- by Carol Standish
The perusal of a new cookbook is usually a rather haphazard affair involving lots of page fanning, ingredient list skimming and a general dipping in and out here and there. Not the case with Recipes from a Very Small Island (Hyperion, 227pp, $25.95) by Linda and Martha Greenlaw. I read this cookbook word for word, ingredient by ingredient and didn’t even look up until page 95—the end of the appetizer, shell and fin fish sections. It reads like a letter from home.
The title Recipes from a Very Small Island suggests humility, simplicity and wholesomeness and that’s just what the book delivers—with verve and sincerity and a warmly personal running narrative mostly from mother Martha. Daughter Linda (retired swordboat captain, if you recall) chimes in with both recipes and commentary but this is her mother’s cookbook.
Martha Greenlaw grew up on a dairy farm in Winslow, Maine. The traditional roots of her cooking are to be found in recipes handed down from her mother and aunts. Later, while raising her family she lived in several different cities in the Northeast, gathering recipes from the friends many cooking friends she made. Along the way she has taken one short course in Asian cooking and has been a member of a gourmet cooking club but is otherwise unschooled except by her own palette and New England culinary tradition: nothing flashy, nothing overly complicated, but carefully calibrated to a subtle perfection over time. After her family and friends, cooking is her pride and joy. One inspires the other.
Martha and Jim Greenlaw retired to Isle au Haut, an island off Stonington, Maine and live there year round. Linda also lives on the island and lobsters with her dad. The island store is understandably limited in what it carries since everything is delivered by the mail boat. (Supplementary shopping trips to the mainland are necessary, but avoided). What’s available is what is most often eaten, in this case, lobsters clams, mussels, crab and fin fish.
The first section of the book, called “Beginnings” includes nine seafood appetizer recipes (out of seventeen). The second chapter, “Lobster, Crab and other Shellfish” offer 21 recipes. Being a shellfish lover, I mentally devoured them all and intend to cook every one. Casseroles, chowders, salads and various flavors of fish-type cakes all sound scrumptious. The fin fish chapter offers 15 recipes for haddock, halibut, mackerel, salmon, sole and swordfish—many of them simple grilling recipes accompanied with a complementary sauce like the lemon-caper butter for swordfish.
The "Bean Pot and Covered Dishes" section offers time-tested New England dishes like baked beans from scratch (they’re really easy), black bean soup, sweet potato casserole and then there’s Linda’s contribution, sausage and shrimp lasagna.
Another chapter is devoted solely to blueberry and cranberry recipes—you can pick them both on the island. (Martha’s recipe for blueberry pie is the same as my mothers, only without the cinnamon.) Vegetables and desserts are separate chapters.
By the time you get to the meat and poultry section which is usually the heart of a more typical cookbook, these dishes seem almost anticlimactic, though no less enticing. The descriptions of family holiday celebrations by the mother and daughter team are plentiful in this chapter because of the holiday fare included in it. Typical is Martha’s list of Thanksgiving guests which include (besides the six of them) “Jim’s sister Sally and her husband, Charlie plus their kids, John, Tom, Suzy, Dana and Dianne. My sister Gracie, her husband Bud and daughter Cindy would come and bring two widow ladies, Esther and Hazel. My sister Avis brought her son Randy. Jim’s brother George came alone in those days being the family bachelor. I think that adds up to about thirty for dinner.” The recipe for holiday roast turkey follows—and one for venison mincemeat.
Along with her own favorite recipes (a seafarer’s drink, “Dark and Stormy” and braised chicken with garlic and fennel, Linda contributes vignettes of her life growing up in her parents’ household which are poignant and humorous and often include fond memories of one of her mother’s wonderful meals.
Yes, this is a warm and fuzzy cookbook but the welcoming atmosphere created by the authors in no way diminishes its substance. Rather, you know that anything that comes from Martha Greenlaw (and family) has got to be way better than good.
The production of the book is also exceptional—gorgeous pictures of the food, the island, the mother and daughter team having fun in the kitchen, Linda and Jim on the water. The presentation of the recipes on the page is uncluttered. Two ink colors differentiate ingredients from instructions. Even the format (8” x 9”) is manageable and easy to prop up. The book is bound to be a bestseller but, if I were the Greenlaws I would worry that at least half their readership will be showing up on their doorstep, hungry, claiming to be kin.