Two Days In Portland, ME

Maine is an interesting place. It’s remote. It’s beautiful. It’s empty.

I had the pleasure of visiting Portland, the state’s largest city, for the second time earlier this year. My time was short – fly in Monday afternoon, fly out Tuesday early evening – but I’m not one to miss an opportunity. Between my two day’s spent working, I fit in as much eating, drinking, and site seeing as I could.

Portland is the largest city in Maine, but in a lot of ways it’s unlike Maine. For one, Portland and its surrounding communities are growing while the rest of the state continues to lose residents. For another,  it’s only 81% white. Maine is the whitest state in the U.S., but in recent years, migrants from Africa, Somalia in particular, have changed the demographic makeup of the area. That’s easiest to see in the schools.

In 2000, the state of Maine’s K-12 population was 96.5% white. In 2014, it was 90.6%. In the Portland school district, the largest in Maine, the percentage of white students went from 81.6% in 2000 to 58.6% in 2014.

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Statistical Atlas

While older generations are less diverse than younger generations, the state’s need for diversity is apparent: Maine’s population has remained relatively steady since the 1980s. So while Portland grows, and grows more diverse, the rest of Maine has aged and hasn’t replenished itself. For Maine, diversity not only imbibes the state with new culture and perspectives, it offers a necessary influx of labor.

That said, numbers are one thing; acceptance is another. And there have been growing pains. In 2000, thousands of Somali immigrants arrived in nearby Lewiston. Two years later, Lewiston’s mayor sent a letter to the Somali community asking them to discourage their friends and family from following them to Lewiston, saying, “Our city is maxed-out financially, physically and emotionally.” Soon after, an out-of-state white supremacist group held an anti-immigrant rally. Three years later, a pig’s head was thrown into a local mosque.

That was nearly 15 years ago now, and my sense – molded through the Mainers I’ve met – is that this is not an intolerant place. It’s a changing one.

Maine is as unique a place as exists in our country. It’s cold. It’s isolated. It takes a special type of person to live there, to be considered a real Mainer. Increasingly, this way of life is being disrupted. Environmental pressures have changed the economics of fishing, though lobstering remains a vital part of Maine’s mythos; the noise of pulp and paper manufacturing has gone, too. Today, the service industry employees more Mainers than any other industry and the state relies heavily on the dollars of out-of-towners who come to hunt, sled, eat, and drink. Maine is “Vacationland”, after all.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the 2016 presidential election reflected the state’s changing attitude. That November, Maine awarded three of its four electoral votes to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. (Click here to see how Maine’s electoral votes work) President Trump won Maine’s 2nd congressional district, making him the first Republican to do so since 1988. He was also the first Republican to win an electoral vote from a New England state since 2000 when New Hampshire went for former president George W. Bush.

Maine is hardly Trump Country in the way we might picture other areas of the U.S. But if the 2016 election was in someway defined by a silent majority speaking out, well, part of Maine certainly did that.

Of course, I was in Portland. That wasn’t my experience.

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The Atlantic Ocean at Cape Elizabeth

My experience came a few weeks before Foliage Season, though the summer temperatures were gone. One night we sunk into the low 40s. Not cold for Portland; just for me. The day after I landed back in DC the high was 85. The vibe was calm. Whether it was because we were in-between tourism seasons or it was early in the work week, I don’t know. But the tourists (or most of them, anyway) were gone, replaced by work-a-day folks in button-down shirts and blouses.

My first day, I landed mid-morning at Portland’s airport – a cool 15-20 minute drive from downtown. I spent the day working, though I had spent the previous week scouting the internet for a dinner spot. The goal, as it always should be in Portland, was seafood. Lobster, if I wasn’t buying.

With a recommendation tendered and a reservation in tow, we made our way downtown to Scales, a seafaring spot on the water in Portland’s Old Port neighborhood. I knew I was getting lobster the next day for lunch, but it’s not every day you make it up to Maine so I started with the Casco Bay Lobster Stew before taking on the wide-portioned Seared Scallops. To wash it all down? When at the source go for an Allagash White.

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Lobster stew from Scales.

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Seared scallops at Scales

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Things get fishy at Scales.

The stew was great. We had a few Mainers at the table with us who had a bone or two to pick with Scales’ Maine Clam Chowder, but I had no such regional qualms. I inhaled by starter with the aid of more than one piece of cornbread. The lobster chunks were huge – I unearthed a full piece of claw meat – and added another level of richness to a cream-based dish that was already upper-middle class.

For my main, the seared scallops offered a tender and slightly-sweet counterpoint to the richness of the stew. Add crisp, fresh corn; salty, meaty bacon; and slightly smoky shiitake mushrooms and I was a happy camper.

Even though we had an 8am start time the following morning, I had more to see – really, more to drink. I was full. Our hotel was just a few steps from a Liquid Riot Bottling Co., a brewery that wasn’t necessarily high on my list of places to see. But like all good decisions, proximity is everything. Steps from my cozy bed, I’d commit to a drink or two.

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Blushing Star at Liquid Riot Bottling Co.

Turns out I had five: a flight of four 4 oz pours and a 12 oz pour of another. I rocked out to the Ka$h Money IPA, God Of War, Primus, and Supremo Italiano as tasters, and knocked back a full-sized Blushing Star. The beers were good. I stuck to a similar flavor profile across the five I drank so I don’t feel confident judging the whole place off that little taste, but I’d go back. And I’d definitely recommend it as an alternative to the other touristy spot downtown (Shipyard).

I could have gone home after imbibing 24 oz of beer. I probably should have. But I didn’t. I needed something sweet and so I wandered over to Gorgeous Gelato where I tendered cash for two cannoli (one chocolate chip, one pistachio). I ate them in bed while reading Raymond Chandler and fell asleep.

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Cannoli at Gorgeous Gelato

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Lobster Roll at The Lobster Shack

The next day was lobster day. After working in the morning, we drove from Westbrook (where we were working) to Cape Elizabeth for The Lobster Shack, a spot on the water that’s open seasonally – from Mar. 31 to Oct. 28. It’s nestled on a cool spot at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean that I’d imagine gets full during the summer. Luckily for us, it was cold and spritzing. A line quickly formed behind us as we ordered our lobster rolls, which came simply dressed with a central dollop of sweet mayo and pickle chip. Holy hell was it good. I would have eaten three.

We had to drive back to Westbrook for a touch more work but our eating and drinking tryst had to come an end. We grabbed Starbucks at the airport, popped the top on an IPA on the 90-minute plane ride home, and landed in DC where it was a different season entirely. We were far from Maine.

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