The 'away' person's guide to Mainespeak
In my vacant idleness, it befell that I thought what a nuisance I have been over the years as my several editors have wearied long over the solecisms that adorn my Down East composition and intrude on the uninformed cognoscenti of our readership. It is true that I once mentioned a mug-up, and promptly received four bags of mail asking what a mug-up might be. The editors didn't know, so couldn't blue-pencil and write in something else, and there we were.
The great problem remains that a mug-up is a mug-up, and an easy translation isn't easy. It's Down East coastal Maine. Except for Lizzie Jameson, who served a regular Maine mug-up at 7:30 every morning for 72 years, and always used the same tea bag, the mug-up is unscheduled and may be had at any odd hour. It is a lunch, but not just an ordinary lunch. It has its intimacies, but it is said that after a certain gentleman had come to Lizzie's for mug-up for 17 consecutive years, Lizzie finally asked somebody who he was.
Mostly, the mug-up is a dropping-in or passing-by visit by about anybody. My mother often gave mug-ups to vagrant tramps, which she called "summer people," and when she baked she'd put aside a cake or some cookies should a mug-up make demands. A mug-up has the requirements of the "guest demand" of the Arabian Nights tales, and all the kind and pleasant affability of the German Gemtlichkeit: cozy, good food, conversation, relaxed idleness, and in particular good food. Besides all this, you are seldom invited; you just be there.
So, you see, I'd write "kin to caint" and an editor in a deadline tizzie would get me on the phone to ask what in the world that means. And I had to go into details about man's work is from sunup to sundown, and how it's a long day from kin to caint; from early to late, from can-see to can't see.
I guess the editors sat up in bed after dark, staring off, and wondered about me. All this flashed back, and I smiled to myself as big as a barn door when I sat down to write a note to Sumner Carlson to thank him for my annual Thanksgiving turnip. Sumner has his garden every year out on Garrison Island and has donated a turnip every fall for maybe 30 years. This is a Swede turnip, a purple-top, a rutabaga, a real turnip, not one of your radish-like impostors abusing the same name.
This year's turnip was about the size of a basketball, and when the UPS man brought it we had to let him sit in a rocking chair and rest.
We now live in a comprehensive residence for old gaffers, so I had to gain the confidence of the cook and tell him how to prepare a Garrison Island turnip, which is with a touch of sugar, butter, pepper, and salt, mashed, and with deep respect.
Some folks don't care for turnip, and I have never quite understood such unfounded depravity. Our comprehensive cook listened to me and did a fine job. There was plenty for all the inmates and wayfarers, and all exclaimed, "Delicious!" I thus came to the perplexity of telling Sumner his turnip was delicious, and how do you translate that into State-of-Maine?
I almost wrote to him that the turnip was "some old good." But I recalled that an editor, some years ago, had changed "some old good" to "somewhat good," and that's not the same, is it?
About anything can be some old good, but it is not the superlative. I never heard a stewed coot as some old good, but they have have been called "pretty fair fodder." That may be where you'd start in the gradations of fine food. "By gollies, Aunt Maud! Them there doughnuts is real fine fodder!" That means that all things considered, they aren't all that bad.
When something that ain't all that bad needs a more elegant description, we would say, "My, that's edible!" or perhaps, "Gracious Millie, you done yourself proud!" But if some offering is extraordinarily superior, you can say, "That is sure some old goo-ood!" Beyond that, we recognize culinary perfection with, "That's the best rhubarb pie I ever stuck a tooth in," or, "What do the poor people eat?" or, "Hey, Grace, what bake-shop do you buy at?"
I got a good letter off to Sumner, and he'll be some pleased. I told him his turnip was smooth as a smelt, the size of a politician's promises, sweet as a maiden's blush, tender as a crab-apple jelly tart, slick as a schoolmarm's smile, and well worth paying the express on. I couldn't help it. That turnip was just the finest kind.
ONE time, Oliver Baker was in New York, building a bark canoe during the sportsman's show, and he hunted up a man he'd guided for fishing many seasons. The man had said, many times, "If you get to New York, be sure and look me up."
So Ollie looked him up, and they had Ollie to supper. In their mansion. After eating, Ollie complimented the hostess in the usual Maine manner, and he said, "I'm tellin' you, Missis Van Brighton, them there victuals and withits was sure some better'n nothin' at all!" When she evidenced wonderment, Ollie tried to clear things up. He said, "I mean, ma'am, the collation was some old good, what they was of it."
She still seemed puzzled, so he added, "An' they was plenty of it, such as it was." But when he got back to Rangeley he told everybody, "She tucked on as fine a nose bag as I ever rolled over my tongue!"
You've got to know the territory.