A few weeks ago I was happier than I’d been in ages.
I’d eaten lobster for a week, luxuriated in Maine’s chilly nights and tropical thunder storms, and now….
I was sitting on the floor at Rabelais, leafing through a tantalizing stack of new and old cookbooks. A scruffy dog named Raleigh drowsed in a patch of warm sunlight, lulled by the hum of intelligent conversation about beekeeping, MFK Fisher and recipes for wild blueberry ice cream.
Life was good.
The phrase “a clean, well lighted place” keeps popping into my mind. Famously it’s the title of a 1926 Hemingway short story. A waiter ruminates about the appeal of his café—why it has become a sanctuary for despairing souls: “This is a clean and pleasant café. It is well-lighted,” he thinks. “The light is very good…”
Rabelais is a different sort of “clean, well-lighted” place: a tranquil but cheerful gathering spot for food-obsessed souls in a food-obsessed town. And what a location: It’s in Portland’s burgeoning East End, next door to Hugo’s (chef Rob Evans won the 2009 James Beard award for Best Chef Northeast) and within walking distance of half a dozen great restaurants, including Bresca, Duckfat and Fore Street. There’s something irresistible about a destination cookbook shop just a couple of blocks from the world’s best Belgian frites and Tahitian vanilla milkshakes.
In two short years, it has become a hub of foodie activity, hosting author visits (see Nick Malgieri with his new book, Modern Baker, on August 31), art exhibits (Anna Low’s photographs of the lobsters of Portland are now on display), Slow Food meetings, and even knife demos.
But of course the books are the real draw: 2,500 new titles on food, wine, gardening and farming, plus 4,000 out-of-print and rare books. You won’t find Rachel Ray there, but you will discover works by serious chefs and writers—say, Rowan Jacobsen’s A Geography of Oysters or Fergus Henderson’s Beyond Nose to Tail—many of which are published by small or overseas houses and never ever appear in the big chains.
It is the kind of place I could visit two or three times a week, so it’s probably a good thing that Rabelais is 812 miles from home.
The shop is a collaboration between Samantha Hoyt Lindgren, a former photo editor and pastry chef, and her husband Don, an antiquarian book dealer. Yesterday I called Samantha to ask how they came up with the name. “It’s after the 16th century French author Francois Rabelais who wrote a series of novels about two giants, Gargantua and Pantagruel, and their friends. They’re always traveling around in search of something like the perfect glass of wine. It’s a reference to the pleasures of the appetite, about living life large. “ She laughed, “You wouldn’t believe how the name’s been mangled.”
To quote the website, Rabelais stocks volumes for “the serious chef” and “the armchair epicure.” That means books like Creole, Paris chef Babette de Roziere’s beautifully photographed Caribbean cookbook—it has the most gorgeous plaid “tablecloth” cover ever—and The Empire of Tea, by Alan MacFarlane and his mother Iris (both lived on an Assamese tea garden), plus popular books like Adam Reid’s Thoroughly Modern Milkshakes (think 21st century Chocolate and Earl Grey and Lemon Buttermilk shakes). The more academically inclined can delve into the controversial notion of terroir in anthropologist and chef Amy Trubek’s The Taste of Place, published by University of California Press.
Current bestsellers? DIY books on charcuterie, cheese making and preserving. The Lindgrens, who raise chickens on their farm and work “a large vegetable garden” each morning, have clearly channeled the food world’s current craze for all things homemade. I myself succumbed to Kathy Farrell Kingsley’s entry level Home Creamery. Never again will I have to buy crème fraiche or ricotta—as long as I get around to ordering butter cheesecloth and some other special gear. And I scooped up Jerry Traunfeld’s inspiring The Herbal Kitchen which has already given me a raft of inventive ways to use the herbs from my own garden.
Rabelais has a stunning on line catalogue of antiquarian treasures such as a first edition of Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s classic 1826 treatise on gastronomy Physiologie du Gout for a cool $30,000. Hmmm…maybe I’ll think about a limited edition reprint of Charles Lamb’s A Dissertation upon Roast Pig ($90) or maybe French Fries, an “artist’s book” by Dennis Bernstein and Warren Lehrer, described as “a carnivalesque-pop-art-amusement-motel-and-theme-park of visual and typographic devices” ($500)… or maybe not.
One the deep pleasures of shopping at Rabelais is that the Lindgrens really know their stock. When I asked Samantha for a good book on Maine cookery—harder to find than you might imagine—she fetched several, including Lobster Rolls and Blueberry Pie by Rebecca Charles, who once cooked in Maine and is now the chef and owner of New York’s award-winning Pearl Oyster Bar. And she also showed me Sarah Leah Chase’s out of print memoir, Salt Water Seasonings, Good Food from Coastal Maine, with straightforward dishes like Fish Chowder seasoned with salt pork and Simply Sauteed Chanterelles. One has delicious restaurant-style recipes, the other simple dishes that make use of the state’s natural bounty.
Reader, I bought them both.
Do you have a favorite cookbook shop? Let me know--but for now, I ♥ Rabelais.
Rabelais, 86 Middle Street, Portland, Maine 04101. Telephone: 207-774-1044. Web: www.RabelaisBooks.com