There’s Nothing Like ‘Home’ Restaurant Cooking

text by Kaitlin Webber for The Working Waterfront

Courtesy Swans Island Historical Society

A bountiful harvest of Swan’s Island clams: Arthur Stinson is seated, wearing his gear for the clam flats. Courtesy of the Marion Stinson Collection, Swan’s Island Historical Society.

Visitors to Swan’s Island are often shocked by the lack of options when it comes to eating anything that didn’t start out in your own fridge. Restaurants here vary seasonally as well as year to year.

At the moment, we’ve got a couple options for dining out. The Carrying Place Market has takeout, and the Swan’s Island Tea Room serves breakfast and lunch. Come winter, if you want anything that isn’t home-cooked, you’d better strike up a friendship with the Schwan’s man.

I like to think that what we lack in quantity, we make up for in quality. There’s nothing like hearing the chef say, “Kate’s order is up!” It makes a person feel important. Usually in the Tea Room one table gets talking to another until you end up forgetting which people you came with.

There have been a lot of well-loved restaurants out here over the years—primarily run by families for as long as they’ve got the energy to keep it up.

One such establishment was Dorothy Stockbridge’s place, the Sea Breeze. She and her husband Paul ran it for seven years. They did it all—got the supplies, cooked, served and cleaned. She hired help over the years, but she was the one scrubbing the fryer at the end of the night.

“They still ask me to start another restaurant,” Dorothy said, fondly remembering the hard work.

“Paul used to go clamming, dig and shuck all the clams, and he supplied all the lobsters. I had a big menu. I had three, four kinds of steak. I had two kinds of chicken. I had lobsters and clams and shrimp and haddock. I had specials, two, three times a week. I really worked hard.”

People have called her up from across the country to ask her secret for the perfect fried clams.

“There’s no trick to it,” she explained, “just have your grease clean. You have ‘Supreme’ batter, and you beat up your eggs, that’s all there is to it. Dip ’em in the egg and the batter.”

Dorothy learned her cooking skills and work ethic at an early age, taking care of families and holding multiple jobs. “I cooked since I was ten years old, I think. I cooked for myself and my brothers, and it was a hard life,” she remembered.

Islanders appreciated her efforts.

“I used to get a lot,” she said when I asked about her customers. “There were certain people that would come every night: Agnes and Carlyle Staples, Mary and Wesley Staples, Russell and Alice Burns, Mrs. Anderson the schoolteacher. I had one big round table that looked out on the water, and they had their names on the chairs.”

Dorothy put on a gruff voice to imitate a territorial customer. “Agnes said, ‘That’s my chair! I’m gonna sit there.’ She come in, Kenny Ranquist was sitting there. She said ‘Get outta my chair!’ It was red—I painted it red for her.”

She laughed when I asked her if she got vacation time.

“No, we took one day off and went to Frenchboro for the picnic. Why, you thought we committed a sin! We come home the parking lot was full. I said, ‘Paul, look up in the parking lot!’ It was all full. They said, ‘Where have you been?'”

I don’t know many people as tough as Dorothy, who raised seven kids out here with her own muscle and grit. Even in the hardest times, Dorothy kept a cheerful spirit.

“I like working for the public,” she told me. “I love people, and I love having people around.”

I think Dorothy just about summed up the way a lot of people feel about this place:

“I love Swan’s Island. I’ll never leave, as long as I can take care of myself,” she said with a smile. “Why would I? I’ve got everything I want right here.”

Kaitlin Webber is an Island Fellow on Swan’s Island through AmeriCorps and the Island Institute working with the Swan’s Island Historical Society.