ISLESBORO, Maine — On a fall afternoon author and historian Sandra Oliver is preparing lunch in the sunny kitchen of her 100-year-old farmhouse here. She leans over a wood-burning cook stove to check on old-fashioned brown bread, steaming away in a glass double boiler. She pokes at the surface with a well-worn paring knife. The tip comes out covered in sticky batter. “Nope,” says Oliver, “not yet. Back she goes.”
Oliver, 64, who writes the weekly “Taste Buds” column for the Bangor Daily News, and is the author of four books, is generally fond of old things and old ways, brown bread included. The recipe comes from her latest volume, “Maine Home Cooking: 175 Recipes From Down East Kitchens.” Many of the dishes come from Oliver’s friends, island neighbors, and readers of her column. “Savory Puddings used to be part of most meals in New England,” says Oliver. “In the mid-19th century they started to fade away, but lucky for us brown bread remained. I just love it.”
The book, she says, “comes close to blending together everything that I do in my life — the cooking, but also sustainable living and conviviality.”
She has been living on Islesboro, in Penobscot Bay, since 1981, when she and her then husband bought the farmhouse and 21 acres for $50,000. The island has mostly summer houses; residents get there by ferry, which stops running for the day at 4:30 p.m. “When we bought [the house], we propped it all up and put new joists in the front,” says Oliver. “We put in three new chimneys and rebuilt the barn so it wouldn’t fall down. Other than that, it is basically unimproved since the 1900s.” The wood stove is in use year-round and though there is a sink with running water, there is no traditional indoor plumbing. In the winter, Oliver burns six cords of wood in three stoves.
Oliver, a Connecticut native and a former interpreter at the Mystic Seaport Museum, developed the fireplace cooking program at the museum. She is coauthor with Kathleen Curtin of “Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving History and Recipes From Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie.”
Inspired by the way things were, Oliver grows an extensive garden, tends berry brambles and fruit trees, puts away food for the winter, raises chickens and pigs, and lights her Christmas tree with real candles.
Today she is making the brown bread, a potato and parsley soup, and putting up pickles. With the bread back on the burner, Oliver heads out to pull onions and snip parsley from her garden.
Keeping with the seasons is at the core of Oliver’s frugal approach to cooking. “Maine Home Cooking” includes the author’s take on classic New England dishes (baked beans, chowder, oyster pie) as well as contemporary Maine cooking with global inspiration and ingredients close at hand (fish tacos, squash risotto, pumpkin soup with Thai seasonings). There is a section on desserts (sweet apple dumplings, old-fashioned spice cake) and another on preserving food from the garden (cornichons, rhubarb chutney). The book is studded with bits of food history and practical kitchen advice from both Oliver and her readers (to frost brownies, after baking sprinkle the hot surface with chips or chocolate pieces and spread them when melted; put grape leaves in the pickle jar to keep spears crisp).
Back in the kitchen, Oliver cooks potatoes and onions in butter and olive oil flavored with curry powder. She adds water and Worcestershire sauce, simmers the mixture, then purees the soup in a blender, adding loads of parsley to make it frothy and bright green. She ladles soup into beat-up Staffordshire china bowls and stirs in sour cream. She turns the little brown bread out onto a plate and brings it to the table for lunch. It’s a meal that might have been served in this house when it was built.
We sit down and eat quickly. It’s almost time for the last ferry.
Oliver likes this about life on the island. “There’s something really sweet about the idea of a last ferry,” she says. “Like, OK, we’re done. Now pull up the bridge.”