CASTINE — Ask a writer to lay down a few hundred words on food and what do you get? Memories. In the nearly 70 essays in “Breaking Bread: Essays from New England on Food, Hunger and Family,” the food on the table often plays the smallest role.
Edited by Castine novelist and memoirist Deborah Joy Corey, the forthcoming book supports the nonprofit she started in 2018, Blue Angel Maine. The organization provides boxes of fresh and cooked food, recipes and flowers, and fresh baked goods to combat hunger in Corey’s own backyard. Debra Spark, a Colby College professor, co-edited.
“The thing that really shocked me was what [the contributors] wrote,” Corey says. “That personal memory, that emotional response.”
She sits at a small table in the Blue Hill Co-op Café while a spill of sunlight plays over her. A serene yet vital presence, Corey began Blue Angel out of her surprise at learning that she had neighbors in Castine and Penobscot who were hungry.
“Breaking Bread” springs from Corey’s three years of delivering food to more than a dozen homes each week from donations left on her porch, a community garden, local farms, home gardeners, bakers, shops and restaurants.
“Some of the families we were seeing, second and third generations dealing with hunger, they didn’t have an emotional memory to food,” she says. “I get up in the morning thinking about food and go home thinking about food. It made me think, their food stories are so different from mine.”
In her essay “All the World Loves a Good Cook,” Corey begins, “In my childhood home, food was the maypole we danced around.”
Food, Corey said, is one thing that we all have in common. “It is our balancing force. It’s how we find out about other cultures. For Maine, it’s really an incredible part of our culture.”
All the contributors to “Breaking Bread” are connected to Maine, like Jonathan Lethem, who summers in Blue Hill, and Roxanna Robinson, who has a retreat in Northeast Harbor. Others, like Lily King, Stuart Kestenbaum and Phuc Tran, have made names for themselves as Maine writers. Sedgwick chef and co-owner of El El Frijoles Michelle Levesque has a piece, as does Kate Shaffer of Ragged Coast Chocolates (formerly Black Dinah Chocolatiers).
Many essays highlight complicated relationships with food: “I have deprived myself, and at times I’ve excluded entire food groups from my diet, hoping to change my physical being, my mental state, or, let’s be honest, my jean size,” Levesque writes in “Connections.”
Tran writes about his Vietnamese mother’s pizza — “It will taste exactly like Pizza Hut!” she promised — of white bread, ketchup and American cheese. Portland novelist Ron Currie writes about his shame when his mother becomes a “lunch lady” at his school.
“The whole issue of shame comes up again and again,” Corey says of the essays.
Dumpster diving, pot brownies, 7-11s — all are covered, along with many, many memories of mothers: cooking, serving and passing on their own emotions around food and, at times, its relationship to class.
“Her lofty aspirations were reflected in her recipes: Lady Baltimore Cake came from Cousin Nellie, who had ‘married well,’” Lee Smith writes in “Recipe Box.” Melissa Coleman reflects of her stepmother, “I think of her every time I roast a chicken, her kindness and grace, her acceptance of life in the face of failure.”
In their totality, the essays illustrate “the route to food, what people realize, how people manage,” Corey notes. “The glorious celebratory stories, and Richard Ford, who doesn’t care about food.”
Maine was one of the last states to experience hunger, she adds, because it was a “farms and fishing state. When that began to change, there started to be hunger issues … Hunger is hidden. We know if it’s in Castine, it’s everywhere.”
And she notes that who goes hungry could surprise people, because of preconceived notions and prejudice. Blue Angel is not a handout, Corey states. “I think it’s a hand-to-hand, because the people I serve are working, all of them, unless they’re incapacitated. The person I take vegetables to on Friday may be our plumber on Monday.”
Corey views the term “food insecurity” as “the way society softens the language to make us comfortable. We don’t say, I feel food insecure, we say, I’m starving to death.”
For her, fixing local hunger has to happen at the community level. “To me, that’s the only way it’s going to work,” she says. “You have to know the community. You can’t look away. When I did the research, I couldn’t look away.”
She — and her daughters Georgia and Phoebe Zildjian — provide a personal touch to deliveries, speaking with clients in the dooryard, some who live alone and have few people to talk to. And her efforts have broadened her as a writer, she said. “Every person you meet has a story to tell, a fascinating story.”
Former clients now regularly grow food and contribute to Blue Angel. “The goal is to help them have normal lives,” Corey says. “To not be separated from society because they’re having a hard moment.”
“Blue Angel is the smallest organization in the world,” she adds. “I’m basically driving around with food in my car all the time.”
“Breaking Bread” will be released May 24 from Beacon Press, with all proceeds benefiting Blue Angel Maine. To learn more or to donate funds, visit blueangelme.org, Blue Angel Maine on Facebook and blueangelme on Instagram.