Beetle’s Lunch: An Oral History of the Early Food Adventures of Restauranteurs Norine Kotts and Cheryl Lewis

Norine Kotts and Cheryl Lewis are prominent restauranteurs and food consultants in Portland, Maine. In 1985 they joined an emergent Portland food scene by launching Café Always, an intimate, fine-dining restaurant on Middle Street. Café Always was innovative in bringing what later became known as fusion cuisine to local dining. Kotts and Lewis described this as "improvisational cuisine, with a close kin to art." After selling the business in 1995, they continued to push the envelope by opening Aurora Provisions, a gourmet food store, café, and catering business in the West End. In 2009, they repurposed a derelict gas station on the corner of York and High into the wildly successful El Rayo Taqueria, which served up fast, fresh Mexican food. In addition to running their own businesses, they served as mentors and consultants, helping to reimagine food establishments across Maine.

But first there was Beetle’s Lunch! Before moving to Portland, Lewis and Kotts were two of the four lesbian co-founders of Beetle’s Lunch in 1982, a café in Allston, Massachusetts. Known as a queer-punk space also welcoming of locals, Beetle’s was named the"1983 Best Punk Restaurant" by Boston magazine. I lived a block away from Beetle’s during that time, while a graduate student at Brandeis University, and frequented the café several times. Almost four decades later, I moved to Portland from Massachusetts. Serendipitously, I met Cheryl and Norine at a dinner party. We immediately discovered, and bonded over, our shared history at Beetle’s. As a sociologist, I knew their stories would be those of a radical generation reimagining work, politics, and food. In this oral history, they recount Beetle’s origin story, and the daily pleasures and challenges of launching and running a restaurant (while in their 20s!). More broadly, their stories capture that dynamic historical moment of feminist and queer politics, a nascent food revolution, the emergence of alternative community spaces, and early ‘80s experiments in establishing collective workplaces. This oral history covers the period ca. 1981-83.

Janice Irvine is a professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts. She is the author of several books, and numerous articles, focused on culture, politics, and the production of social knowledge. She has twice been a Fulbright Scholar, received a Rockefeller Fellowship at the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies at CUNY, and received an award for Career Achievement and Distinguished Scholarship by the American Sociological Association. Her most recent book is, Marginal People in Deviant Places: Ethnography, Difference, and the Challenge to Scientific Racism.

Norine Kotts and Cheryl Lewis wearing sunglasses and smiling Norine Kotts, Bio

As a kid growing up in the suburbs just outside of Detroit I dreamed of joining the circus. The reality of picking up stakes and regularly moving was a part of my early childhood, so adding the circus element somehow made it seem exciting rather than what it sometimes was—a surprise of the greatest magnitude to learn that in an hour or two (or if I was lucky, a day or two) that we’d be on the road again in search of work for my dad.

When we settled for any length of time, our home was a family to foster children of all ages. My adoptive mother, father, and I were the constants. The kids who passed through for a few weeks or months completed the other side of the circus equation. It’s no wonder that when I struck out on my own I was at ease in almost any situation, able to easily slip into the lives of strangers and always willing to feed a new friend or give them a place to rest on whatever early twenty-something journey they were on. Hospitality was my bloodline.

When the early ‘70’s rolled around, I landed a job at a newspaper, answering phones, proofing copy, laying out pages, writing obituaries, and fetching coffee for the Sports Editor. The photographer took a shine to me, and I to his collection of cameras. I tagged along on assignments with him, picking up whichever loaded camera wasn’t being used and began a life-long love of viewing the world through the lens of a camera. As more and more of my photos from a shared roll were chosen to illustrate a story, I gradually left desk work behind and began to free-lance my photos, eventually landing work photographing the Virginia Slims Women’s Tennis Circuit. Once again, I was on the road, and while all of this was great fun and financially rewarding, after a few years of crisscrossing the country, I felt the need to let my cameras sit and my eyes rest. In 1980, I met Cheryl in San Francisco, we soon moved back to the East Coast, and our food adventures began.

Cheryl Lewis, Bio

Born in Chicago in 1957, I soon moved with my family to a mountain top in Rockland County, New York, and helped my parents build their house as their four-year-old assistant. I’ve been cooking all my life, starting out by my mother’s side: shaking sugar onto her warm, gooey jelly doughnuts; making eclairs for her ladies’ lunches; and building multi-course Chinese, Mexican, German, Italian and American dinners for the family. Who knew that all that cooking would become my life’s passion! I moved to the Bay Area to attend art school, anticipating a career as a ceramic artist. Instead, meeting my partner Norine and all those girls on Waldo Street in Somerville, Massachusetts, led us to that super-fun and challenging collective experiment of Beetle’s Lunch. We launched this whole new career path as a result of starting Beetle’s in what felt like an idealistic “community of now” in Boston--an era that pushed the boundaries of "normal" both in purity of food (no can openers there!), music, and political feminism. So many people taught and supported me all along the way— chefs, friends, customers, vendors, family, and especially my girl, Norine! Together, we felt such vitality in our yearning to grow and learn and, as women entrepreneurs, to push that boulder up the mountain!

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