Friday, July 28, 2017

From the Archives - Lobsters in Maine


As described in these pages, my wife and I did a cross-country bike tour in 1994, starting in the Bay Area, heading down the west coast to San Diego, and then making our way north and east all the way to Maine before dropping down the east coast to South Carolina. Since it’s a slow news day here at albertnet, I’m sharing this archival bike tour essay, which mostly concerns Maine lobsters. (Note: this post is not about the 2015 movie The Lobster. However, if you haven’t seen that movie yet, you should definitely check it out … just as soon as you finish reading this.)

One more thing: I originally wrote this account while still on the bike tour, without the benefit of Internet access or any other means of fact-checking all the stuff I wrote about lobsters, which was stuff a guy told me, and which I recounted from memory. I see no need to fact-check any of it now; I mean, it’s not like you’re going to get in some kind of trouble because you had, say, the wrong figure for legal size of a captured lobster.

Lobsters in Maine – September, 1994

Our first morning on Mount Desert Island, we awoke at 3:45 after scarcely four hours of sleep to ride up Cadillac Mountain, which at a paltry 1,000 or so feet is nonetheless the highest point on the east coast. It is also reputed to be the first place in the United States that the sun hits in the morning. We took in a nice 5:57 a.m. sunrise (whether or not it was really the first), and then had a nice descent to breakfast. In the process we came across the Great Acadia Downhill Bicycle Adventure: a company drives you up the mountain, gives you a motorcycle helmet and a beach cruiser, and guides you down the mountain, all for just $29. We used the $58 we’d saved to buy ourselves a lobster dinner that night in Bar Harbor.

I’d never eaten an entire lobster before—just a tail, on a couple of occasions. Lobsters are as cheap as $3.50 a pound, live, in Maine. This is the season for them, and every restaurant in town offers them, at anywhere from $6.95 to $11.95 for a whole 1-¼ pound lobster. At an ice cream shop, I even tried lobster ice cream, which must have been more gimmick than anything because it was just plain vanilla, with chunks of lobster meat. After going to a bookstore to review souvenir placemats describing the 10-step lobster eating process, we went to a restaurant that one of the Bar Harbor locals had recommended. (Q: How do you find one of the rare locals in a tourist-mobbed place like Bar Harbor? A: They’re the ones without the fanny-packs and commemorative t-shirts.)

The early bird special was $9.95 for a whole lobster with rice pilaf and vegetable. It was delicious, I must say, although quite challenging to dismember. The lobster was almost too perfect to eat: it was served, mere minutes after the end of its life, completely intact: eyes, antennae, claws, legs, tail everything. The best meat came from the tail and claw sections, although each of its slender legs yielded meat as well, which you got at by sucking really hard on the narrow tubular shell. (It was kind of like trying to suck a Wendy’s milkshake through a straw, except yummier.)

The liver of the lobster—a great green ball that lobster aficionados call the tomalley—is considered a delicacy, but it was too much for me. It tasted like the way the sea smells, except worse. I guess I’m glad to have tried it, just for the experience, just like I’m glad I once tried chicken feet at dim sum, but I shall never eat a tomalley (nor a chicken foot) again.

We’d intended to stay longer on the island than we did, but the awful roads and suffocating congestion, combined with the exorbitant expense of the campgrounds, were just too frustrating. A park ranger explained that the post-season lull, which we’d been counting on, is a thing of the past. So many travel books, he said, encouraged people to visit after the tourist season (Memorial Day to Labor Day) that it’s just as crowded in September as it is in June. In fact, we discovered that more people were there on weekdays than on weekends. Maybe the time to come would be over the July 4 weekend, when all the wily tourists are staying at home. Or better yet, come in January, when even the central heating of an RV isn’t enough to rectify the discomfort of winter.

After leaving Mount Desert Island, we went looking for a small, relatively obscure restaurant called Bob’s Chowder House, which had been recommended by locals. After looking in vain for a while, we stopped at a random roadside restaurant called the Gateway Lobster Pound. It featured awful food, slow service, and a noisy staff that argued well within earshot about whether my wife was justified in sending back a slice of pie, which tasted like the inside of a refrigerator and was completely stale.

We left, disgusted and unfulfilled, and then, a quarter of a mile up the road, found Bob’s Chowder House. Such despair! We were so disappointed by the first place, and in such low spirits, that we stopped at Bob’s Chowder House anyway. (This is where having an auxiliary stomach really comes in handy.)

This time we were not disappointed. The waiter was friendly, the food was fantastic, and afterwards, on our way back to the highway, we stopped outside where the lobster cook presided over giant drums of boiling salt water recessed in a brick fireplace. He was a young, bearded fellow, idly smoking a cigarette while there were no lobsters to be boiled. He was happy to talk with us about lobsters, and even went to the tank to get us a live one to examine.

When you take a lobster out of a tank of chilled water, it’s alert and strong and you have to keep its claws rubber-banded shut or it could maim you. But once it’s been in the warm air for a while, it gets weak and woozy and the rubber bands can come off.

A lobster, before cooked, is generally a brownish color, although some of them are blue. When cooked, all of them, even the blue ones, turn red. Lobsters look a lot like the crawdads we all dissected in biology, but in fact they’re quite different. Most species of lobsters are of the genus Homarus, while crayfish are of the genera Cambarus and Astacus. Lobsters are considerably larger and dwell in salt water, while crayfish are fresh water creatures, except for the spiny lobster (aka rock lobster) which is a salt water crayfish.

[Note: in the years following this bike tour, I did some business travel and found a restaurant in Columbus, Ohio that served a seafood pasta with a big ol’ crawdad sitting on top. The first time I ordered it, the waitress warned me about the crawdad. I asked what could possibly be the problem and she let on that some customers were a bit freaked out to have this insect-like thing staring at them. It didn’t bother me a bit, and I can now report that crawdad tastes exactly like lobster.]

Lobsters are captured in a “lobster pot,” which is a slatted cage with an opening covered by a funnel shaped net. It is lowered all the way to the ocean floor, and will gradually fill with as many lobsters as can climb in, until it is pulled up. The trapping of lobsters is restricted in order to protect the species: lobsters of less than 5 inches or so in length, measured from the mouth to the tail, are illegal to sell; likewise, lobsters of greater than 10 inches or so (I can’t remember the exact numbers) are also illegal to sell. These must be put back in the ocean. Sometimes a lobsterman will catch a female that has laid eggs. These eggs are stored on the underside of her belly, and she curls the tail around them like a shield. The lobsterman must cut a notch in the tail of this lobster before putting her back, so that if she is caught again and without eggs, she will still be recognized as a breeder and returned to the sea in reward for her fertility.

Lobsters lead a very busy life. The only way they can grow is to shed their shell and grow a new one. Further, they can only shed their old shell in shallow waters, where they must wait, hidden under a rock or shelf in the sea floor, for the new shell to grow. A lobster spends his entire life walking across the ocean floor towards the shallow water, shedding his shell, growing a new one, and then slowly retreating to the deeper ocean again. By the time he gets back to deep water, it is time for him to grow again, so he turns right back around and heads towards the shallow water again. This is a slow process; by the time a lobster is big enough to sell, he is usually 4 or 5 years old. If he is lucky enough to outgrow his legal size without being trapped and consumed, he will have a long life ahead of him, with few or no natural predators. Lobsters can live 80 years, and the largest one ever captured is in a museum in Boston and weighs something like 45 pounds.

Like an Albert, a lobster will eat whatever he can get. Usually this means ocean debris that has sunk to the bottom of the ocean, but we’re told a lobster will eat another lobster if he gets the opportunity. Lobsters have one dominant claw, which is bigger than the other, and they use this claw to break up and pull in food. The other, smaller claw is used to put the food into the lobster’s mouth. (Some lobsters are “right handed” and some are “left handed.”) These claws are extremely powerful—they could snap a broomstick in half—so lobsters are seldom bothered by other sea creatures. And, if a lobster loses an appendage, he can grow a new one.

Having learned all this about lobsters, I began to rethink my enthusiasm for eating them. It seems like kind of a waste for a lobster to spend 4 or 5 years scuttling along the floor, making its long journeys, putting out such an effort to grow new shells and increase its size, only to be eaten over a period of 15 or 20 minutes. Of course you could argue the same point about cattle, but I think there is an important difference. The modern cow is entirely reliant on humans for its food—indeed, for its very existence. In a sense it’s almost more like a crop than a creature. But the lobster has a very busy, purposeful life, and would do quite nicely without being captured and eaten, thank you very much.

On second thought, lobster makes more sense than beef as a food because it doesn’t require any feeding. I heard somewhere that half of the water used in the U.S. goes towards growing corn to feed cattle; why shouldn’t we instead eat an animal that that finds its own food? All the McDonald’s restaurants in New England serve lobster; if lobster were to replace beef, think of all the land we could use for growing other stuff! Someone told me once we could feed the whole third world that way! Besides, lobster is so much less fattening than beef (and contains, incidentally, more iodine than any other food). We already have lobster hatcheries; what about doing it big?

Alas, there’s the whole food chain issue, so dramatically increasing lobster populations wouldn’t really work out. But what about this: since they can regenerate claws, how about harvesting those? Why waste all that potential claw generation time while the lobster is out scuttling around? Keep him happy, give him all the fish food or leftovers he wants, and take claws as necessary.

Okay, that’s enough. I was just kidding. Consider that last paragraph the deranged musings of a somewhat disturbed former lobster eater—reformed by default, since there is no more lobster to be had.

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