Children gobble down whoopie pies during an eating contest at the 2022 Whoopie Pie Festival in Dover-Foxcroft. Credit: Valerie Royzman / BDN

It’s officially summertime! Clothes come off, sunglasses go on, barbecue grills are fired up and a pandemic’s grip slowly loosens its hold on a highly anticipated — though fleeting — summer season. While festivals make their way back this summer, the food is here and always plentiful.  

In the land that has everything blueberry and lobster, it is good to find those treats that scream a good story. Anywhere you go food tells you where you happen to be. Food reflects the place, and because of that, it is a badge worn proudly by people all over the country.

Here Down East, there is lobster, scallops, clams, fish chowder and, of course, blueberry pie. Wash it all down with a favorite beverage, and pretty much all is right in the world. Go to an outdoor event or a picnic, and there you will have your introduction to some special foods.

How about red hot dogs and Moxie? Now, there is a combination guaranteed to give you more than your daily requirement of red dye and sugar. Since finding these two vaunted food items — staples, if you will — here in Maine, I move slowly and moderately when it comes to these gastronomical treats.

Moxie was the first mass-produced soft drink in the U.S., and has a die-hard following of fans throughout New England. “You either love it, or hate it,” a friend said to me before trying it for myself. I do like it. The beverage’s unique taste is derived from the gentian root extract, and its name means daring, or courage. In 2005 it became Maine’s official soft drink. Each year in Lisbon Falls, there is the Moxie Festival — a celebration or, rather, devotion — to everything Moxie.

The red hot dog has an interesting story. I like hot dogs, but it was not until my arrival to Maine did I eat a red hot dog. These neon red beauties, called “red snappers” because of the sound the natural lamb casing makes when one bites into it, are a Maine favorite at any backyard barbecue.

Robert “Vinnie” Valente pulls out a rack full of red hot dogs from the cooker at the W.A. Bean & Sons Inc. in Bangor. Credit: Gabor Degre / BDN

Bangor’s W.A. Bean & Sons has been producing red snappers since 1918. Today, they produce over 500,000 pounds of hot dogs annually. Why the red color?  There are two current explanations: The red coloring is a carryover from European butchers who would add the coloring to older-than-normal meats, presumably a sale tag in red color; and that it’s a marketing ploy to draw attention to the product.

And then there are whoopie pies. The origin of this round, cream-filled cake-like cookie continues to be debated. Was it in Maine, or did the Amish create this confectionary goody, now considered Maine’s best known and most loved comfort food? In Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, roadside farm stands still offer this dessert. It’s a culinary juggernaut —even Massachusetts, Virginia and New Hampshire want in on the credit — but I say, “who cares!” It’s a delicious concoction of chocolate cake with fluffy white filling. In 1925, the whoopie pie was first sold to the public by LaBadie’s Bakery in Lewiston. In 2011 the Maine State Legislature designated the whoopie pie as Maine’s official state treat.

Growing up in northeastern Pennsylvania, I never thought about the origin of food. I ate plenty of hot dogs and drank my fair share of soda (not pop) from the local bottler in town, A-Treat. A favorite of mine was cream soda, a frothy drink with a deeper red color than those hot dogs from the north. When poured, cream soda would have that momentary foam top reminiscent of a root beer float.

As I got older, I was introduced to scrapple from the Pennsylvania Dutch, which influenced meals on many home dining tables where I lived. For those willing to give it a try, it’s best not to know what’s in it until you’ve had it. For those of us that regularly eat it, its origin or how it becomes a loaf of meaty pork goodness — sliced, fried and then eaten plain or with maple syrup — does not matter. It’s just good.

Years ago at a diner in town, an old man said to me as he passed our table and saw scrapple on my plate, “Ah, there’s nothing like scrapple to warm the old bones on a cold morning.” He was right. On our mornings here in Maine, it is either eggs from the local chickens with homemade bread, or oatmeal with fresh blueberries. It’s hit-or-miss to find scrapple at the local supermarket here Down East.

We all have food which brings with it a distinct memory of yesterday. When we have access to that specific food, we grab it with both hands because it’s what we’re supposed to do. Its taste floods the senses while it soothes our palette, bringing with it that “taste of home”.

Food is a marker anywhere one travels throughout the world, and Maine is no different. But I have only scratched the surface of what foods here in Maine are unique to the area. If the Moxie and red hot dogs run out, I am certain there are plenty of other foods to dive into.

RJ Heller is a journalist, essayist, photographer, author, an avid reader and an award-winning book critic who enjoys sailing, hiking and other outdoor pursuits. He lives in Starboard Cove.

RJ Heller, Down East contributor

RJ Heller is a journalist, essayist, photographer, author, an avid reader and an award-winning book critic who enjoys sailing, hiking and many other outdoor pursuits. He lives in Starboard Cove.