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Diner Down East: Old-Fashioned Food and Frugality at Moody's

by Andy Boynton


"Nouvelle cuisine this is not." --Marty Layne, This Month in Maine Literature


Moody's Diner, a restaurant located on U.S. Route 1 in Waldoboro, Maine, along the Maine coast, has achieved near-legendary standing among residents of the Pine Tree State and, indeed, within the culinary world at large. Its blueberry muffins earned a gold medal from the Culinary Hall of Fame, while its whoopie pies were named one of the 100 top food finds of 1999 by Savuer magazine. Its original neon sign (with the simple tag line "Eat") is featured as part of an exhibit at Johnson & Wales's Culinary Archives & Museum. "This humble diner has reached a status approaching that of a national icon," says Newsday, while for some Maine tourists it's a destination "as obligatory as a visit to L.L. Bean's."

What started as a breakfast-and-dinner shack for campers in 1930 is now a much larger (though still relatively modest) 104-seat restaurant and motel complex that's served more than a million people. Its success can be attributed as much to the baking prowess of the co-founder, Bertha Moody, as to the vision and awe-inspiring work ethic of her husband, Percy "P.B." Moody, as well as the couple's shared frugality. "It is not a quaint-on-purpose tourist attraction," insists Kerry Leichtman, publisher of Dancing Bear Books, which put out the book What's Cooking at Moody's Diner. "It is a diner on U.S. 1 in Waldoboro, Maine, plain and simple."

P.B. was born in 1900 in North Nobleboro, Maine. The youngest of seven children, he attended high school at Lincoln Academy in Damariscotta, Maine, traveling by horse and buggy to the train station, and then from there to the school. His parents boarded summer vacationers, exposing P.B. to the tourism business at an early age. In 1922, he married Bertha, who was teaching in a one-room schoolhouse, and the couple moved to nearby Waldoboro.

P.B. thrived on hard work. "He'd catnap in his Morris chair for fifteen minutes," recalls his daughter Nancy, "and then jump up refreshed to tackle another job." During the early years of the couple's marriage, P.B. was engaged in a variety of money-making activities, such as selling fish door to door, smelting, and growing vegetables for a roadside stand.

In 1927, the couple built three small cabins along U.S. Route 1 in Waldoboro and began renting them to tourists for $1 per person. Each cabin had one room, a screened porch, and dry toilets around the back. There was no running water; guests were given a glass jug of cold water upon check-in. Eventually they installed bona fide bathrooms and began building additional cabins.

By 1930, Bertha and P.B. had purchased a small house near the entrance to the cabins and opened a restaurant, serving only breakfast and dinner. They installed gas pumps out front and set up a tiny lunch wagon next to the restaurant selling hot dogs and hamburgers. A few years later, when Waldoboro's modern-day Route 1 opened north of its predecessor, the Moodys bought an adjoining plot of land, built a road connecting the two properties, and moved the lunch wagon up to the new highway, adding a front porch in the process. This is the birthplace of today's Moody's Diner.

The new establishment rested at the bottom of a windy stretch of U.S. 1. "When you start comin' into Waldoboro you'll find yourself headin' down this wicked steep hill," explains Tim Sample, a Maine humorist. "This hill is so steep that, dependin' on how good your brakes are, you start feelin' kind of religious about halfway down."

By this time, P.B., in addition to managing the cabins and the diner (the "old hash house," he called it), ran a working farm with up to 20 milking cows, 20 pigs, laying hens, a horse, and over 200 acres of land. He also operated a light construction company, a lakeside campground, and his father's Christmas-tree business, which shipped about 5,000 trees to Boston every year, and which required him to be away from home for three months every fall in northern Maine; he would come home every Saturday night and then leave again on Sunday. In his absence, Bertha, in addition to baking all the restaurant's pastry items at her house, would oversee the diner, handle phone orders for Christmas trees, and take care of their nine children.

Finally, P.B. and Bertha traveled together to Boston for two weeks every December to sell the trees. (Bertha's respite: she got to do all her Christmas shopping in Boston.) Once P.B. was asked whether he had any ideas on how to make a million dollars. "No," he said, "but I have a million ideas on how to make a dollar."

The Moodys were frugal people. P.B. disliked possessions, rarely spent money on himself, and drove only used cars (though he loved a good Chevy). Their farm equipment was old and continually repaired. Bertha, her son Harvey recalls, "was at least as frugal as our father. While cleaning the attic after her death, a box was found, labeled in her handwriting, 'String too short to use.' That was exactly what it contained." Bertha was thrifty in the kitchen as well. "I have yet to know of a woman who could make such delicious meals out of leftovers."

She was, in fact, a wonderful cook, and was famous for her baking. "Freshly fried doughnuts. Buttery yeast rolls. Muffins. Shortcakes. Gingerbread. And pies, pies of all kinds ... all still on the menu today." Her highly regarded walnut pie recipe was profiled in Gourmet magazine, and Marty Layne of This Month in Maine Literature called the dessert "a seriously delicious concoction" that "threatens to drive traditional pecan pie to extinction."

All nine Moody children, at one time or another, worked in the family business. Their son Alvah, who started at the diner as a dishwasher at age 12, and their son-in-law Bill Jones became Moody's head chefs and buyers and ran daily operations for 50 years, from the 1950s through the 1990s. Among Alvah's innovations was roasting their turkeys upside down, which forced their juices to flow to the breast and made that portion of the meat juicier. (The diner still roasts them that way today.) But Alvah had a typically modest take on the restaurant's success: "It was the only place open 24 hours [a day] between Bangor and Portland."

The diner's physical structure expanded and changed considerably as well during these years, with the most recent modifications made in 1994. The original counter remains, though, in the center of the restaurant. "The buildin' is kind of long and narrow," says humorist Sample of the new Moody's, "just like your trailer."

The business celebrated its seventy-fifth anniversary in 2002. Today, 31 family members, descendents of Bertha and P.B., are involved in the diner's day-to-day operations; great-granddaughters and -grandsons are line cooks, pastry chefs, dishwashers, cashiers, and servers. Many of the waitresses have worked at Moody's for years and even decades.

Desserts are made every day on-site by two pastry chefs who arrive between 3 and 4 a.m. and work in a separate pastry kitchen at the back of the diner. Every week during the summer, the pastry kitchen goes through 450 dozen eggs; every day, it produces 60 pies, 10 dozen muffins, eight dozen doughnuts, and 50 dozen biscuits and rolls. All pies are prepared with a handmade lard crust and topped with real whipped cream.

Moody's is also well known for its daily specials, which haven't changed in decades. ("Since our specials are made fresh daily, they are available from 11 a.m. until they are gone," reads the menu.) The Sunday special is turkey served with mashed potatoes and homemade gravy. On Monday, it's Yankee pot roast. Tuesday, meat loaf is served. Wednesday's specials are corn chowder, turkey potpie, and American chop suey. New England boiled dinner is served on Thursday, as is pea soup with johnnycake, the latter a classic of New England cuisine dating back to the early 1700s. On Friday, the specials are haddock with egg sauce and fish chowder.

Saturday is reserved for homemade clam chowder and perhaps the diner's most popular special, baked beans with brown bread. One Saturday night, Sample recalls, "Mother and I [meaning he and his wife] had just settled in for our first round of beans when we heard a pickup truck pull in ... and we heard these three fellas get out.... There was no question in anyone's mind that these boys was fishermen. And big ones too, I might add. I'd say that the smallest one of the three would dress out at close to 250 pounds.

"And they'd barely plunked down on them stools," Sample continues, "before they were bailin' them beans to 'em at a rate that would strain the imagination of most folks. I wasn't keepin' exact count, but I'd say they were scarfin' down three or four plateloads of them beans to our one. I've never seen the like of it."

Other menu staples include mincemeat pie, hot turkey sandwiches, buttermilk biscuits, and crab rolls, as well as heaping plates of deep-fried scallops, clams, shrimp, and haddock. For its French fries, potato salad, and other starchy sides, during the summer, Moody's get 1,500 pounds of potatoes delivered every week from Presque Isle, located in northern Maine's potato country.

Dan Beck, a great-grandson, is currently the co-manager of kitchen operations at Moody's. "We don't necessarily look for people with culinary degrees when we hire for the kitchen, but just good cooks and bakers who are experienced and are also willing to keep learning.

"But it's getting harder each year to find people with that kind of background," he says. "A lot of knowledge about good old-fashioned home cooking is being lost, not handed down from one generation to the next any more."

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