time Raymond and I drive to the Manse, and it makes me happy to see it. I am assuming it’s a bit of a mistake that it’s still there, left over from the old days and not replaced by one of the new ones. I just hope the powers that be have the good sense to leave it there.