Maine "Muffins" at the Soup Bowl Supper

"Just because a cat has kittens in the oven don't make them muffins."
- A common Maine saying

I first heard this Maine saying at the annual Boothbay Soup Bowl Supper, which took place this year on April 5. Watershed Center for the Ceramic Arts and the Boothbay Harbor Rotary Club team up to host this fundraiser involving handmade ceramic bowls and delicious donated soups and chowders (or "chowdahs" if you're from Maine). It seemed like the perfect event for us to connect with community members from the Boothbay Harbor Region, so Devin & I packed up some mugs and joined the crowd to see what stories we could find.

One of the Boothbay Harbor Rotarians shared his story with us after hosting the event.

One of the Boothbay Harbor Rotarians shared his story with us after hosting the event.

So what does that saying mean, you ask? If you are like me, and have lived outside of New England and the state of Maine for most of your life, you probably haven't heard it. It was explained to me in a conversation during the supper, that it means even if someone was born in Maine, if their parents were not born here, they could not be called a Mainer. This is one of the things I noticed right away when I moved to Maine--I was "from away" (so definitely not a "muffin"!). In many of the towns in the midcoast region, like Boothbay Harbor, Devin and I have found that many families have roots that go back generations in their town. In some ways I expected this to make some Mainer's explanation of home less complicated, as the geographic location remains somewhat constant throughout their lives. However, staying rooted in one place does not necessarily make home more simple.  We talked to people during the supper of all ages, ranging from an elementary school aged girl, to many retired people who have been living in Boothbay (or nearby towns) for decades. It was interesting hearing what keeps people here, or brings them back, and what their communities and families mean to them. Just like the pancake breakfast Devin and I attended in East Dixfield, the Soup Bowl Supper felt like a community reunion in some ways. A few of the people we spoke to told us that they had been coming to the event since it started 22 years ago, and they still have all 22 bowls!

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We also connected with a local reporter from the Boothbay Register during the event, who ended up meeting with me afterwards and writing a lovely article about our project! During the interview for the article, I was able to hear the reporter's beautiful story of her coastal home, too. We had a good laugh about switching her role from interviewer to interviewee that afternoon.

Stories and conversations from the event are still being processed, and many of the specific stories will be shared in the coming weeks on the Story Archive page. We also have exciting June plans and excursions coming up that we will be sharing shortly. So, stay tuned for more project updates!

— Juliette

The 2005 Soup Bowl Supper poster, inviting people to the 9th annual supper.

The 2005 Soup Bowl Supper poster, inviting people to the 9th annual supper.

What does "raw" mean to you?

It's been a month since Juliette and I participated in the Augusta Art Walk's Raw Space initiative, and we are still processing the stories we heard—both technically and in a figurative sense. On April 20th we met people from all over central Maine—and much farther afield—who came into our doctor's-office-turned-makeshift-cafe.

Some of the mugs that were traded for stories during our Augusta pop-up cafe on April 20.

Some of the mugs that were traded for stories during our Augusta pop-up cafe on April 20.

The space was aptly called "raw": back rooms were filled with insulation torn from the exposed ceiling, the bathroom in what had been the waiting room was out of commission, and though our area was sufficiently clean, it certainly didn't scream hospitable. All of this made the experience all the more fascinating as far as I was concerned.

A backroom filled with torn out insulation, as 269 Water Street is being prepared to transform into something new.

A backroom filled with torn out insulation, as 269 Water Street is being prepared to transform into something new.

I am drawn to ambiguity in language, and "raw" epitomizes the quality. A few senses of the word include: unprocessed (or uncooked), fresh, unnaturally or painfully exposed, crude, and undiluted. There is a connotation of transition in "rawness" that is also shared by the loaded definition of "home." Our project—with undoctored audio and handmade mugs—can be described as raw. The atmosphere of our "raw space" was therefore particularly conducive to having exchanges about home.

It's here that I would like to provide some audio clips that we recorded from the many stories people we talked to about home told us. But aside from the volume of stories we are sifting through still, the volume sound-wise in the space that we shared with a musician (who was very cool and provided a nice vibe) resulted in not the greatest audio quality. The stories are transcribable—and will certainly appear in our book compilation at the conclusion of the project—but not a fair representation of the experience in their current form. In some ways, the rawness of the audio is a testament to the multifaceted experience we had.

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One thing I can say about the stories we heard and captured, though, is that they all felt raw in one way or another; open, fresh, sensitive. And as appreciative as I was of how forthcoming people we talked to were, I was surprised by the diversity of experiences that people had and how far they had come—either distance-wise or emotionally—to talk to us. 

Another thing that made our experience particularly worthwhile was a new addition to our story-gathering efforts: we asked people to write or draw their experience of home while they sat down with coffee, tea, and/or a baked good we provided. The drawings and writing we received from people were also intriguing in their rawness.

A handful of written responses and drawings gathered during the event.

A handful of written responses and drawings gathered during the event.

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I think by any account, the heart of Maine's capital city has felt raw for a long time. But what struck me most while participating in the well-attended art walk was not the one of the woundedness I had become accustomed to growing up here; but rather the sense I had was of healing and hope—after all, we were set up in a former clinic on its way to becoming something new. 

— Devin

Our handwritten sign posted to direct folks walking down Water Street into our pop-up cafe.

Our handwritten sign posted to direct folks walking down Water Street into our pop-up cafe.

Full Circles

On Maine Maple Sunday (March 25), Juliette and I took a drive up to East Dixfield, Maine, for a pancake breakfast hosted by Hall Farm. The clear day and recently fallen snow made for a scenic and serene drive over winding roads. There was little else around to distract us: a church tucked away here, an abandoned, collapsing house there. But as we approached our destination, we were surprised to find parking as scarce as signs of civilization had been a minute earlier. I vaguely remembered riding out to rural parts of Maine as a kid, through similarly sparse expanses to sample warm maple syrup in strangers' shacks. But my recollection didn't prepare me for the crowd we encountered waiting in the cold alongside Route 2 at 9 a.m.

The folks in line seemed less surprised—as well-acquainted with each other as they were with the apparent ritual of returning for breakfast there year after year. One family near us had trekked out at the behest of their mother, who was too sick to join but left it to her husband to carry on without her. Juliette and I were anxious for pancakes, too. But we were also hoping to hear a story or two about what made this part of Maine home. Acquaintances and friends exchanged greetings, and those who came together speculated about how long the wait would last, but otherwise folks were focused on the task at hand: shuffling ever-closer to food and warmth.

The long wait outside Hall Farm on Maine Maple Sunday.

The long wait outside Hall Farm on Maine Maple Sunday.

The wait lasted about 45 minutes, and the line still reached the roadside when we reached the door. As we were approaching I was trying to determine what this building had been in a previous life. My rudimentary understanding of architectural history told me this building ever-so-slightly wanted to suggest a Greek temple rather than a farmhouse or other purely functional space; perhaps a library or a school.

School, it turned out, was the correct answer.

Information just inside the doorway recorded the building's history, and the classroom that now housed a buffet and long communal tables still had chalkboards on the walls (the other classroom across the hall had been converted into a maple products shop). What did not become abundantly clear for Juliette or I was whether we would be able to spark conversation with our tablemates. For an all-you-can eat affair, the turnover was brisk. We were preparing to leave when a new group sat down beside us. An older lady next to me mentioned to her companions that she had attended school there. Of course I had to ask her about her experience. And that's where this story comes from: an old schoolhouse in a town where attendance is still mandatory for some on at least one day of the year.

One of the chalkboards lining the walls of the former schoolroom that had been transformed into the Maine Maple Sunday dining hall.

One of the chalkboards lining the walls of the former schoolroom that had been transformed into the Maine Maple Sunday dining hall.

— Devin

The Homemade Exchange Visits Pittsburgh

After what has felt like a very long Maine winter, April has finally arrived and spring feels so close. In my opinion, March is always the hardest month in Maine, as the warm (think 40 degrees) days are such a tease when they are followed by a blizzard the very next day. Nonetheless, we made the most of March, and in mid-March I traveled to Pittsburgh for an annual conference that brings together ceramics enthusiasts and educators. I had been invited to take part in an exhibition called Cups of Conversation: 50 States at this wonderful café called Everyday Café in Pittsburgh during the conference. Jeni Hansen Gard, a socially engaged ceramic artist and the organizer of this exhibition, invited one artist from each of the 50 states to contribute two cups—one of the cups went to someone from the ceramics community in town for the conference, and the other cup went to someone living in Pittsburgh. The deal was that people would be gifted a cup if they bought a cup of coffee and sat down to have a conversation with one of the exhibition artists. It was a perfect exhibition for the Homemade Exchange to be involved in, and we were thrilled to represent Maine!

Some of the mugs on display at Everyday Cafe during Cups of Conversation: 50 States.

Some of the mugs on display at Everyday Cafe during Cups of Conversation: 50 States.

Even though I wasn’t talking to Mainers during this exhibition, I loved using our Homemade Exchange mugs, and the many other mugs from all over the country, as tools to connect with people in a new place. I asked the people the same questions we ask when we meet Mainers for our project: Where is home to you? Do you have any stories or memories that remind you of home? If you could describe home in one or two words, how would you do that? I met and gathered stories from many native Pittsburghers, a Minnesotan, an Ohioan, and I even happened to talk to a ceramic artist from Portland, Maine who was also in town then! The amazing thing is, no matter where people actually call home, there are many common themes and threads that tie together the stories and conversations we’ve gathered so far. Harriet, a women I spoke with, who has lived in Pittsburgh for the past 40 years told me about raising her two sons in Pittsburgh and working for many years in the public school system before retiring, and re-finding her passion for painting and making textile work. Harriet and I might seem like we don’t have much in common at first, but sitting down with a warm drink in a handmade mug allowed us to ease into a conversation and find our shared passion for art.

Harriet with her mug in Pittsburgh.

Harriet with her mug in Pittsburgh.

There has been something beautiful about hearing what makes the small and rural Maine communities feel like home to people, but being involved in the Cups of Conversation: 50 States exhibition gave me the chance to reflect further on the power of handmade cups to connect people in general. Jeni, along with many other contemporary ceramic artists, is thinking about many of the same things I'm interested in, like how ceramics objects inherently encourage interaction and conversation. It was such a joy for The Homemade Exchange to participate in this exhibition, and I hope to stay in touch with the people I spent time getting to know in Pittsburgh! I also look forward to continuing to see and experience the power of our handmade mugs, as Devin and I make more project plans for this spring and summer. 

—Juliette

The Difference Between Looking and Seeing

“I have to see a thing a thousand times before I see it once.” 
― Thomas Wolfe, You Can't Go Home Again

The concept of "home" is an innate part of the human experience. Like language or the proverbial riding of a bike, the concept of home is ingrained in the human psyche from an early age. Even as we grow and change, impressions of what home is can lie buried in a person's subconscious, forming a foundation for future understandings of belonging and identity. In fact, researchers have found the drawings of six-year-olds to be revealing in attempting to understand how home is felt before it can be compared to outside standards or described in a more analytical way.

Juliette's experience doing this type of project in the past has shown that kids tend to have the easiest time defining home verbally. Even if home is unconventional—maybe the child doesn't live with both parents or has moved multiple times in their life already—a child will ascribe the meaning of home to a place and people associated with it (e.g. grandma's house).

At some point, home becomes more complicated for most of us. Just as problem-solving in a non-native language tends to be less emotional, creating concepts of home as an adult become more utilitarian as people deal with the responsibilities of every-day life. Adulthood is an opportunity to revise knowledge received as a child, including what home is.

When we begin to think analytically about home, the deep-seated childhood memories can become a lens through which new experiences are colored, examined, and perceived. The other night Juliette and I had a conversation with another couple of twenty-somethings about what home means to them. And somewhere in their exposition, the three words "comfort," "safety," and "nostalgia" were offered up as basic tenets of what home is. But what followed were expressions of hope: because of Maine's abundant environmental assets, appreciation for the availability of opportunity in Maine for folks who revel in self-reliance, and the quietude offered by a rural and sparsely populated state. Parsing experience into a broader understanding of the world is far beyond the purview of a young child, and yet this type of experience-building and meaning-creating can only occur after first experiencing home intrinsically. At least for this couple, perpetuating former experiences of home into young adulthood required identifying aspects of their surroundings that had the potential for ongoing "hominess."

Home is constantly being recreated, as is our perception of any experience that holds meaning in life. A future post may deal with this topic more deeply as we further explore the subtleties of not only what but also how people tell us about what home means to them.

As Juliette and I persevere in our attempt to recognize the crafted nature of storytelling, encourage dialogue around the topic of home—a universal concept with myriad meanings and implications—and simply share time and conversation with Mainers, we will undoubtedly be reshaping perceptions of home, both for others and ourselves.

—Devin