Every weekday around noon we hear it. We’ve been at our desks for four hours. We’ve seen enough of the boss. And the growl begins. It’s deep and low and hungry. Feed me, it says.
Ah, lunch time. Such a civilized time of day. It’s not harried like breakfast, and not quite as dogmatic as dinner. But lunch is so terribly important. For that one hour, we escape and replenish. We rest and indulge. We eat.
Intowners who don’t pack a lunch every day know there are some felicitous spots to grab an expeditious and satisfying noon meal. Soups at the Bagel Shop are sustaining. Burgers at Whig & Courier are vigorously juicy. Sandwiches at Old World Gourmet edify the empty maw. We can go more formal (The Lemon Tree), more elegant (The Greenhouse), more casual (Epi’s), more hip (The Sea Dog) or more ethnic (Siam Garden).
We think you can get all of that plus some down-home reassurance — not to mention pies — by crossing the bridge (any of them) into Brewer. There in a State Street strip mall between a sports supply outlet and a drug store you’ll find The Brown Bag, an oasis of heartfelt comestibles in the middle of an arid workday.
No newcomer to the local cosmopolitan culinary scene, The Brown Bag has been in town since 1994. It started as an offshoot of its elder sibling (of the same name) established in Rockland in 1987 by four enterprising sisters originally from Skowhegan. Eventually the Maine girls split up, and we were lucky enough to inherit Barbara Fifield, an industrious woman who chucked a 17-year career selling life insurance to feed bellies in the Twin Cities.
“My goal is to make sure we do a really good job, that we achieve quality with consistency,” said Fifield earlier this week in a phone conversation regularly interrupted by call-waiting beeps, a clear sign of occupational bounty.
In addition to serving breakfast and lunch, as well as “carry-out cuisine” for dinners, Fifield runs a bakery where hundreds of loaves of white, whole wheat, rye, oat, anadama and specialty breads are made daily. That says nothing of the whoopie pies, apricot squares, orange-almond scones, chocolate cakes and other sweet-tooth grandiosities that call out for attention when you order lunch at the counter. For real bargain hunters with a fetishist’s appreciation for bread heels, bags of nothing but those loaf-end delicacies cost 50 cents. For that, we are thankful as well as impressed by Fifield’s imaginative understanding of life’s subtler pleasures.
We must cheerfully warn you, however, that too many desserts and tasty breads at this time of day can be detrimental to afternoon productivity and may cause siestalike behavior. If you have a private office back at the workplace, we say go for it. But since we find ourselves nose to nose with a sea of co-workers most of the day and — more shamefully — since we find ourselves too ample in the waistline anyway, we recommend an ostentatious purchase of goodies for the family and then a private eating session on the drive home.
But we digress into our own bad habits.
At lunch, we recommend you choose from the more nutritious menu, which we have done on several occasions in recent weeks. Our biggest complaint is that the daily soup — a corn chowder or maybe a vegetable noodle — is never quite hot enough. And sometimes there’s too much butter on the toast that comes with it. Sometimes the food’s a bit too oily in general.
The quiches, however, are light and clever, such as one served earlier this week with tomatoes, scallions, red peppers and almond slivers. The on-the-side tabouleh with feta, red onions, tomatoes and fresh parsley was admirably piquant.
That same day, we happened to be in the hallowed company of a turkey sandwich connoisseur, and he gave his blessing to the turkey sandwich special, a mixture of meat, stuffing, roasted red peppers and cranberry sauce between thick slices of peasant bread.
“This is like three days after Thanksgiving and you’re trying to be creative. Yes, this is very creative,” he said. And when he couldn’t finish the ample portion, an accommodating member of the kitchen staff wrapped it up and, just to be nice, threw in a bag of chips and a pickle for the road.
Being lunch folk, we missed the breakfast specials of corned beef hash with poached eggs, cornmeal mush with molasses and ginger (When’s the last time you had that?), and breakfast burritoes. There are also standard breakfast selections such as pancakes, French toast and omelets — all just like Mom used to make. Or at least just like Fifield’s mom, known for her fab food, used to make.
In any case, we devoured the vegetarian reuben, with cheese, veggies, sauerkraut and Russian dressing, and restrained ourselves with the heap of potato chips on the side. We’re certain the tuna salad, the roast beef sandwich, the hummus-and-veggie pocket, and the chef salad would prove to be just as virtuous. And we love the idea of a peanut butter and jam sandwich for a buck-twenty-five. File that away for the annual take-your-daughter-to-work day.
Sandwiches, soups and salads range in price from $1.25 (a grilled cheese) to $6.95 (crab and cheddar melt). Juices, coffees, teas and sodas are available to wash it all down. And don’t be put out that you have to clear your own table when the meal is over. Think of all you’re saving in tips.
If you can’t make it to Brewer, you can get many of the same foods with all the same integrity at Fifield’s newest takeout ventures at the Airport One-Stop at the intersection of Union Street and Griffin Road and at the Somesville One-Stop on Route 102 on Mount Desert Island. If you’re at a catered event and you happen to notice the food is more provocative than you expected, chances are The Brown Bag magicians came up with it (since Fifield runs a catering business, too). Rumor has it that Fifield is planning to open a bread factory.
But don’t wait for that. It must be nearly noon right now.