Friday, December 17, 2010

Hattie the Foodie

A friend invited me for lunch today at a hip restaurant in Dallas' bustling, newly-chic Bishop Arts District.

I had my choice between Hattie's and a gourmet brick oven pizza place. I picked Hattie's.

Not because I'd ever been there before, because I hadn't. Or even because I knew what kind of food they served, because I didn't. I just liked the name.

My Aunt Hattie

You see, one of my mom's aunts in Maine was named Hattie, and what a character she was! Although I don't talk about Maine nearly as much as I do New York City, it's not because I don't have fond memories of people and places in the Pine Tree State. And Hattie was one of those people.

Aunt Hattie was married to my mom's Uncle Arthur, who was one of my grandmother's brothers. So, strictly speaking, she would have been my great-aunt, athough we never got that complicated about it.

Aunt Hattie and Uncle - even though she had several uncles, my mom always referred to Uncle Arthur simply as "Uncle" - were dairy farmers who also had a large vegetable garden. During the summers, back in the good old unregulated days, Uncle would dig up or pick fresh produce and bring it out to simple wooden tables set up in the front yard, where Aunt Hattie would sell it to customers driving by.

If they ran out of something and Uncle was in the fields with the cows, Aunt Hattie would hurry through the barn to the garden out back, pick whatever the customer wanted, and rush back to the front of the house with the fresh-from-the-earth veggies. Carrots, peas, string beans, potatoes, corn, squash. You couldn't get 'em any fresher if you'd gone with Hattie and picked 'em yourself. And that kind of honest-to-goodness freshness was what their neighbors and three months' worth of summer people wanted.

For Aunt Hattie and Uncle's year-round neighbors, back when salt-of-the-earth simplicity defined New England, this was just how you got your vegetables in Maine in the summer. Their village didn't have a grocery store. Most of them labored all day at their own dairy farms, in the woods, on the docks, or out on fishing and lobster boats. Just because they all lived in rural Maine didn't mean they all had time to tend their own gardens.

For the summer people, however, Aunt Hattie and Uncle's stand provided a kitchy, classic blast from the past. Something uniquely country. Virtually all of the summer people came from big cities and growing suburbs outside of Maine, so having a simple roadside stand run by a quiet farmer and his no-nonsense wife was a quaint anomaly. Of course, having fresh corn on the cob every night with one's catch of the day couldn't be beat, either.

Back in the Day

Not only was Uncle quiet, I can barely remember ever hearing him talk. He would smile and wink, and he liked showing my brother and me his cows whenever we visited my grandparents, but like a lot of Maine men, talking was just something guys did when there wasn't anything else to do. And in rural Maine, at least back then, there was always work to be done.

Aunt Hattie, on the other hand, had a gift for gab, along with a gravely, high-pitched voice. Both she and Uncle had weathered skin on their hands and faces, etched by the intense Maine weather and the constant manual labor they both apparently enjoyed. Aunt Hattie would serve customers at the front of the house, her wrinkled hands in constant motion, fingering the collar of her starched blouse, pressing creases out of her apron, washing carrots, shelling peas... and if she thought Uncle was within earshot, she'd call out for him into the clear Maine air with a shrill "Ah-tha! Ah-tha?" (Mainers don't pronounce the letter "R.")

Usually, only silence would greet Aunt Hattie's calls. At least in my memory, Uncle had an uncanny knack of disappearing to the back fields, usually without even a tractor. Or he'd be high up in the barn, further away from the garden than Aunt Hattie in the front yard. But with only a quick apology to the customer, Aunt Hattie would dash off, through the barn, to the back garden, then back to the stand.

That's simply how summers were spent at Aunt Hattie's.

Don't Have Time to Waste

Years later, after Uncle had passed away, and Aunt Hattie was alone in their rambling, quintessential New England farmhouse, my family visited her one summer afternoon.

Aunt Hattie still had children living nearby with their families, who checked on her regularly, but she was too independent to move in with any of them. Instead, she'd closed off the upstairs of her old home and set up a cozy bedroom for herself in the unused stairway hall. With no stairs to climb, and saving money by heating only half the house, why leave?

We pulled into the driveway, and parked near where they used to set up their vegetable stand, which by now had become a distant memory, as had the garden, and the cows.

Already parked in the grassy driveway was a silver car with Massachusetts license plates. Dad suggested that maybe now wasn't a good time, but Mom figured since the car wasn't from Maine, it wasn't anybody important, like Aunt Hattie's children. And sure enough, she was right.

We entered through the summer kitchen, an airy room between the barn and the main house with lots of windows (but no insulation, hence the room's name). Through the screen door between the summer kitchen and the real kitchen, we could see Aunt Hattie, seated, talking with a well-dressed woman who was obviously "from away."

When she saw us, Aunt Hattie burst into a smile, her mouth spreading generously across her broad, wrinkled face. She got up and invited us in with gusto.

Mom and the woman "from away" got into a conversation almost immediately, while Aunt Hattie escorted my father and me into her dining room. Dad leaned over to her and whispered, "who is she?"

"Oh, a former customer," Aunt Hattie's smile disappeared, but she didn't drop her voice like Dad had. At full volume, Aunt Hattie complained: "She's driving me crazy!"

"Shhh!" Dad quickly tried to hush Aunt Hattie, surprised at her apparent lack of tact. "She can hear you."

"Oh, I don't kaya," Aunt Hattie assured Dad, dropping her "R" like a true Mainer. "She's boring me to death!"

Different Hatties

Just as native New Yorkers have a unique quality about their character, so do native Mainers. I guess for people born and raised in one of the bleakest climates and economies in the United States, Mainers adopt stoicism and tenacity as basic survival skills.

Obviously, "Hattie" isn't strictly a New England name. For the restaurant here in Dallas' rapidly-gentrifying Bishop Arts District, "Hattie's" is meant to conjure images of a southern chef. With, as their website pretentiously describes, a "low-country" influence, whatever that means.

Not that it wasn't delicious food. A generous slab of deep-fried yet lightly crusted chicken with zesty Dijon mustard on some Hawaiian bread, with freshly-made onion rings.

Definitely not anything that would have come out of my Aunt Hattie's kitchen up in Maine.

Supposedly, "Hattie" is short for "Harriet" or "Henrietta," but I can't imagine my mother's aunt being called anything but "Hattie."

I don't know why, but I can imagine somebody named "Henrietta" putting a chicken sandwich in Hawaiian bread and still calling it Southern cooking!
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