An excerpt from Maine Vanities
Elegant and articulate, Julia Myers speaks with deep affection for the long and arduous days helping her husband run Abandoned Farm, Maine’s first cultivated shellfish operation. Her plate is MOULES, French for mussels. Her husband, writer Edward Myers, had MOSSELS. “Mussels was already taken,” she explained,
Julia loved to cook moules marinières. In fact, Julia cooked mussels in every way imaginable, and she would place a discreet ad in the local newspaper announcing what mussel meal would be on the menu that week. The object was to familiarize people with the many wonderful and delicious ways to eat mussels, encouraging them to add the shellfish to their diet, and, of course, to buy them from Abandoned Farm and their vendors. The building where Julia served her meals forth was frequently jammed, with people perched on chair arms, legs dangling from the porch railing. “It was a scramble to be sure we had enough knives and spoons to go around.” It is difficult to imagine this refined and dignified woman sipping Lapsang Souchong out of export china presiding over such off-the-cuff gatherings.
“I cooked mussels with cheese, with broccoli, in soup, with pasta. There are hundreds of absolutely lovely ways to prepare mussels, although I do not think tomatoes complement them well at all,” she says decidedly. She also grew vegetables and greens, and made salads and side dishes using fresh organic ingredients. Craig Claiborne, the food critic with The New York Times, came for a meal. “As he left he commented that at least the salad was superb. I guess he was not impressed with my mussels.” But then, it may have been the wrong month. May, Julia maintains, is the only time to have mussels. She leans forward with a gleam and says in a lowered voice, “They are heavy with seed then. My husband used to call from the mussel beds to tell me there was a sex orgy going on, and I should come down. The water would be creamy with milt.”
And with plump, sweet mussels. While she concedes they are fine in June, July and August, it is the May mussels that Julia recalls with such delight. Succulent, ripe, brimming with flavor—memories of those May moules still bring a satisfied smile to her face.
I thank the many who told me the tales behind their plate, and shared a bit of their life. I will be publishing more Maine Vanities in the months to come.
An introduction to the essays:
CLKNPUR, FOTTER, SMAS, TIDWLKR–Maine vanity plates are as individual and intriguing as the people of Maine. Some are straightforward, such as THECAPT or MOMSCAR, some take a moment to decipher–Hi NRG, ME JUIF, and others leaving you wondering for days: 1OFFTAL, 7SEVEN7. But they are all communicating, all sending a message, all extending an invitation to hear a story.
Only eight characters, briefer than a haiku, yet they generate an astounding variety of puns, double entendres, palindromes, good grammar, bad, and simple joyful word play. Letters, numbers, a space or a hyphen, any combination of these is possible, as long as the total number does not exceed eight. So few characters, so many messages–as in many other circumstances Mainer’s are capable of doing a lot with a little.
An astounding percentage of registered Maine license plates are vanity plates. This is due in part to the modest fee the state charges and perhaps in part to the individuality of Mainers. It may also be self-perpetuating. As we drive along being amused or confused it is a small step to then feel the urge to come up with one’s own plate to entertain or perplex, or tell the world something about the person behind the wheel.
Who are these people with the vanity plates, why do they have them? Maine has a large number of cottage industries and self-employed entrepreneurs. Self-promotion means survival, and plates tell a message as you follow them down the road. Many plates promote the business its owner runs, ZCAB, CATER, GARDNR, and WE_BILD.
Vanity plates are also a way to share politics, faith, and hobbies. A sports fan proclaims SOXLVR, or METS_85; a politically-inspired driver a plate boasts VOTER. Family is important to many Mainer’s, and there is GRAMSCR, MOMSCAR, and HZ HRS. For philosophy: DO U LV. Plates involving hobbies include is GOLFR, SKI_NKD, I BOWL, TKE_PICS
Many are names and initials. It is common to have a couple’s initials on each of their cars, his might be KBC_JLC while hers is JLC_KBC. Some defy interpretation, or have more than one. MA2ME, is it Massachusetts to Maine, or Ma to me?
The message of a Maine vanity plate may raise an eyebrow, or a question, or simply cause a smile. But behind each and every plate is a personality, and the rest of the story.
These short portraits capture Maine individuality. There is quirkiness, compassion, and humor. While passions range from skiing to solving Mensa puzzles, and ages from 14 to 91, enthusiasm, curiosity, passion and delight in sharing the story behind their plate and their bit of Maine is the common thread.
It has been inspirational and moving getting to know the people behind these plates and their stories. I am honored that so many plate holders shared their time and their tales. “You are the story keeper,” I was told, and another compared me to a medieval sin eater. I find these descriptions apt. These stories now live inside of me. They are my burden, and my delight. They have uplifted me, exhausted me, made me weep, and filled me with hope and optimism. I hope I can convey half of their poignancy.
Mainer’s have strong personalities, and those who slap their politics and their passions on the rear of the car for all to see, and then give up hours of their time to answer questions, tell their tale, and submit to being photographed, are eloquent examples of this breed. It is a pleasure to pass their tales on.
I am hooked. I can no longer just guess what a plate might mean. I want to track down its owner, move into their world, and listen. There are many more stories out there waiting to be told, and I want to hear them all.
Thank you to all my generous subjects, I treasure your stories and have endeavored to share them with respect and appreciation. I offer apologies if I have made any errors or misinterpreted your tale.
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