Table for One

Why I Go to Maine in the Winter

I battle depression every day. Here's one thing that helps.

December 27, 2019
Photo by James Ransom

Table for One is a column by Senior Editor Eric Kim, who loves cooking for himself—and only himself—and seeks to explore solitude in its many forms.

I had always wanted to go to Maine. I once took a fiction writing course in college where a boy named Patrik, who was from Portland, Maine, sat next to me all semester. Tall, blonde, and lanky, he wore oversized green sweaters and had a smile as big as his face. He was a lovely writer. He’d catch me staring at him, wait for me after class, and invite me to parties where he and his friends would lug huge kegs of beer into the bathtub. Because he was from Maine, I’d always associated the state with his boyish charm, his kindness.

Years later, I would learn that I was right. Boys from Maine are the nicest, and they can pull you out of anything. At least for a little while.

After college I started graduate school in New York. I had just been diagnosed with major depressive disorder by my psychiatrist, after years of fighting it on my own as a teenager and never having a name for it. It’s funny how things can grow limbs and hair and immeasurable darkness when you just name them. But my depression was never obviously present. It would come out mostly at night like a boogie monster, as I lied in bed until 3 a.m. going over my thoughts, worrying about my future, my career, my mental health. It would come out when I least wanted it to, like when I was laughing with friends at a bar, or when I was on a date. It would come out and look me in the eye, and I’d say, “Oh, you again.”

I remember one night, in my last year of school, I called my cousin Becky to tell her I was thinking of taking my own life. I felt stuck and couldn’t shake off the black, crushing feeling. She listened quietly and talked me off the ledge by asking deliberate questions like: “What’s different about tonight?” and “Have you told your therapist?” Though I could hear the tremble in her voice, she was calm and knew how to help me navigate my depression and identify its triggers. She helped me realize, over the course of the year, that one of those triggers was how unhappy I was in school.

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So in the spring, I dropped out and got a job instead. Working in an office was the change of pace I needed to reset my outlook for the year. It was fun and, more importantly, a distraction from all of my problems. But I lapsed again in the winter. I stopped eating and started losing weight. It didn’t help that it was December 2016, and half of America seemed to be grieving the loss of its sense of self. I felt it on the train, on the street, in the office—the tone of the quotidian had shifted, for the worse. There’s no cure-all for that kind of depression, but there are little things that can help sometimes. At least for me. Like imagining myself somewhere other than where I am, even if for one brief moment when I close my eyes to transport myself for a while.

That’s when I thought of Patrik and the short stories about Maine he had inspired me to write, even though I had never been. That’s when I thought, if there were one place I could go to get better, then maybe it was Maine. So I bought a plane ticket (they run cheap from New York City to Portland), told my boss I’d be out of the office from Friday to Monday, and set off.

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I got into Portland on a Friday afternoon. I took a cab straight to the cheapest inn I could find. It had a lovely foyer that looked like the inside of an old house, or like the one in Roald Dahl’s “The Landlady”. There was coffee on the side for guests and big armchairs in the lobby, in which I’d sit and read Anna Del Conte’s Risotto With Nettles, my book for the weekend, every morning. I was charmed by the inn’s quaintness, every little detail a distraction from the feelings that had gotten me on that plane in the first place.

It was a cold day in December, and the wind felt good against my cheeks, the kind of soft chill that wakes you up and makes you aware of every one of your senses. Which is a great thing when you’re walking down the street, in a foreign city, just trying to grab a bite to eat. That’s when I found Eventide, an oyster bar on Middle Street. There, I ordered a brown-butter lobster roll on the softest bao bun I’d ever had, and a green salad tossed in a nutty nori vinaigrette and jeweled with an array of pickled vegetables. And for one brief moment, as I sat alone at that bar, eating quietly, I was able to feel something other than that dark, heavy feeling in the pit of my stomach. For one brief moment, I forgot that I was depressed.

This simple joy made me think back on my weekly sessions with one psychiatrist in particular whose approach was, at least to me, overly clinical. More often than not, I'd just end up with some new prescription that never worked. I’ve always believed that depression can be a lot of things, but that medication is just part of the whole. There’s no perfect cocktail of pills for fighting something that’s at once biological, chemical, situational, emotional, and environmental. But certain pills can be stronger than others.

There was a couple down at the other end of the bar, likely tourists as well, but otherwise the restaurant was empty. I’ve never been one to shy away from a little friendly chit-chat with strangers, but I was grateful to get to enjoy my solo meal in the peace and quiet of that Maine afternoon.

After lunch, I decided to take a ferry across the pond to Peaks Island. But when I went to the dock, I learned that the next ship wouldn’t be departing for another couple of hours. So I walked along Commercial Street and stopped into Arabica Coffee House for one of the best cappuccinos I’d ever had. The microbubbles were superfine, like feathers, and it was velvety but balanced and bitter (the espresso had been pulled at just the right moment). It made my chest feel good as it went down. It didn’t hurt that the barista was very nice and pretty, too.

I was holding a large DSLR camera around my neck (food tourist that I was) and asked if I could take a picture of him.

“Sure!” he said, straightening out his black T-shirt with a wolf on it. I went behind the bar and took a couple of shots from the side, but didn't get the shot until he forgot I was there. As he brewed that espresso, the steam wafted up against the light, which would look really nice in the black and white photo I’d send him later in the day.

I crossed the street to take the ferry to Peaks Island, where I walked around, taking pictures and jotting down notes, and headed back across the water at sunset to have a gargantuan platter of lobster scampi for dinner at Street and Co. There, I met a nice couple sitting next to me at the bar. They said, “We saw you across the street earlier, through the window. You were drinking alone at that other bar.”

And for one brief moment, as I sat alone at that bar, eating quietly, I was able to feel something other than that dark, heavy feeling in the pit of my stomach. For one brief moment, I forgot that I was depressed.

I was drinking alone at that other bar. I was at once embarrassed and touched that, in the midst of my great, leaden loneliness, someone was watching over me the whole time. It made me wonder if we’re ever really alone. As the couple recounted my actions, I felt like I was outside of my body, seeing a play-by-play of what they had seen of me: a boy reading a book, crying over his Scotch.

They talked to me through the whole dinner, and I didn't even mind it because I could feel their kindness. It reached out and enveloped me like a duvet. He had a gentle, friendly face like a teacher's. She was blonde and had a big smile like my old classmate Patrik, and for a crazy second I wondered if she might be his cousin, which of course she wasn’t (I asked). Because we were sitting at a bar, we had to warp our bodies sideways to hear each other, which was uncomfortable, but only physically. Emotionally, we were wrapped up in the comfort of conversation.

I don’t even remember what we talked about. I drank so much red wine that night, I couldn’t for the life of me recall whether I’d cracked open my lobster claws, though I certainly ate the tails. I walked back to the inn and cursed myself for wasting lobster claws in Maine. Back in my room, I emailed the barista the picture I took of him. The next day, he asked me out for coffee and I said yes.

The rest of my weekend would be filled with little moments like these that made me forget the big sadness in my heart. There’s something about solo travel especially that leaves you vulnerable like that. A heightened sensitivity means you’re on guard all the time—it also means that any small act of kindness from a stranger becomes magnified, and food that would otherwise just taste good becomes that much more nourishing.

There’s a reason I’ve gone to Maine every winter since. It’s my short solo trip at the end of the year, a break from work and the hard daily beat of life in New York City. And though I’m not in that turbulent place I was years ago when I first went in search of an antidote to my depression, it’s something I still do to remind myself of a time when everything seemed to be falling apart. To remember how bad it can get if I’m not mindful about taking care of myself.

Taking time to read a good book, to enjoy a quiet night alone, to take a hot bath with a glass of my favorite Chardonnay.

As it turns out, Maine is the quiet place I need when I’m looking for answers or need to sort through my thoughts. It’s the place where I can take a necessary break from the comfort of friends and sociality, because my only obligation is to myself. Because I’ve always felt that the one way to ever truly know that you’re okay is if you’re able to be alone—and to be happy alone.

And so, should you ever find your way to Portland, take note of the city’s expansive kindness, especially to strangers who travel there alone. It’s the perfect place for solo diners, or anyone who appreciates a good meal. And you just might find that one couple with their hearts on their sleeves, which is exactly what you need when you’re at your loneliest. In the way that the Dementors in Harry Potter can sense depression and will do everything in their power to feed on it, so too can human beings, even without knowing it, identify a lost soul from a mile away—but they’re the ones holding out a piece of chocolate like Professor Lupin, because it helps keep the darks and twisties at bay.

On my last day in Portland, as I waited at the bus stop for the airport in my big red marshmallow jacket, I texted Patrik for the first time in years: “I was in your hometown this weekend; it’s everything I thought it’d be. The boys are nice, too.”

He wrote back something long and winding and Maine-like, I don’t remember exactly. But I remember I could hear the big smile behind it, and it made me feel better for a while.

This column was originally published in December 2018.

Eat the Story

  • Eventide Oyster Co.
    86 Middle Street
    Oysters on the half shell with horseradish ice, greens, brown butter lobster roll, lobster stew.

  • Arabica Coffee House
    9 Commercial Street
    Cappuccino, chocolate chip cookie.

  • Street and Co.
    33 Wharf Street
    Grilled lobster with butter and garlic over linguine, lobster bread pudding (if they have it).

  • DiMillo's
    25 Long Wharf
    Steamed 1 1/8–pound lobster, cup of clam chowder.

  • Five Fifty-Five
    555 Congress Street
    Lobster Benedict (brunch only), Bloody Mary.

  • Harbor Fish Market
    9 Custom House Wharf
    Live seafood and lobster to take home.

  • Old Port Spirits and Cigars
    223 Commercial Street
    Bluet wild-blueberry wine, assortment of local Maine beers.

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Eric Kim was the Table for One columnist at Food52. He is currently working on his first cookbook, KOREAN AMERICAN, to be published by Clarkson Potter in 2022. His favorite writers are William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Ernest Hemingway, but his hero is Nigella Lawson. You can find his bylines at The New York Times, where he works now as a writer. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @ericjoonho.


Miranda S. January 12, 2023
I love this article and revisit it often. This food/travel story reminded me of it today:
Stephanie February 11, 2021
THANK YOU for your poetic and honest writing. You made ME feel less alone. I felt seen reading your travels.
mdelgatty May 15, 2020
Keep up the good fight, Eric - many of us know it well too. I remember realizing in my very early thirties that if I were going to take my own life I would have had to do it by then. For me, not taking my own life had become a matter of integrity; I could only justify doing that if there was no hope that things would get better, and I'd experienced often enough that somehow things always did get better, at least a bit, and I couldn't pretend otherwise to myself...
Mary February 2, 2020
This lovely little story touched so many chords in my heart. Thank you for sharing it. I was lucky enough to marry into a family of Mainers and visit often. Being from Texas it’s about as different as you can get and seems to provide me with the softer light and quiet calm that I need to see thing clearly in my life. And though summers in Maine are absolute magic, I especially love Maine in the winter - only half the population remains and something festive fills the air because the people still there really, really want to be there. And the silence after a snow storm - when the marshes and meadows are smooth and pure white - is like nothing I’ve ever experienced. “Maine is a joy in the summer. But the soul of Maine is more apparent in the winter.“ - Paul Theroux
Cathy W. January 12, 2020
I am so happy our little jewel of a city can pull you through during these difficult moments. I have to say that I have been to NYC and been amazed at how warm and inviting people can be there also. However, over time I am sure it would drain me of 'me' after awhile. I appreciate my alone time too much. I was born and raised here in Maine and I am constantly asking myself why I live here during the cold and snowy months. April/May comes around and I am reminded of the reasons. If I have to put up with a couple of months of discomfort to have the other several months to bask in joy...I'll put up with it. Guess I'll have to take your advice one of these cold winter days and drive the 10 miles into P-Town to share some sustenance with the locals like I used to in my younger days. Eventide is a go to for my brother when he is home from Singapore. May I also suggest J's Oyster!
Winifred R. January 8, 2020
Eric, Love the piece. I grew up in central New England many years ago, and the New England reputation was not then one of people who were warm and welcoming. So strange, because if you knew many it was there but it was quiet and gentle rather than the backslapping type of welcome Texas was known for, or the smile and wave of the South. It makes me so glad to see that Maine has the caring described so beautifully, and that it has warmed some of the darker winter days for you.
Alicia January 6, 2020
Thank you, I always felt alone with my depression and feelings. I love your coping mechanisms, I like to do about the same.
Lydia C. December 31, 2019
Eric, thank you for this lovely piece. I live here in Portland and your letter captures the sweetness and open heart of this city. I wish you peace and joy and many more visits to Maine.
Sarah L. December 30, 2019
Stacie December 24, 2019
Thanks for your love letter to our wonderful city
LisaT December 24, 2019
I made an account to follow your writing! I did not expect to cry reading a food52 article, but wow, thank you for being raw and vulnerable with your essay. I realized that I had depression when I stopped enjoying food. I spent this year in recovery, learning to love myself and find things that fill my cup. It’s tricky to balance having alone time, and having too much alone time that becomes isolating, which triggers my depression. I can’t wait to read more of your essays to help with this self-journey of feeling content being by myself.
According T. October 23, 2019
Thank for reminding me of my own special coffee and lobster moments. Your story was touching and eye opening moment. I have close family members that suffer from depression and I often think to share my experience of travel with them, and allow them brief moments of something new and different scenarios. Also liked the Harry Potter reference. I look forward to more.
Gina B. October 18, 2019
Very touching, Kim. We've all been there. Blessings to you always. Gina
Alex E. October 8, 2019
I don’t know how you managed to make me laugh, cry, and learn something new while also being able to fit in a Harry Potter reference but it’s a testament to the many sides of you and your writing. So good, Eric! One of my favorites of yours. Thank you for sharing. (Also “Maine-like” is great.)
gourmet B. August 2, 2019
I got chills reading this, Eric. Maybe it was the snow.
Eric K. August 2, 2019
Pamela M. July 21, 2019
Enjoying your genuine thoughts. I published a book about bipolar disorder written by a sufferer of the disorder. It may be something you would like. It comes out in August. Confessions of Madness by Wendall Churchill. Published by Single Star. Good luck. Pamela, publisher.
Eric K. August 2, 2019
Pamela, thanks so much for sharing. Looking forward to reading it.
Preeti March 27, 2019
Wow! This is such a powerful essay! And the Harry Potter analogy is how I always thought of what depression would feel like but somehow didn't see myself as someone who'd be there to hand out the chocolate. Thanks!
Eric K. March 27, 2019
Chocolate helps.
Laura G. March 27, 2019
I've just found your column from your recipe on Cup of Jo, and am falling down the rabbit hole of your wonderful writing. This one in particular is so lovely. You describe both food and emotions so beautifully, and I connected with so many things in this piece. Thank you for writing it.
Eric K. March 27, 2019
Laura, thank you for finding me!
Amelia W. January 31, 2019
I love this Eric. Thank you for writing it and for your honesty. You helped me today. You reminded me of the simple joys of a perfect coffee or a perfect meal. The pleasure in aloneness and with company. You reminded me how important it is to self-care, and give ourselves permission to do this. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Your writing made me cry but in a good way, I promise.
Eric K. March 27, 2019
I’m a little late seeing this, but: Thank you. Your comment helped me today, too.
Brett B. January 26, 2019
This is exactly the kind of writing which reminds us of the importance of food as as a component, one component, of our complex shared humanity. We need more of these.
Amelia W. January 31, 2019
I agree, Brett.
Eric K. March 27, 2019
Thanks, Brett and Amelia!