Farewell to a Greek treat



Best wishes to the owners of Café Nostimo in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, who have just announced that they’re closing their Greek restaurant at the end of today after 16 years in business. Time to retire. We can understand that, especially the part about working nights and weekends.

Theirs had become a must-stop on my return trips to the Seacoast region, and I was looking forward to indulging myself next Wednesday, before my Quaking Dover presentation at the Dover Public Library.

Wish I’d known about the place pre-Covid, when I lived in nearby Dover. I had heard that some nights even had Greek dancing. The restaurant did have a large tent pavilion beside it for summer dining and more.

Lamb shank was top-of-the-line, but their gyro wrap was heavenly. I could argue about some details elsewhere, especially in comparison to a favorite version in Watertown, Massachusetts, but their desserts lineup was unbeatable.

I’m viewing this like a great dinner and the time you look at the empty plate while you’re full of happy memories.

As the translations on their wall proclaim, Yamos! And: Epharisto!

Much more than a spring tonic

It was fairly common in the wild when I was growing up in the Midwest, and its red roots and polymorphic leaves of one, two, and three lobes all on one tree made it distinctive. But the tree is rather rare where I’m now living.

It does, however, play into my Quaking Dover story, as I’ll explain.

Here are ten things of note about sassafras.

  1. Found in the eastern North America and East Asia, the tree can grow to somewhere between 60 to 100 feet in height (the maximum keeps growing in the versions I’m encountering), though I associate it mostly with shrubs in the forest undergrowth. For others, it was seen as an aggressive plant quickly cluttering old fields.
  2. Traditionally, it was famed as spring tonic in the form of tea boiled from its dark red, aromatic roots, although the leaves and bark can also be used. More recent research cautions not taking it for more than a week, and it was pulled from commercial markets after experiments in 1960 found that safrole, a compound prominent in its volatile oils, caused liver cancer in rats and mice.
  3. Commercial oils used today in foods, cosmetics, and soaps are safrole-free and safe for consumption.
  4. Root beer, a popular soft drink, was traditionally made from sassafras roots, often cooked with molasses. Charles Elmer Hires, the first to successfully market the brew, was a teetotaler who wanted to call his extract “root tea” but found it sold better among Pennsylvania miners as “root beer.” And, for the record, it was long used to brew a backwoods beer.
  5. French Acadians relocating to Louisiana discovered its spice qualities from the Native Choctaws. Its dried lemony-scent leaves are ground to create filé powder, a green aromatic dust that thickens Cajun gumbos or is later sprinkled atop the dish.
  6. Its blue berries on red stems, forming early in the fall foliage season, provide a high-energy food for migratory birds on their long southward flight. The birds are attracted to the color.
  7. The tree’s leaves turn a spectacular variety of purple, orange, yellow, and red. That alone earns it consideration in landscape design.
  8. The straight-grained, durable wood was commonly used to make horse-drawn sleighs, though the runners were usually hickory, a harder substance. Sassafras has also been popular in making buckets, cabinets, cradles and other furnature, woodwork, and even utensils such as spoons.
  9. Native Americans valued sassafras in a range of medicinal uses, including a poultice for open wounds. Fascinated by the applications, Europeans soon attributed the exotic plant with supernatural qualities, including the retardation of age, making sassafras a rival to tobacco in importance as an export from America.
  10. How medicinal? It was the reason 23-year-old Captain Martin Pring, in 1603, became the first European to lead an exploration of the Piscataqua River. Sassafras was valued as a cure for the French pox, which you may recognize as the name the English and others called what we refer to as syphilis. (If only it had actually worked.) Failing to find many of the trees in today’s Dover and vicinity, he sailed on to encamp at Truro on Cape Cod, where he indeed harvested sassafras but was interrupted when his rude behavior greatly upset the Natives, making for one of the first sour episodes in English relations with the New World locals.

The world’s most glorious sauerkraut

For most of my life, I never would have thought sauerkraut could rise any higher than maybe a gag-inducing edible in an obligatory sort of way. You know, like liver. Something in some households you might be required to eat on New Year’s Eve to assure a good 12 months ahead. Think of lutefisk (lye fish) in Nordic cultures as a parallel.

Well, my best friend’s parents, of good German Lutheran stock, made their own, but they also composted for their garden, and back in the ‘50s, that seemed pretty weird.

I am convinced that there are certain dishes that will never become acquired tastes to some or even many tongues. (Feel free to make nominations here.)

That said, imagine my surprise in recent decades in discovering the joys of fine Chinese cuisine, along with the shock of learning that the filling on those snappy eggrolls and spring rolls was essentially sauerkraut, just by another name.

Maybe that set up the moment of revelation.

Morse’s in Waldoboro.

First came some nibbles after an old Mainer made his annual pilgrimage, returning with 20 or 30 pounds or so.

The taste was sweet and tangy, even refreshing. I do like pickles, but these are in a class all their own. I mean, they’re glorious. OK, I had come to prefer coleslaw with a vinegar dressing more than the conventional creamy one, so maybe that had prepared me. (Not that I turn down either.)

That’s set up our own trips in the family, including one with me in the depths of a very snowy February. The road out of the village to the store seemed to take forever, I was sure we had taken a wrong turn somewhere, but then the small store appeared, and it offered more crocks of pickled traditions than just kraut. It also had a small but very tasty German restaurant, which appears to have fallen victim to Covid restrictions. All in all, a delight.

Upshot is, it’s a dish I’ve come to anticipate each winter from our own ten-pound or so purchase.

Morse’s is, in itself, a fascinating story of a family business that’s undergone some transformations but maintains a small niche in an increasingly monolithic food industry. I have no idea if you can find it anywhere near where you live, but then maybe that might inspire another entrepreneur to rise to the challenge. Bigger is not always better.