Vinalhaven: lobster port
A Maine Icon: The Lobster
And just like that. . . it’s high summer, when hungry tourists course over the Piscataqua River bridge between Maine and New Hampshire and head down east in search of lobster and especially lobster rolls, the mother of all icons as far as Maine food is concerned. Like hoagies in Philadelphia and po’boys in New Orleans, the lobster roll is the quintessence, the very epitome of a place. Of this place and no other
McLoon’s lobster roll
Of course, nowadays you can find lobster rolls back and forth, from sea to shining sea and even along the Gulf of Mexico, just as you can hoagies and po’boys. Nonetheless, most folks agree, a Maine-made lobster roll, assembled from freshly harvested and steamed (not boiled) lobster, dressed with a minimum of mayonnaise and a modicum of melted butter, packed into a lightly toasted split-top roll, and preferably consumed within sight of the sea—a dock, a port, a beach, a lighthouse above a rack of ledges against which crash Atlantic breakers in rhythmic succession—yes, that is, as we say in Maine, the finest kind
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McLoon’s lobster wharf, Spruce Head
But the price of that lobster roll continues to be very high, not surprisingly given the current economic climate. Back in May, driving home from Portland along Route One, I decided to stop in Wiscasset to sample a lobster roll from the notorious lobster shack Red’s Eats. For years I’ve dismissed this place as a tourist trap, but in fact I hadn’t had one of their rolls since my boy was in grad school 25 or so years ago. It was early in the season, early in the day, and I had no problem parking and no line to contend with. And I was ready to step up to the window when I glanced down at the pricing board
Red’s Eats: It’s cheaper now.
Yes! $39 for a single lobster roll. No matter how delicious, I would wait till the price came down. And of course it did. Slowly but steadily. As of this writing it’s $31 “and it’s fabulous, my dear,” said the woman who answered the phone. As Deborah Gagnon, one of the owners of Red’s, explained to a local reporter, it’s not just the price of lobster—everything has gone up while Red’s lobster roll, she said, continues to be five-star, loaded with tail, claw, and knuckle meat. From paper plates and butter to split-top buns and especially labor itself, costs have gone up everywhere. The cheapest lobster roll I’ve found so far this summer was at Grete’s Eats by the ferry terminal on Vinalhaven, where I paid just $20 but it had notably less lobster in it than the one I had happily consumed a year earlier. Just last week at Jess’s Seafood Market in Rockland’s North End, lobster was selling for $6.99 a pound, down from $12.35 a pound on April 1st, and $9.35 a pound in May. It’s normal for prices to drop over that period every year but this was a particularly steep descent.
Lobster, and not just in lobster rolls, is an economic driver along the coast of Maine. Last year, 2021, the state’s fishermen and women caught 108 million pounds of the beast (the record, I believe, was set in 2012 at 147 million pounds) for a value of $725 million. More than that, however, a 2018 Colby College study reckoned the total supply chain adds up to a cool billion dollars for the state’s economy. And when you total in the income from restaurants of all shapes and sizes, as well as other aspects of the hospitality industry, the figure becomes even more stunning. “Lobstering is the core and essence of the cultural heritage that draws people” to the coast, according to Sam Belknap of Rockland-based Island Institute. See this story by Melissa Waterman on Island Institute’s web page: https://tinyurl.com/25yxwmxm
Not bad for something that used to be considered poor man’s food
Fresh steamed and ready to crack
Problems, problems, problems. . .
But isn’t lobster being overfished? I can hear you ask. No, not yet: Maine has very strict regulations, developed by the state, working closely with both marine scientists and lobster fishermen themselves, to protect this valuable resource. Two important regulations control size and protect the breeding stock. Lobster fishers carry a double-sided gauge to measure the body of the beast from the eye to the rear of the top shell or carapace: under 3 ¼ inches is short and gets tossed back, as does anything over 5 inches. Further, any egg-bearing female lobsters (called “berried females”) have a notch cut in their tail fins (it doesn’t hurt the lobster) and also get tossed back, as does any previously notched lobster. This has, by all accounts, been very effective. Lobster population is now at a high although much of this is attributed to the decline of cod and other ground fish that feed on lobster larvae and baby lobsters.
So it’s hard to figure out what’s happening with lobster. Fishermen, a notoriously cantankerous bunch, are uneasy, to say the least. A huge amount of money has been invested in boats and other equipment and today’s lobsterman (or woman—more and more women are entering whenever a spot opens up) is a far cry from the lone man rowing a wooden dory depicted by Winslow Homer. For some fishers, those who own their own high-powered boats, income can be, to put it mildly, substantial. For others, who work for boat-owners, it is considerably less. And there’s a lot of hard work and dangerous conditions involved.
But there are other problems, not least of which is the newest set of regulations, handed down by the federal government to protect critically endangered right whales. The regulations, which call for weak plastic links to be spliced into lines connecting buoys to traps on the ocean floor. If a whale becomes entangled, presumably the line will break and free the creature. These regulations are temporarily in abeyance because of (what else?) supply problems but eventually they will have to be complied with—further expense and further problems for fishers.
In fact, most fishermen object to any kind of regulations, believing that they know the resource better than anyone else and that is probably true. But what they don’t understand is that it is not “their” resource—it is ”ours.” And we have a stake and a say in how it is exploited.
Another, and to my mind far more worrisome, problem is caused by warming temperatures in the Gulf of Maine, one of the ocean regions that, for various reasons, is heating up more rapidly than almost anywhere else in the world. Lobsters, notably, don’t like warm water. They prefer a range between 54º and 64º F, and avoid anything above 65º at which point they start to show a lot of stress. Warming waters to the south, in Long Island Sound and off the Massachusetts coast, have already led to severely diminished lobster harvests and diseases. By all accounts, the lobster population in Maine is slowly moving north by east, heading for cooler waters. In the future we may be eating far more Canadian lobsters than we are the iconic critter from the coast of Maine.
So You Want to Cook a Lobster?
Here’s how but you need to steal yourself against the idea of cruelty because a lobster must be cooked while it is still alive or only very recently dead. We are told that lobsters don’t feel the pain of boiling water. We are also told that lobsters do indeed feel the pain, otherwise they wouldn’t try to climb out of the pot. It’s your choice, but if you choose to go the PETA route, remember that whenever you eat a lobster roll, that lobster has also been cooked by this same method. Here’s how: Bring about two inches of heavily salted water to a rapid boil (salted till it tastes like ocean water). Clip off the elastic bands that hold the lobster’s claws secure, then drop it live into the steaming pot. Remember that you are steaming the lobster rather than boiling it. Cook for 10 to 12 minutes, or until the shell turns vivid red, then remove and let cool to the point you can handle it.
What’s the best lobster size?
In Maine we generally figure 1 ¼ to 1 ½ pounds. Anything over that tends to get tough; anything under that borders on illegal.
Soft shell or hard?
In summer lobsters molt, shedding their hard carapace and growing a new one. Soft shell lobsters are called shedders. They are easy to shuck with your bare hands and the meat is notably sweet but it also comes with a lot of liquid, which I personally find unpleasant. I prefer hard shell and I think most Mainers do too.
What to serve with it?
Drawn butter (an old-fashioned term for melted butter that has had the white stuff skimmed off) with a dollop or more of vinegar or lemon juice; extra-virgin olive oil (also with vinegar or lemon juice); mayonnaise; flavored mayo (lemon is good, also garlic, or chopped green herbs like basil, tarragon, or chervil if you have them).
What to do with the leftover bodies?
Turn them into lobster bisque, but I will have to give you the recipe for that another time because I’m running out of space.
As for lobster mac & cheese, I refuse to give you a recipe for what I consider one of the most detestable dishes in the entire Maine canon, right up there with boiled dinner. Not for me!
Criminal Activity? A Maine Mystery
My mother was born in 1907 in Thomaston, Maine—“in a blizzard,” she always added. She was 13 years old in 1920 when the 18th amendment to the US Constitution, prohibiting the manufacture, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages, took effect. Long before that, however, Maine had enacted its own prohibition, beginning in 1851 and lasting until President Roosevelt spearheaded the repeal of all such laws nationally. Somehow, Maine lacked the energy to reinstate its own regulations; thus it has remained ever since, although it took until 2015 before Sunday sales of alcohol, once apparently imposed to discourage people from going drunk to church, were allowed.
But Mainers had and still have a long, long history of avoiding government restrictions on alcohol (other things too) and we continued consuming it in quantity and often openly in taverns and bars. On the Maine Memory Network, a project of the Maine Historical Society, there’s a delightfully thorough history of liquor and prohibition in the state. You can read more here: https://tinyurl.com/32b7ey3s and be sure to check out the photo of a cache of illegal booze being offloaded on the docks at Portland under the wary eye of a uniformed revenue agent.
So it goes: A few years ago, it was reported in a Maine newspaper with evident pride that New England is the top drinking region in the nation; New Hampshire came in first, with 64% of residents over the age of 12 having a drink at least once a month, but Vermont, Maine and Connecticut were not far behind with drinking rates above 60 percent.
But what does this have to do with my mother who, like most Maine women her age, enjoyed a nightly cocktail or two and maybe more on the weekends? Mamma used to tell us the tale of her two brothers, Horatio and Ralph, both considerably older (they were in their teens when she was born), and the profits they earned from bootlegging alcohol, bringing in booze from Canada and transshipping it across the country, or at least making it available to local outlets. Rum runners they were and because they were both competent seamen (their father, by then retired to his farm, had been an esteemed Thomaston sea captain) they had no problem going out beyond the three-mile limit and offloading from Canadian ships, and bringing the liquor in to some secluded cove down a peninsula where the local population was blind to such efforts or at least remarkably silent. So Mamma told us about the time (or times, it was unclear) that she was called upon to help out by transporting a cache through the back streets of Thomaston to be hidden away in the hay loft in Captain Thorndike’s barn out on Punkin Hill.
It’s a story that I never quite believed. Thomaston after all was then home to the Maine State Prison, quite visibly there at the end of Main Street. And the town was as gossipy and gabby as any other small Maine town, then or since. Mamma was a very pretty 17-year-old, just graduated high school and soon to go off to Farmington for her teacher training. But she could drive and she had wheels, perhaps borrowed, perhaps arranged by the brothers. “I guess they just figured a girl that young,” she said, “would never be suspected.” So they loaded up the back of what I’m guessing was a Ford Model T touring car (a model introduced in 1925 at a cost of $290, around $4500 in today’s money), covered the crates with hay and horse blankets, started the engine, and sent their sister off on a perilous journey which she executed with bravura and ease.
Very respectable in 1943
Did the ill-gotten gain help to pay her tuition at Farmington State Normal School? It was never clear. Maybe she did it, not for the money, but simply for the adventure—she was always up for an adventure. After all, she could dance the Charleston, and long before it was fashionable in Thomaston dance halls.
And although I never quite believed her story, I came across something recently in an unopened cache of documents she left behind after she died some decades ago that made me think perhaps it was not entirely her vivid imagination at work here. These were two yellowed but still legible newspaper cuttings relating to two possibly separate incidents involving bootlegging arrests and charges. One came from the Courier Gazette, still one of the surviving (just barely) local news rags, dated March 19, 1925. It is an archly humorous account of a raid on the property of a Mr. Olsen in Thomaston where two deputy sheriffs uncovered a deposit of Mountain Dew Whiskey hidden in a well. The second account is also a newspaper clipping and refers to the U. S. District Court in Portland where nine people from Thomaston and neighboring Rockland, including the captain of the Thomaston high school football team, were indicted by a grand jury for “alleged infractions of the prohibitory laws.” “High School Student, 2 Women, Seven Men face Liquor Charges,” reads the headline.
None of the names in either of these accounts is at all familiar to me. But I wonder: Why did my mother save these yellowing bits of newsprint for six decades? Why were they of interest to her? Was my mother truly a secret bootlegger?
(To be continued if I ever find out.)
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