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Lobster Out, Lox In: Portland, Maine is Having a Jewish Food Moment

For great knishes, bialys, and babkas, just head on up the coast

Sophie Aroesty
August 09, 2017

Move over, lobster, and let the lox in: Portland, Maine is having a Jewish food revival.

As the Portland Press Herald reported this week, Jewish delis and bakeries are popping up across the coastal town better known for crustaceans and potatoes than for knishes. These days, go out to lunch in Portland and you can find babkas, challahs, bialys and deli ryes at Rose Foods, Union Bagel, Ten Ten Pié, and Fork Food Lab. Tin Pan Bakery offers knishes, while The Purple House serves up smoked salmon, gravlax, and whitefish caviar on Montreal-style bagels.

While not as big of a hipster haven as its namesake on the West Coast, Portland, Maine attracts just as many bearded, bike-riding millennials. And Jewish foods hailing from Eastern Europe fit right into their affinity for vintage-style trends.

“We definitely get some people in who say ‘nish,’” Elise Richer of Tin Pan Bakery told the local paper. “They don’t know that it’s ‘ka-nish.’ But they’re very intrigued. You put potato in something, most Mainers, their ears sort of perk up.”

A 2007 census puts the Jewish population at a little over 8,000 in a city of over 66,000. So Jewish foods are definitely appealing to more than just members of the tribe. Daniel Heinrich of Portland’s Temple Beth El said that the transplant of a New York-style deli to Portland feels “a little forced,” but that he still found a way to reconcile these two cultures. “Anybody who makes their own chopped liver and gribenes is OK in my book,” he said.

Another person who can explain the phenomenon is Margaret Hathaway, a goat farmer, food writer, and Jewish cooking instructor at the Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine. “The traditional Ashkenazi pickles and smoked fish, all of that seems to tie in nicely with the hipster foods,” she told the Press Herald, noting that curing and fermenting food is synonymous with both hipster and Jewish culinary sensibilities. She also shares that Sephardic foods have their own niche, as well, as the “clean and herby and citrusy” dishes make for great additions to an Instagram aesthetic.

But not everyone appreciates the cultural exchange between Judaism and Maine, thinks Portland resident Toby Rosenberg. A long-time patron of Susan’s Fish-n-Chips, a kosher bakery, he laments that the business has lost touch with its roots. Once run by daughter of Russian immigrants, Rebecca Rice, he thinks that “Mrs. Rice would turn over in her grave at the fried clams going into the fryolater now.”

Sophie Aroesty is an editorial intern at Tablet.