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Summer tradition continues at a classic clam shack

Fried haddock and onion rings at Bagaduce Lunch. Fried haddock and onion rings at Bagaduce Lunch. (Jonathan Levitt)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Jonathan Levitt
Globe Correspondent / June 4, 2008

BROOKSVILLE, Maine - Bagaduce Lunch is a lopsided red and white clam shack. On the first hot day of May, owner and cook Mike Astbury is singing to the classic rock radio station, drinking Bud Light, and deep frying order after order of clams, haddock, and onion rings. The kitchen door is open and salty breezes blow in off the Bagaduce River.

This family-run shack, on the long road to Deer Isle, is a favorite stopping point for tourists and travelers. Mike works with his wife, Judy, who's on the other side of the kitchen pass, griddling hamburgers and packing toasted hot dog buns with the sweetest lumps of local crabmeat or lobster.

Everything feels like another moment in time. Next week "The Bagaduce," as locals call it, will receive an America's Classics award from the James Beard Foundation. The Astburys are flattered but unfazed. "I had never heard of James Beard," says Judy. "But our daughter is graduating from high school the same day so we're not going. They sent some people up to make a video of us though." Mike pictures them playing the video at a fancy New York dinner and poking fun at how quaint they are.

That quality is what attracts locals and passersby. The line of drooling customers - tattooed Harley couples, pretty young moms, kayakers, and kids on bikes - stretches around the corner of the restaurant. This feels like old-time summer on the Maine coast, as you sit at a picnic table in the shade of the big maples, over clam baskets and iced tea.

Fifty years ago, Judy Astbury's grandparents, Sidney and Bernice Snow, opened Bagaduce Lunch around Memorial Day. They served crab rolls, ice cream, hot dogs, and coffee in real ceramic mugs all summer. Judy's parents, James and Vangie Peasley, ran the Bagaduce for 30 years and handed the business over to their daughter and son-in-law in 1996. They still keep the summer schedule.

Bagaduce Lunch serves all the clam-shack classics. The food feels lived in. "We do it just like we always have," says Judy. Summer people flock to Bagaduce, but the Astburys don't change what they do to suit big-city tastes. "Out-of-staters come here and money just don't mean anything to them," says Mike. "They get their food and they eat like seagulls. Fifteen minutes later they're gone."

Mike, 53, dressed in a Hawaiian shirt, cracks jokes and throws all manner of fish and shellfish into a row of deep-fat fryers. Everything comes out golden and crispy. "We keep everything separate," he says. "No fish in the french fries." Even with all his fryers, he says, he can hardly keep up with the orders. "Judy's father had just one fryer. I don't know how he did it."

With a long carving knife, Mike peels onions and cuts them super thin on a deli slicer, ("Fifty pounds of onions in a morning and no tears," he says). After a double dip in water and crumbs, he fries them to order in vegetable oil. "We go really light with the breading," he says. "I mean, who wants to eat batter? Ugh. And we don't use any canola oil because it's nasty and destroys the taste of the food. . . . Our food is about as real as you can get."

Daughters, Sarah, 22, and Abby, 18, pick up the slack and scoop ice cream. Until recently Bagaduce was known for its pies. "Mother did the pies but she's not with us anymore," says Judy. "She made them from scratch at home right out of her head with the most delicate lard crusts. Strawberry-rhubarb was her specialty. I wish I'd learned. I won't even try, though. I would hate to ruin a good strawberry-rhubarb pie. We have a lady that makes them right around here." Judy says that brownies and fudge are her specialty: "Are they good? Of course they're good!"

At the end of the day Mike throws scraps to bald eagles. Seagulls glean the picnic tables for forgotten bits. Horseshoe crabs mate in the mud. Some things never change.

Bagaduce Lunch, 19 Bridge Road (Route 176), Brooksville, Maine, 207-326-4197.

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