In a busy café kitchen in northern Maine, heat pours from an un-greased cast iron griddle. A thin, straw-colored batter "rests" nearby in a large stainless steel bowl. After 10 minutes or so, a chef carefully portions the batter onto the hot cooktop, guiding it with the backside of a wooden spoon to form generous circles.
Traditions die hard when they’re linked to heritage, and it seems, for now, everything old is new again.
He doesn’t turn them. This cross between a pancake and an airy crumpet is never flipped. Air bubbles known as the "eyes" soon dot the tender surface of each round, as the edges curl just slightly and the bottoms turn a golden brown. A nutty aroma fills the air. The first batch of ployes is ready to serve to a hungry crowd.
On any given month, Long Lake Sporting Club makes 10,000 ployes from scratch, and they're served with every meal. Ployes resemble pancakes, but are prepared with buckwheat flour and commonly used in place of bread. The proprietors at Long Lake know the secret to this local tradition is to let the batter sit before the ployes are cooked.
"We make up to twelve hundred ployes on a busy night," says Debbie Martin, who owned the restaurant in the St. John Valley region of Aroostook County Maine along with her husband, Ken, for 10 years. Her parents owned Long Lake from 1971 to 1991, and now, the third generation — her son and daughter-in-law — has run the family restaurant since 2012. During the snowmobile season, Long Lake serves ployes alongside chicken stew; according to Martin, "dipping your ploye in the stew is the best."
The St. John River Valley lies along Maine's northern border with New Brunswick, Canada. Home to around 55,000 people, the influences of French-Acadian culture run deep in this majestic woodland where heritage is gospel and ployes are sacred. Maine, according to census data, is one of only a few states where people still speak French at home, and it’s widely used throughout St. John Valley. Signs in French, along with the colors of the Acadian flag, appear everywhere.
The Acadians who inhabit the area today are descendants of those who fled into the unsettled forestland of northern Maine to escape expulsion by the British. Some original Acadians also fled south to French-controlled Louisiana, sparking the still-present Cajun culture. Roughly 30,000 Acadians live in the United States, and ployes are a way of life. "Most locals grew up eating ployes with every meal," Martin says. "They’re popular."
To understand how ployes arrived in northernmost Maine, Lise Pelletier, the director of Acadian Archives at the University of Maine at Fort Kent, says we must first explore the history of their main ingredient. “It’s the buckwheat that gives ployes their distinctive flavor, and that’s where the history of our ‘galette’ starts,” she says, referring to the French word for a flat round cake or pastry.
Despite its name, buckwheat is not a wheat at all, or even in the grass family. It’s a plant more closely related to wild rhubarb and cultivated for its grain-like seeds. Pelletier notes that buckwheat is also called black wheat, or "Saracen," because of its dark color. Traditionally grown in Nepal, China, and Siberia, Saracen arrived in France in the 12th century with the return of the Crusaders. Buckwheat crêpes were made for centuries in Europe before crossing the pond with French colonialists, and becoming a somewhat altered version of the original here in the states.
"Ployes came to the Madawaska Territory, the land extending 150 miles between New Brunswick, Canada, and the St. John River Valley in Maine, with our French ancestors who settled on both sides of the river in 1785," says Pelletier. "This was before Maine was a state, and before there was a boundary between Canada and the United States. That’s how ployes made their way to northern Maine, Quebec, and northwestern New Brunswick in 1785 and later years."
Recipes are passed down from one generation to the next, though they’re all surprisingly consistent.
According to Pelletier, "our ancestors adapted the recipe, replacing the black wheat with a Japanese buckwheat." Japanese buckwheat may have arrived in Europe after Marco Polo visited China during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), and could have been brought into the United States by Europeans. The exact origin is unknown, but it is considered a cheaper alternative to black wheat.
The origin of the word ploye also remains shrouded in mystery. Some claim the name is derived from the word plier, meaning to bend or fold. Others believe it’s a play on the sound the batter makes when stirred: ploye-ploye-ploye. Either way, in the 231 years ployes have been in northern Maine, they have never lost their appeal, and are very much a family tradition.
Recipes are passed down from one generation to the next. Yet, as Pelletier mentions, all recipes are surprisingly consistent. The ground buckwheat is mixed with white flour, water, and only a few other ingredients which differ slightly from family to family. For those without an heirloom recipe or who might be short on time, a "ploye mix" created by Bouchard Family Farms in Fort Kent is a popular alternative. The mix is sold all over the world, and takes only minutes to prepare. Bouchard’s children came up with the idea to package and market a mix based on the family’s recipe — and using the farm’s own "silver hulled" buckwheat — when farming fell on hard times in the early 1980s.
"In our farm store we sell the Bouchard's mix that tourists bring home all the time," says Sharon Dionne, owner of Misty Meadows Organic Farm and Restaurant. But the mix is not what her restaurant serves. "We use a secret recipe in our restaurant that my mother-in-law passed down. It’s one that has been passed down for generations."
Ploye stories abound up north. "My grandmother used to have ployes ready for us when we would get home from hand-picking potatoes, growing up on the family farm," recalls Dionne. Pelletier remembers eating ployes on Saturday nights with her family. They were often paired with homemade baked beans and a simple spread like butter. "You spread the topping, roll it up, and eat it with your fingers," she explains. "I’ve always enjoyed them most with butter only, or with butter and molasses."
But the dish almost went the way of eight-track tapes and striped tube socks. When family dynamics shifted from single to dual-working households in the latter half of the twentieth century, ployes took a hit. Many former ploye enthusiasts began opting for the convenience of store-bought bread instead of making ployes by hand. "In the early 1970s, the ploye was a thing of the past," Janice Bouchard, owner of Bouchard Family Farms, said in a 2009 interview. "No one was growing buckwheat anymore."
Traditions die hard when they’re linked to heritage, and it seems, for now, everything old is new again. "In the last 25 years, we’ve seen a resurgence of ployes in certain restaurants, including Dolly’s in Madawaska and Long Lake Sporting Club in Sinclair," Pelletier says. The revival of ployes is a direct result of efforts in northern Maine to promote cultural awareness, activity, and pride in maintaining the Acadian way of life. In 2003, Queen Elizabeth II issued a royal proclamation apologizing for the forced deportation of Acadians, once again stirring interest in the culture.
Bouchard’s mix has also helped expand ployes beyond their northern roots. People from every corner of the world save ploye recipes, along with images of Bouchard’s mix, to boards on Pinterest and other social bookmarking sites. There are even online groups for ploye devotees, including one maintained by Bouchard, on Facebook. Sandra Fray, a member of the group, posted a photo of her finished ployes with the comment, "Honoring my Fort Kent roots by making these [ployes] tonight for dinner in south Texas!" She followed it up with a picture of her granddaughter enjoying a warm ploye right from the griddle. Ployes have always been part of her culture, and Fray has proudly passed that custom along to her children and grandchildren. She hopes they’ll continue the tradition no matter where they call home.
At the annual Ploye Festival, it takes 50 pounds of mix to make the "World’s Giant Ploye."
In Fray’s old stomping grounds of Fort Kent, located in Aroostook County on the border of Canada, a granite sign marks America’s First Mile on US Route 1. Behind it, a double rainbow appears on the horizon. It’s a fitting tribute for a local icon. Just up the road, hundreds gather on a warm August day for Fort Kent’s annual Ploye Festival and International Muskie Derby. The signature event is already underway.
A Hulk-sized griddle lies across a sprawling bed of burning charcoal. Smoke drifts from the ashy mound, as an older gentleman pokes the scorching briquettes with a long iron rod. He moves them one last time, and then signals to a bystander. A crew rushes in and dumps bucket after bucket of a yellowish batter onto the oversized surface. While they pour, several crew members squeegee the batter evenly across the griddle. They work quickly, but before they can finish, the infamous eyes begin to form.
It takes more than 15 bags of charcoal, 50 pounds of ploye mix, gallons upon gallons of water, and an army of volunteers to create the once-yearly "World’s Giant Ploye" — which measures 12 feet in diameter and is created by the skilled crew of Bouchard Family Farms.
The event ends with spectators lining up for pieces of ploye smothered in melted butter. For some, this will be their first taste of northern Maine’s most treasured treat. For others, that love affair began decades ago.
Crystal Ponti is New England-based freelance writer and an award-winning food blogger. Fun fact: she once unknowingly worked out with Sean Penn.
Editor: Erin DeJesus