Traveling Through Tastes

Few things tug at our heartstrings like the memories of meals past. At Morse’s Sauerkraut, we find rare imports, flavorful feasts, and a whole lot of history.

When I was 15, my grandmother taught me how to make rolladen. After she had pounded beef into long, thin strips, she would give me a plate of pickles, onions, and bacon, a jar of mustard, and precise instructions for assembling the little rolls. Hours later, we’d feast on plates of rolladen, potato pancakes, and red cabbage. It was savory, sour, and sweet. It tasted like a home I had yet to visit, a place that existed somewhere far across the Atlantic and deep in my grandmother’s heart.

In the kitchen at Morse’s Sauerkraut in Waldoboro, co-owner and chef Cody LaMontagne is stirring a batch of rotkraut, a ruby-hued side dish made from red cabbage and seasoned with sugar, salt, and spices. In a moment it will be plated and served alongside bowls of warm German potato salad, zippy with vinegar and topped with little chewy squares of bacon. LaMontagne moves over to the stove, where she is steaming a pair of open-faced Reuben sandwiches: sauerkraut, sharp Swiss cheese, tender corned beef, and homemade Russian dressing atop slices of toasted rye bread. “I do this to make the filling extra moist,” she explains. “When the kraut and the cheese are done heating up, I’ll fry them up crispy.” She lifts the covering, and a burst of steam perfumes the kitchen with the mouthwateringly distinctive scent of sauerkraut and salted beef, and for a split second I am 15 again, waiting for Sunday dinner at my grandmother’s table.

After LaMontagne delivers lunch to the table of four waiting in the restaurant, she has a moment to rest and chat. I’ve come to learn about this charming and unexpected German restaurant. In her brightly colored apron and retro headscarf, LaMontagne looks the perfect hausfrau (until you see the tattoo that snakes out of her vintage shoe and around her ankle). Bubbly and personable with a surprisingly loud laugh, this 30-something chef is not what I expected. Nothing here is, really. The hidden culinary gem is located alongside rolling fields and farms in the midcoast town of Waldoboro, in a picturesque wooden building with a kitschy wooden sign out front. Inside, diners feast on authentic German food in a cozy dining room with wooden booths and rustic tables.

A door separates the dining room from a small (and expertly stocked) market. In these aisles, you can find rare European imports, like elderflower concentrate from Sweden, Hungarian paprika in a squeeze tube, and pitted sour cherries in syrup. Walk through one more door and you’re in the deli, a carnivore’s paradise of charcuterie, pâtes, smoked meats, and cheeses.

Although I worked in specialty food stores all throughout high school, I’m slightly baffled by this low-key operation—how can a restaurant surrounded only by fields and forests succeed? Is there really a big market for expensive European cheeses, mustards, and meats? Then, I taste the food. From the rich, creamy mac and cheese to the crispy breaded schnitzel to the fluffy nubs of spaetzle, every dish is delicious and homey—the platonic ideal of the term “comfort food.”

While LaMontagne is the primary chef, her husband and business partner, James Gammon, spends an equal amount of time at Morse’s, sourcing products for the deli and store. He also manages the production of sauerkraut, which is made in a facility down the road by a small team of local employees. Before the couple purchased Morse’s in January 2015, they ran a specialty foods market in Lewiston, but it had always been LaMontagne’s dream to open a restaurant. “All my life, I’ve loved feeding people,” she says, explaining her hard-won cooking chops. “I’ve worked as a bartender and catered weddings. I made all the food for my own wedding. It makes me happy, you know? Cooking fills me up. It makes me feel good.”

Gammon is soft-spoken and scholarly; LaMontagne has a sweet, sincere excitement that radiates out from her dimpled face. When she says, “You only live once,” I don’t even register the platitude. I smile at her, because I think she’s onto something. “Why spend your money on material stuff when you could spend it on food?” she says. “You might as well enjoy every moment of your life on Earth. We want our meals to be a source of happiness.” For this couple, food is always a celebration, even if it’s a small thing, like a chunk of cheese and a sip of dark beer.

While the restaurant has changed hands, certain things have stayed the same—most importantly, the kraut. With so many flavors to enjoy at Morse’s, the kraut is the lynchpin that holds it all together. “Virgil Morse started selling sauerkraut back in 1910, but it wasn’t established officially as a business until 1918,” explains Gammon. Trained as an anthropologist, Gammon is the unofficial historian of Morse’s. “I think the story of this place is crazy cool,” adds LaMontagne. “People were coming from all over to buy their sauerkraut, and they were sending it to European immigrants around the country. It became a place where people would come, like a pilgrimage, to get their kraut.” For much of the twentieth century, that’s what it was: a place to get fermented cabbage, prepared according to an old German recipe. Every fall, Morse’s would put a notice in the local newspaper— “Kraut’s Ready”—and customers would flock to the rural storefront. It wasn’t until the late 1990s, after Morse’s had been bought and sold several times, that it became a marketplace, and then, in the early 2000s, a restaurant and deli.

Even in the early days, however, Ethelyn Morse (daughter-in-law of Virgil) was selling the occasional hot dog to accompany her husband’s kraut. When her husband passed away, she took over the business, turning it into a “real community center,” according to LaMontagne. Before they owned Morse’s, Gammon and LaMontagne recall, they watched a family of four generations come through the door, and listened while the mother told tales of “sauerkraut shots” while the grandmother chuckled and the children cringed. “Funky sauerkraut smell—not every kid can get into that,” Gammon laughs. Gammon later explains that it was tradition to make children take shots of the juice before handing them chocolate hippos. A gentle bit of Germanic hazing, I suppose.

I don’t mind taking shots of the sauerkraut juice. In fact, I love it, especially when the kraut is freshly fermented and there is still a bit of bite to the cabbage, toothsome and firm. Flavored with juniper berries and spices, Morse’s sauerkraut is a delicious and rather healthy condiment. It’s nothing like the limp, colorless cabbage that comes in a bag (or in an aluminum can) in the supermarket, with its overpowering vinegar flavor. Acidic and bright, Morse’s kraut cuts through the fatty richness of heavy foods like a warm knife through butter. And in places where winter lingers too long and rocks litter the soil, where cabbages and potatoes thrive (but tomatoes have been known to wither on the vine), kraut provides a necessary dietary function. It makes it possible for children to, in the words of so many nagging parents, finally eat their vegetables.

For all Morse’s seeming incongruity among the fields of the midcoast, it’s no accident that Virgil decided to start selling his condiment here in Waldoboro. His customer base had been living in the area for centuries. According to a tombstone that can be found in a small German cemetery not ten miles from Morse’s, “This town was settled in 1748 by Germans who emigrated to this place with the promise and expectation of finding a prosperous city, instead of which they found nothing but wilderness.” A sour disappointment, I’m sure.

The original group of settlers numbered around 1,000. Many came over on the ship Lydia, recruited by General Samuel Waldo (hence the town’s eventual name). Even though it has been a long time since the midcoast’s woods could be seen as a disappointing “wilderness,” there remains a strong Germanic influence in the region, which helps account for the popularity of Virgil’s cabbage. “Waldoboro has the most unique history of any town in Maine,” reads an article published in the Lewiston Evening Journal back in 1909.

“It has always been a distinctly German town. The customs, habits, folklore, and religious tendencies of the Teutonic race have been preserved.” Maine is most often associated with French-Canadian ancestry, but this state has always been a melting pot of cultures—and the town names reflect this history, from the southernmost shores (York) to the northernmost tip (New Sweden). For those with German ancestry and deep roots in Maine, Morse’s is a little like returning to, in the language of the Lewiston Evening Journal, “the Fatherland.”

Today the homemade kraut brings many travelers to Waldoboro, but others come for the well-stocked European market. Unlike the cafe, which has a distinctive German and Central European focus, the market stocks products from all over the continent, from Ireland to Sweden to Russia. “I think this can be a real oasis for people who are missing home,” says Gammon. “We have lutefisk and many different types of herring. I mean, who else has lutefisk?”

Northern Europeans (and their descendants) may come for the pickled fish; LaMontagne recalls a woman with a heavy French accent coming in and cradling a large stoneware jar of Pommery Meaux mustard as though it were a baby. “She never thought she’d find it here,” she says, shaking her head at the memory. Another customer came in looking for half-sour pickles. She came back the next day. “She said she gave one to her sister,” explains LaMontagne, “and after she took one bite, she started tearing up. It reminded her so much about her father and the pickles he used to make. It brought it all back to her.”

Food can do that. The smell, the taste, the rituals around eating, all these elements come together, creating a layer of identity that can easily be peeled back and shared with others. Food has no language barrier; taste can be experienced (and understood) immediately. It’s a great connector, as LaMontagne and Gammon discovered early in their courtship. “We have always spent our money on food,” Gammon says. “We don’t need much stuff. Instead, we will buy that expensive beer or great cheese. We have always planned our dates around food, around finding perfect and unexpected food pairings.” I ask him to reveal a few of his favorites, but he says they change all the time. “Every new combination is my favorite that day! But it’s hard to beat a very aged gouda with a sweet caramel flavor paired with dried dates and a strong, dark beer like Allagash Black.”

Food is the gift LaMontagne and Gammon give each other, and food has enabled them to live the life they want. Before purchasing Morse’s Sauerkraut and making the move from urban Lewiston to rural Waldoboro, they made a list. “We thought about everything we wanted in our ‘perfect life,’” says LaMontagne. “We wanted to live near farmstands, we wanted to work with cheese and cured meats and specialty groceries. We wanted a small restaurant where I could cook breakfasts for people, because I love to do that. Neither of us wanted to be cooking late at night or bartending anymore. We wanted time for each other.” At Morse’s Sauerkraut, a baffling business that sells delicious eats with a side of heady, happy nostalgia, they’ve found exactly that.