Cookbook writer, restaurant critic, food writer, photo journalist, painter, world traveler, and lover of all things Maine, Diane Hudson is not cagey about her thoughts and opinions.
She's also a woman with more wisdom in her pinky finger than I possess in my entire brain. I felt privileged to spend some time with Diane over coffee and donuts at the new HiFi cafe.
I think you’ll find her candor refreshing and her insight provocative.
Tell me about yourself, Diane. Where are you from and how did you get here?
I moved to Portland in the early '70s following completion of a graduate fellowship in English at the University of Maine at Orono. I had never been to Maine, and was teaching in Vermont at the time where I had been doing graduate studies in English at Middlebury College at the Bread Loaf School when I got this Fellowship.
A year in Maine was the only appetizer I needed to know I wanted the full entree . . . at least a lifetime, here in this wondrous state, and primarily, here in Portland where I was drawn immediately by the architecture and charming cobblestone streets.
You’ve written a cookbook. How did that come about?
I ghost wrote a Greek cookbook, called Greek Cooking for the Gods in the mid-'70s while living in London. I had never been to Greece. In researching for the book, I developed an appetite for that exquisite country. So I went and lived there for a year. Writing about food opens many doors. It is, after all, a most essential part of being.
I have never seen you without a camera hanging from your neck. What role has photography played in your professional life?
My first foray into editorial photography happened quite by accident at Portland Magazine. I have been taking photos since I was seven when my Uncle gave me a brownie camera. Back then I was doing pen and ink sketches and oil paintings and I would go out and take pictures at various times of day to get different lighting effects and then work with those on my canvases. I was working at the magazine in the early 80s (not in the photo-journalist capacity) when the editor, Colin Sargent, was in a bind and asked at deadline if I just happened to have any photos of Portland. I gave him a shoebox full of photos I had taken and he exclaimed, “Why didn't you tell me you are a photographer?” and used one of my photos for the cover of the issue that particular month.
How did you get involved with food writing?
The food writing started in earnest with monthly reviews for Portland Magazine sometime after my life partner opened his restaurant the Pepperclub. There was no way I could convince him to go out to eat, him being a chef owner of a restaurant, and I could not convince him to take us there to dine either. I was working at a law firm at the time and he said to me: “Okay, why don’t we go have dinner in your office then, would you like that?” So, I decided if I were to be required to go out to dinner for my work, he just might accompany me. That’s how it got started.
How has the Portland food scene changed since you arrived here?
The Portland food scene has changed drastically. There were a number of Italian eateries and I miss some, like the Village Café at the foot of Munjoy Hill, a very simple, straightforward, traditional Italian place, with down-to-earth and entertaining wait-staff. And of course DiMillo’s, before the boat in a tiny setting on Commercial Street. There was a top-notch French restaurant, The Gaslight, on Exchange and that was a real treat. I'll never forget my first Pink Squirrel there, Coquilles St Jacques and deliciously garlic laden escargot. Divine.
Then along came a couple of restaurants in the Portland area that actually spoke to this sophisticated palate. And the collective consciousness of what could be done created a non-stop interest in seeing more. One of them was Hu Shang, a tiny place when it first opened on Congress Street before expanding to Exchange and Brown Streets. I don’t believe I have had better Chinese cuisine anywhere.
Then there was Alberta’s, with sweet, generous Jimmie Ledue. Experimental but far from haute cuisine, just damn good fare and wildly popular. Also, a haven for artists as Jimmie would trade his unsurpassable chef’s skills for artworks by the likes of Howard Clifford and many others. It was a unique time in Portland’s food scene history. There has never been anything quite like it again.
Have there been changes in the food scene that have surprised you?
Another change that has been occurring over many years now is an increase in ethnic eateries, many of them experiencing success over the long term. Like Tu Casa, the Salvadorian place on Washington Avenue, there long before the current proliferation of eateries all around them. And this increase in eclectic cuisine has created a much more interesting and sustainable character for Portland’s food scene.
Another interesting and enjoyable phenomenon, to me, is the ever increasing number of neighborhood bars and dining destinations. Where I live, for example, there is The Front Room, The Blue Spoon, Lolita’s — all wildly popular. Each offers very different options for the palate and pocketbook, so there is something to suit everyone. Similarly, on the West End, you have Local 188, LFK and Hot Suppa, among others. And Woodford’s has long enjoyed JP’s and now I frequent the newer Woodford’s F&B. Soon, where BreaLu Café operated for many years, the Palace Diner (Biddeford) folks are opening yet another neighborhood destination, to be called Rose Foods and featuring ‘New York Jewish cuisine.’