ROCKLAND — At the Lighthouse Museum, where we eagerly collected our ticket badges, maps of participating businesses, and no-waste, reusable, metal pie-eating forks to begin sampling the delicacies up and down Main Street and around town, I stopped and spoke with a few of the volunteers from Area Interfaith Outreach about the impact a fundraising event like this can have.
Volunteer Elaine Sprague of Rockland said, “This is a wonderful fundraiser for the food pantry, but it is especially needed this year.”
The partial federal government shutdown, which lasted for over a month until a few days ago, and is threatened again, posed a real hardship for some families in the Midcoast.
Sprague’s friend and “volunteer sidekick” Donna Godfrey, of Thomaston, added: “We can remember when Pies on Parade started. I think it might have cost $5. There was a blizzard, and we had a blast!”
Sprague and Godfrey summed up the comments I heard again and again about this signature Rockland festival which has grown into a happy off-season tradition: it is both very serious and a lot of fun.
Pies on Parade supports the food pantry and fuel assistance programs operated by Area Interfaith Outreach, a 501c3 nonprofit serving the Knox County area.
Sarah Skovran, the Director of Child Hunger Program for AIO, described some of the ways the organization helps this area.
“Part of the Child Hunger Program is the Weekend Backpack Program, which serves 14 area schools and six school food pantries,” she said. “School administrative folks have told us to be prepared for an increased need for the Backpack Program and other services this winter, on account of the federal government shutdown.”
But even without mid-winter cold snaps or stalled government paychecks, many in our area find this time of year financially stressful, as so many of our incomes fluctuate with the season.
Liz Jenkins, President of the Board of Directors of AIO, emphasized that: “The impact the Pies on Parade fundraiser has on our Heating Assistance program is amazing. This event raises $30,000.00. AIO spends about $150,000.00 a year on heating assistance. We can get 100 gallons of oil—or propane if that’s what they need--to a client who is cold. It is the most costly program for us.”
She described how the application process for emergency heating assistance through AIO is considerably simpler and faster than it is through most other sources of aid, so AIO can get oil into someone’s tank pretty quickly.
Area Interfaith Outreach was formed in 1990 when a number of local churches operating food pantries realized they’d be more effective, and more convenient for Knox County residents in need, if they established one facility. AIO has now outgrown its little building on Thomaston Street, has bought another building, and is raising funds to renovate and make that ready for use.
After I wolfed down one of the delicate savory phyllo pastry pockets from Bartlett Woods and the Lighthouse Museum, I turned up Main and went directly to the Puffin Project Center, where a Rockland tradition has been established.
Their “cream puff sweetie pies” may not technically be “pie,” but they are one of the most delicious bites of the day and by all accounts adorable. I wanted to get there early. The back room was filled with musicians strumming the Beatles’ “Eight Days a Week,” and I ran into a smiling Donna Godfrey again behind the counter, in an apron from the first Pies on Parade in 2005.
Nearby, at Rustica Cucina Italiana--where their orange curd and chocolate mousse tartlet was a real delight--owners Catie Wilson and John Stowe were eager to share their commitment to the event and the charity.
Stowe described how he gets a lot of calls asking for donations to this and that worthy cause.
“I like to keep it local. We’re part of this community,” he said. “There are people here who are hungry and cold. No one should be without heat. No children should go to bed hungry. I just think about how much my wife and I have, how our children have everything they need. I can’t imagine going to bed cold. (Working on this event) is a challenge, but it’s a worthwhile challenge. It’s not really about the food; it’s really about the money that comes in to do the important work. It’s about helping, and that help may as well come out of an event that’s fun and makes people feel good.”
Stowe added, “This thing has grown like crazy!”
In additional to supporting an important local nonprofit, Pies on Parade is a celebration of Rockland as a terrific place to eat—and not just lobster!
In the words of another AIO volunteer: “This is a wonderful fundraiser and makes people aware of AIO. It also increases awareness of this area for tourism. I was just talking with a family from Boston who saw something about Pies on Parade on TV and decided, ‘Let’s go up,’ and now they’re making plans for next year. A lot of people buy tickets to this as Christmas presents for family members, especially for the folks who live away. It’s a reason to come visit.”
“This is when it is needed the most,” said another volunteer, referring to both the charitable aspect of the event and how it encourages people to enjoy Rockland and perhaps to stop into businesses which they might not have visited yet.
That was certainly a side benefit to the day. I found myself nibbling on a whoopie pie in Somebody Loves Me Bridal, a shop I wouldn’t ordinarily have need of, and before I left I took their business card for somebody I thought of who is planning a wedding next year.
I overheard a woman with a distinct southern accent behind me in one of the shops, and struck up a conversation, assuming she might be a visitor to Maine from a far-away state. She had me figured out, and joked, “Yes, I’m from way, way down south. South Portland!”
She explained that she’d moved to Maine many years ago but had never lost her Tennessee accent. Indicating the list of participating establishments, she said, “But now I have a list of Rockland restaurants, so if I’m meeting a friend here or something, we know some good places to go!”
One volunteer pointed out how it has become more common for two businesses to team up for the event—one supplying the food, the other offering a more accessible location. A couple of the inns farther from the middle of town got together with Main Street businesses which wouldn’t ordinarily be a food stop. For example, I enjoyed the Limerock Inn’s deliciously tart Key Lime Pie in the Loyal Biscuit Company store (where I also was handed a pie-shaped peanut butter dog biscuit for a four-legged neighbor).
The Hawthorn Inn’s bourbon-infused “drunken” pumpkin pie was served up at Flowers by Hoboken a few steps down Winter Street, and the Norumbega Inn’s Lemon Lavender Pork Pies were bringing a crowd into HoneyMaker Mead, one of Rockland new businesses, a tiny specialty bar not far from the ferry terminal.
The guys from Café Miranda were baking wood-fired pizzas in the street outside the 250 Main Hotel, which provided a comfortable space in its lobby for visitors to warm up and sample the fare.
Getting ready to serve hundreds of guests is no small job for the Rockland area merchants who participate. Some are full-time chefs and bakers who add this event to their workdays, but others stay up all night crafting a family recipe again and again at home.
A couple of store clerks observed that it did encourage off-season shopping, and several who commented on the amount of work involved still smiled broadly and said, “But it’s so worth it! It’s a good cause and we have a good time!”
That having been said, we who ate our way around town should not underestimate the effort required to pull off a food festival like Pies on Parade, even if it isn’t during the crowded tourism season. One local businessman commented on how it has taken a few years to “really get good at this” (meaning deal with all the extra people.)
Connie at the Seagull Cottage gift shop described making 400 little Chocolate Silk Pie tarts at home; she had the recipe on a card on her shop’s counter, and a cluster of chocolate-lovers was eagerly making notes. Kim Snow, the proprietor of Snowdrop Confections, told me that the Buttermilk Pie which she had been up all night baking (and which is really good, I might add,) is a “100-year old recipe from my grandmother, who came from Germany.”
BJ, a familiar face from behind the counter at the Rock City Café, explained that it has also helped a great deal to have the AIO volunteers stationed at each site.
I spent so much time chatting with AIO volunteers, restaurant and store owners, and happy, pie-eating visitors that I only got to about half the venues before many of them started running out of pie. That’s alright; as much as I would have loved to have been among the few who tried everything, I ate all I could handle. Huge thanks are due the many AIO volunteers in red aprons, the local cooks and store staff and businesspeople who worked so hard to make this event a success, and those who labored behind the scenes.
Our Sunday afternoon out, heads spinning with sugar and fingers greasy from pizza as we enjoyed the warm hospitality of these Rockland businesses, will help keep some of our neighbors warm where it really matters.
A laughing passer-by, seeing me scribbling on a note pad while talking to people, called out, “Every year it’s so cold for Pies on Parade!” I actually thought this year’s Pie Sunday to be a fairly mild day, recalling my first time at the event a few years back--when the metal fork stuck to my lips in the single-digit temperatures.