O U T   H E R E   IN   T H E   R E A L   W O R L D


Box Suppers, Washingtonians, and Vanilla Extract

by Eva Murray


They’re shlepping it
down there in their
dresses and hose.


The Island Institute makes the point to all who will listen that there are 15 islands which support year-round communities, out of the 300 or so which made that claim a century ago. Once an island starts to shrink, and lose public services and working population, there is a natural and understandable domino effect, or what we might refer to as “Criehaven: A cautionary tale.” Many of the smaller islands have lost their grocery or general stores, but we get the grub across the water somehow, and do not lack for delicious repasts. Here on Matinicus good food is at the heart of our social life-- not counting rum.

Town Historian Suzanne Rankin describes Matinicus Island a hundred years ago as feeling considerably less lonely and isolated than most would find it now. Around the beginning of the 20th century there were 250-300 year-round residents on the island, ten times what the winter crowd drops to these days. “It wasn’t that different from the mainland in some ways. Everybody had a vegetable garden. There was a wonderful store. Anything they didn’t carry, you could order. There was a great deal of community involvement, meetings to go to all the time, various societies and clubs. For a while they had church suppers going almost every week. Usually those suppers also had a church fair, where something was for sale. The women were always making something to sell at the church fair.”

Back in the mid-1800s, among the options for club meetings was the “Washingtonian Society,” a temperance group that seemed to get most of its membership through the exercise of peer pressure, when “taking the vow” was something of a fad. It was a short-lived fad, by all accounts, and before long the Washingtonians had to disband because nobody was showing up for meetings. Even when Prohibition wasn’t the law of the land, it was the law of the kitchen and parlor in some of the island homes, where the women were stern and the alcohol was locked up. Carpenters and electricians working in old houses report discovering an odd pattern of vanilla and lemon extract bottles dropped down between the studs through holes in walls, in attics, under cellars stairs, in closets, etc.

By all accounts the prevailing culture around the harbor, in the entirely male universe of the fish-houses, was rather different from that “on the ridge,” a zone ruled by the Aunts. However, Suzanne tells of a custom described by island native Leona Webber Cox of some families moving “down to the shore” for a week or two in the summertime, sort of like going to camp, only it was going to the fish-house. That meant the gentlemen had to clean up the trap shops and sweep up the rum bottles as the women were going to invade their territory for a while. I personally cannot imagine this working out, but I relay what I was told.

“Also, picnics were big, very popular,” said Suzanne. “Any excuse for a picnic. They might cook lobster down on the rocks, but you’ve got to imagine these women hauling everything down to the beach, heavy glass jugs with the lemonade or whatever, cakes, everything, and they’re shlepping it down there in their dresses and hose. This place used to have a very old-fashioned sense of style. I’ve never seen any photographs of women in pants, even when wearing trousers when doing hard work became acceptable in other places.”

Those island ladies had fashion standards. I cannot argue that we have kept up the image.

We have kept up the tradition of good cooking. Food has always been at the heart of socializing here. We do eat well, and always have eaten well, on this island and every occasion is a reason for refreshments—a birthday, a funeral, a visit from the Bomb Squad, anything.

Suzanne tells of a tradition from “the old days” which may be worthy of resuscitation, that being the holding of community Box Suppers. Each cook would bring a closed box containing an entire meal, the specifics a surprise. Our historian said “each woman” would bring a box, but these days we’d see more of a mix, as many male islanders are accomplished chefs of the first water. Anyway, the boxes, containing a homemade meal for two, would be auctioned off to raise funds for this or that, and a cook of some repute could supposedly start a bidding war and muster up a fair pile of cash. Jeanette Young, while a child in the 1950s, made up a box and was delighted when one of the island men bid on it, bought it, and ate it with her. The custom was that the purchaser would share the meal with the cook, which may have been a fun way to get the start of a “date” with some sweet young thing a fellow might like to hang out with, without the neighborhood busybodies having any excuse to chatter. (That’s another thing: with a larger population, an islander long ago might find a local girlfriend or boyfriend. That’s not so easy these days, although Paul and I somehow managed, and yes, our “courtship” was largely conducted around our neighbors’ supper tables.) In any case, it pleased a little kid to have one of the pillars of the community buy her Box Supper, even if it might have contained peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or whatever a small girl knew how to assemble.

At my house, my husband is a great one to whip up a basic chocolate cake for any excuse whatsoever, and if we’re tired of chocolate cake, perhaps a gingerbread. The anecdotal history would lead one to believe that cake baking has a long history on the island. Jeanette Young’s father was Clayton Young, the previous Town Historian—and world traveler, lobsterman, postmaster, storekeeper, and Colby College math major. Word is that Clayton was helping out in the store as a young boy one time when his father and all the other adults were busy with something else. Word must have gone around that the kid was behind the counter for the afternoon, because a long queue of island men showed up, each supposedly sent by his wife or his mother to buy vanilla extract. When Clayton’s father returned and the vanilla extract was entirely sold out, the boy reported that everybody on the island seemed to have decided to bake a cake that day.