Should you find yourself in Portland, Maine, on the first Friday of the month, you can participate in the monthly art-walk, a self-guided tour of local galleries, studios, museums, and other venues. There are plenty to choose from —62 venues in June ’08, to be exact. One of those venues might Rabelais. You don't know a thing about this venue, or about the exhibition, but you've got some time before your dinner reservation. You decide to pop in.
Rabelais. The name means nothing to you, except, perhaps, to evoke an image of some long-ago French dude. Someone bawdy, you think, although perhaps you’re confusing him with that Russian, the bearded one with the wild eyes who drank too much and was rather spectacularly murdered.
You were busy before this trip to Portland. Deadlines. Children. Too busy to do any research on where to go or what to see.
Had you done your research, you would have known that Rabelais, this place you are about to enter, is one of only a handful of bookstores in the world entirely devoted to food and wine. That this store is up there with New York City’s Kitchen Arts and Letters, or London’s Books for Cooks. That it is at the heart of Portland’s robust food scene. You would know that this store was recently featured in Food and Wine and Saveur, and that the Boston Phoenix called the store “an experience to savor…a place where shoppers and eaters can find exciting and satisfying food experiences.”
You might not know these things, but the moment you walk in, you are immediately struck by their delightful, eclectic mix of titles — from Grassfed Gourmet to Gastronomica, and from Alice Waters to American Artisanal. The store is filled with new books about food. Old books about food. Out-of-print or rare books about food. They have books about growing food, choosing food, selling food, making food, eating food, and thinking about food. They even have a magazine called Meatpaper, about the art and culture of meat, which for some reason makes you deliriously happy. You quickly forget about the art you came to see, and dive rapidly into the volumes.
If you love food or books, you’ll be pleased with what you find at Rabelais. If you happen to love both food and books, you’ll be over the moon.
Rabelais is owned by Samantha Hoyt Lindgren and Don Lindgren, a husband and wife team. Samantha once worked in magazine publishing in New York City. She left that life to study the Pastry Arts at the Institute for Culinary Education, followed by work as a pastry chef. Don has long been an antiquarian book dealer. They've combined their passion into a great food bookstore.
Looking for a rare food book? Like a first edition of J.I. Rodale’s Pay Dirt, about compost? Or M.F.K. Fisher’s risque Gastronomical Me? How about an out of print James Beard? You’ll want to come here first. There's a good chance they'll have it.
You’ll also find books by modern-day celebrity chefs here…but only ones that the Lindgren’s think are worth owning. Jamie’s here; Rachael’s not. The minimalist is in, the Skinny Bitches are so, so out.
You might even find more than just books by food celebrities. While you are standing in the store, talking with the owners about the Maine fishing economy (hanging in there for now, thank goodness), an animated bald man in a bright orange shirt might just stroll in. If you didn’t live under a rock — if, say, you actually had a television — you might have recognized that animated bald man as Andrew Zimmern, host of the Travel Channel’s show Bizarre Foods, a show that the New York Times said "is smarter than its lame title implies, thanks to the charm and intelligence of its host," and that the Washington Post called "must-watch television."
It’s only when you notice that this animated bald man is being followed by two impressive looking movie cameras that you start to think, Hey, something interesting is happening here. And it is; Zimmern has come to Portland to shoot Bizarre Foods Maine, and he’s stopped by Rabelais (with his father, in the dark jacket!) because he knows it’s the place to be.
You watch, quickly drawn in by Zimmern’s charm, humor, and enthusiasm; he laughs easily with the Lindgrens. He talks quickly, moving from a tale about how he spent the day — in search of sea cucumbers which he then delivered to a restaurant for preparation — to poking fun of his colleagues at the Travel Channel. You laugh as he picks up a copy of Anthony Bourdain’s book, No Reservations, and says (on camera) that everyone in America must buy this book by his good friend, whom, he jokes, needs the money.
The whole thing is so serendipitous. It’s serendipitous that you found this store at all, or that Zimmern came in while you were standing there.
Or maybe it’s not. Portland has an amazing food scene. It’s a city of just 64,000 residents, yet it has an impressive 230 eateries. Maine cuisine is much beloved, and coveted, around the nation. The best restaurants in the world draw foods from Maine. There’s a rich fishing and lobster tradition, and there’s an array of small, organic farms nearby, many of which produce artisanal quality foods. There’s an extremely active Slow Food chapter, which holds reading groups and food writers’ nights and soil-to-supper celebrations.
Indeed, as the Washington Post wrote, "Portland chefs and nearby farmers have pulled together in a burgeoning food movement that saves small farms while delivering to restaurants fresh meat and produce that has been bred and grown for taste, rather than for durability during transport...The passion about this food movement is intense." Food and Wine agreed that Portland's "food scene has gotten all-around terrific." And the Food Network named Portland as one of three finalists for the "Most Delicious Destination" award.
No wonder Don Lindgren said he'd put Portland restaurants and farms toe-to-toe against any city's.
Of course there should be a phenomenal food bookstore here. And of course food celebrities would want to stumble in. Maybe, you realize, it’s not so serendipitous after all. Maybe, just maybe, in a city like Portland, it’s only natural.
Here's Zimmern with the Lindgrens (Don's the one with his arm around Zimmern) and the friendly camera-toting fellas' who tipped me off that something was going on.
You'll find Rabelais at 86 Middle Street, in Portland's East End. As for Zimmern, who knows. He could be anywhere by now, eating goodness-knows-what.