All photos/art by Heath Robbins
Order a drink at Nebo Lodge–as one of just two bars on North Haven, it’s the closest thing to an island hotspot–and, if you’re lucky, the woman pouring it will be a no-nonsense blonde with twinkly blue eyes and a wide smile. Which is a good thing if you like your drinks stiff and your debates lively. Whatever the topic–the fine points of Nebo’s “Picnicker’s Punch” cocktail, the future of Maine agriculture, or the nation’s economy–Chellie Pingree’s range and expertise are impressive. This occasional barkeep and Nebo co-owner is also a United States congresswoman. “Working the bar is my favorite job because it’s a little like politics,” Pingree says. “People say whatever is on their mind–and they give you a tip if they like you.”
Pingree never intended to become an innkeeper, or to enter politics, for that matter. But some 35 years as a resident of North Haven–about an hour’s ferry ride from Rockland–has shaped her life, her politics, and Nebo Lodge, an inn and restaurant whose kitchen boasts elegant, ultra-local comfort food that both satisfies the locals and lures the many visitors who arrive each summer.
Pingree came to North Haven in the 1970s, for a boy, as she likes to say–for Charlie Pingree, whom she later married. Inspired by the back-to-the-land movement and toting dog-eared copies of Helen and Scott Nearing’s Living the Good Life, the Pingrees started a small farm, producing organic vegetables, milk, and eggs, which they sold at a makeshift stand.
The couple farmed for only a few years, then went on to launch North Island Yarn (later North Island Designs), a company that in its heyday boasted a thriving retail and mail-order business. All the while, Chellie became interested in local politics; she served on the school board and as the local tax assessor (a rare uncontested race for a position no one else wanted). When, in 1991, she was approached to run for a seat in the Maine Senate, she jumped at the chance. As an unknown from a tiny island, she had little hope that she’d win. But win she did: four terms, the title of Senate majority leader, and, in 2008, a ticket to Washington to represent Maine’s 1st Congressional District.
It was during this time, as she assumed a new role on the national stage, commuting between Maine and D.C., that Pingree heard the news that Nebo Lodge–a rambling white wooden house that half a century before had served as the island’s only hotel–was coming on the market. “Oh no,” Pingree remembers thinking. She didn’t have time to take on a project of this size, but she “just had to do it.”
Pingree’s daughters–Hannah, who also served as Maine’s speaker of the House, and Cecily, a documentary filmmaker–designed and furnished the rooms with an eclectic mix of antiques and bold textiles from island girl and acclaimed designer Angela Adams. A year after the inn opened its doors, the Pingrees recruited another island local, Amanda Hallowell, to open a restaurant. On the menu: seasonal comfort food, including crispy kale chips, fried green tomatoes, and burgers made with island-raised beef. “We never said, ‘Let’s do the local, seasonal thing,'” says Hallowell, whose two sisters work as a sous-chef and a waitress at the restaurant. “We just wanted to make food we liked to eat.”
But sourcing locally makes sense on an island, where provisions arrive by ferry. And Hallowell has what amounts to her own personal farm. In 2008, Pingree and her second husband, hedge-fund manager Donald Sussman, restored and opened the historic Turner Farm: some 200 acres of fields and forest, with 30 of those acres in pasture and 2 in cultivation. Turner staff grow dozens of varieties of organic greens, squash, and tomatoes, as well as producing goat cheese, beef, and poultry. With its panoramic views of Penobscot Bay, the farm is as beautiful as any in New England. Each year, Hallowell works with Turner’s young farmers to plan what and how much she’ll need for her favorite dishes, including summer-squash salad, corn pudding, and strawberries for the restaurant’s beloved almond cake. “I love that there are so many young people who want to go into food and farming,” Pingree says. “Forty years ago it was a crazy idea. But now the trend is going in the right direction. I feel like I had it right.”
The following recipes are a sampling of the relaxed, seasonal fare that Amanda serves at Nebo–food that has earned raves from the likes of the New York Times and Food & Wine. The preparations are so delicious and accessible, you can make them part of your everyday summer dinner rotation.