Trust Aroostook County to put venison and ice cream on the same plate.
When people think of Maine, they often think of mouthwatering foods like lobster rolls and blueberry pie. But Aroostook County has its own collection of culinary delights, some that might seem a little off the beaten path.
Aroostook County folks are used to their uniqueness. Aroostook, the largest county east of the Mississippi, is isolated from the rest of Maine. Its people are known for “making do” and inventing their way out of problems. When food was scarce, people grew or hunted what they needed and came up with some pretty inventive dishes.
Many foods have been carried through family histories for generations, like ployes, those thin buckwheat pancakes rooted in the Acadian heritage of the St. John Valley. Many come from what grows in abundance, like potatoes, which are still Maine’s No. 1 food crop.
Here are just a few special dishes that are famous in Aroostook County. If you’re from the area, your mouth will water. If you’re not, seek them out to see what the fuss is about.
New potatoes in milk and butter
After fresh strawberry shortcake, new potatoes cooked with fresh garden peas or green beans are The County’s second traditional dish of summer.
Is it vegetables or soup? Aficionados don’t bother to categorize it because they’re too busy eating those sweet spuds swimming in milk and butter.
Many people dig some of the tiniest first potatoes in early July just for this dish. Later in the season, larger new potatoes can be cut up.
For starters, don’t peel the potatoes. New potatoes have a creamy sweetness set off by the earthy, nutty skin — and besides, a potato with skin can provide nearly 20 percent of the potassium an adult needs daily, according to the Maine Potato Board.
Once cooked, drain most of the water away. Add milk, a little salt and pepper, and butter or margarine to your taste, and return to the stove and heat. Then grab a spoon.
A bowl of french fries and melted cheese smothered in gravy might sound odd, but in northern Maine, poutine is everywhere.
The dish first appeared in Quebec in the 1950s, and the name is used as slang for “mess,” according to Britannica. Aroostook County, which of course borders Quebec, adopted the delicacy.
Because fresh cheese curd is rare in Aroostook, folks often use mozzarella, provolone or other cheeses that are more readily available.
Local chefs have come up with their own takes on tradition, including adding chicken, barbecue sauce, maple and even beer. A 2018 contest in Madawaska saw poutine with lobster and filet mignon, and one even combined chocolate, marshmallow and graham crackers — likely the area’s first S’mores poutine.
Who ever heard of taking leftover potatoes and making them into doughnuts? Only generations of Aroostook County folks.
We’ll bet you dollars to — well, doughnuts — that most farm kitchens still have a handwritten recipe for potato doughnuts. And no, you don’t taste potato, but it results in a moist and cakey confection.
The idea went national in 1940, when Gov. Lewis O. Barrows pushed to have Maine potatoes used in doughnut making. The Doughnut Corporation of America thought the suggestion excellent and spoke of making a “formula for bakers in every state to use,” according to the Aroostook Republican.
Though she hasn’t tried potato doughnuts, Jessica Libby of Lil J’s Kitchen in Mapleton
wants to. She makes the same recipes her grandmother, Christy Plourde of Plourde’s Doughnuts, made famous in The County.
“She made doughnuts for 55 years. She was known in the Valley and all of Aroostook. People would travel for hours to get her doughnuts,” Libby said.
Houlton Farms Ice Cream
Maine has its share of delicious ice cream makers, to be sure. But if you’re in Aroostook County, no summer is complete without standing in a wicked long line for a Houlton Farms ice cream treat.
The Houlton dairy operates ice cream stands in its hometown as well as Presque Isle and Caribou. The frozen treat is available in some stores, but most would say it’s just not the same.
The dairy has been in business for 85 years and produces milk, butter and lemonade as well as ice cream. Besides using local dairy products, the company often uses fresh foods like berries and maple syrup in its recipes.
People of all ages flock to the dairy bars from opening day to season’s end and enjoy socializing as well as anticipating what to order.
To most, mincemeat means a mixture of chopped fruit, mixed with spices, that often winds up in pie. To people from northern Maine, the “meat” part of that means only one thing: deer meat, or venison.
Like many areas where work was long and money was short, The County’s hunting tradition was often borne of the need for meat to freeze for the winter.
Many residents remember family grinding venison and adding it to a steaming, delectably scented kettle of raisins, currants, orange peel, cinnamon and whatnot. The stuff simmered until it was thick and rich, then was canned and stored.
Now, with the popularity of moose season, the catch can include moose as well as venison.
Mincemeat is still a favorite in many local kitchens, at church suppers and holiday dinners. To make it even more splendid, warm the pie and add a scoop of — what else? — Houlton Farms ice cream.
And that, dear readers, is why venison and ice cream really do belong on the same plate.