One of my 3-year-old Theo’s favorite bedtime stories, “Titus Tidewater,” concerns a colorful lobster. It’s written and illustrated, in vivid watercolor, by native Mainer Suzy Verrier, who runs homespun North Creek Farm in Phippsburg. On a chilly drive home from Popham Beach last year, we met the artist-author-cook-rare rose nurserywoman when we stopped at the café of her saltwater farm for warming mugs of rich hot cocoa, then discovered her timeless book in the adjoining, eclectic food/crafts/gardening boutique.
The Islandport Press book, first published in 1970, is based on a true story from Verrier’s childhood: when she and her brother kept a lobster purchased at Johnny’s Pound in Ogunquit, a pet they subsequently lost as high tide rose under a full moon. Theo, who was already finicky about lobster, now refuses to consume dear Titus and his Daphne, whom Titus tries to free from a wooden trap, only to entangle himself. (Fortunately, the pair eventually reunites over a breakfast of mussels once safe in a cave.) My Theo does devour mussels – his favorite shellfish – but I can’t begrudge his ambivalence about lobster.
Childhood trips to Maine revolved around crack-and-eat lobster dinners for me and especially for my now-husband “Captain” Daniel Stone. His family vacationed here only twice, and stayed once at that eponymous inn on Water Street in Brunswick (rebranded as “The Daniel” after it rebounded from foreclosure). Now that we live in Maine, we go months sometimes without eating, or even thinking, of lobster. That changes when the summer company descends, and our obligatory lobster consumption spikes.
We’re enjoying it more this summer, since someone tipped off Dan about Erica’s Seafood next to Dolphin Marina in Harpswell, which turns out to be our platonic ideal of a lobster stand. There my husband plays it safe with chicken or fish sandwiches, since his latent shellfish allergy surfaced violently once after we ate lobster in Maine, early into our courtship. Theo delights in my shell detritus, but prefers to consume French fries, Erica’s house-fried flour tortilla chips with “Texas caviar” bean salsa and ultra-fresh fried oysters.
We could go to Erica’s almost weekly, for the views alone. For four summers, the gregarious, if leathery, lobsterman Tom “Toby” Butler and Andrea Hunter have run the picnic-tabled takeout joint, whose food is much cheaper than, yet superior to, most white-tablecloth seafood restaurants – and with our kind of ambiance. The couple’s 13-year-old daughter, Erica (the namesake), churns out orders with mom in the stand’s tight kitchen.
Toby holds court down towards the pier, in the lobster pound building, where Theo and I usually head. Here, you get a visceral education on lobster physiology: Toby describes the molting process, encouraging us to touch a soft paper-skin just shed. Theo loves the aquarium-like tank, where Toby displays a discarded whole exoskeleton and a rare neon-blue lobster that came up in a trap. What color would a blue-pigmented lobster be once cooked? Just to see what happened, Toby steamed one once (it was sick and dying anyway). It turned a sublime pink.
Erica’s charges a very moderate $1 premium over the live soft-shell ($4.75/pound) and hard-shell ($5.50/pound) prices to steam you up one for dinner. The stand is cash-only and wonderfully BYOB – bring a cooler of your favorite wine and micro-brews, plus sippy cups of milk and slices of watermelon for the kids. There’s little mess to clean up, since you sit at picnic tables and crack seawater-logged lobsters over the grass.
Everyone who eats lobster should cook some at home, at least once. We feel guilty admitting that with deals as good as Erica’s and Libby’s Market lobster rolls in Brunswick, we now tend to outsource the mess and bother to others. Would fewer tourists eat lobster if they had to dispatch them, as I’ve tried with Julia Child’s purportedly more humane, swift knife-blow to the head, stabbed down through the carapace?
It’s been 10 years this August since the late, great author David Foster Wallace shocked the food world with his polarizing, probing “Consider the Lobster” reportage for Gourmet magazine from the dystopic (in his view) Maine Lobster Festival in Rockland. Even if the novelist butchered some facts about lobster neuroanatomy and the degree to which these spineless, prehistoric creatures feel pain, we can’t ignore the essay’s “irksomely PC or sentimental” central question, as Foster Wallace put it himself: “Is it alright to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure?”
Still, we looked the other way, recently dining on a whole lobster a local Chinese restaurant surely cut-up live and then wok-fried in a brown sauce with leeks. Is the video PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) recorded undercover at Linda Bean’s large lobster plant, of workers tearing apart the still-conscious crustaceans, simply standard industry practice at most plants in Maine and Canada, as Bean maintained? And does that make it OK?
We Mainers euphemize lobsters as “bugs” or “sea spiders,” seemingly as plentiful as the Japanese beetles we squish so freely in the garden. With thankfully still-abundant (for now) lobsters facing looming threats from climate change and ocean acidification, perhaps it’s finally time we teach our children to trap, cook and consume these succulent scavengers with a little more intention, reverence and respect.
LAURA’S LOWDOWN ON LOBSTER
THE BEST BUTTER: Don’t skimp on your dunking liquid (ditto if you are butter-poaching the meat). Local cultured butter, ideally from grass-fed cows with golden butterfat, is best. Erica’s Seafood in Harpswell won me over with 50-cent cups of premium Kate’s Homemade Butter melted for lobster. Spike it with a squeeze of lemon and Maine sea salt.
MAYO MATTERS, TOO: For lobster rolls, use the best mayonnaise (and butter) you can. Consider making homemade mayo, with orange-yolked, farm-fresh eggs, good oil and lemon. Or acidify with apple cider vinegar or rice wine vinegar; the latter is what gives Kewpie Japanese mayo (perfect for lobster rolls) its addictive tang.
HOLD THE FAT: Embrace the lighter side of lobster, too. The Sunrise Guide’s website (thesunriseguide.com) recently recommended dipping lobster into a bowl of home-infused French tarragon vinegar.
ASIAN AFFINITY: Consider sending your lobster to Asia by pairing it with ingredients like Thai basil and cilantro, coconut milk, ginger and garlic, fish sauce, Thai green curry, rice wine vinegar, sesame oil, wasabi and soy sauce. We tuck lobster meat into refreshing Vietnamese salad rolls dipped in tangy peanut sauce, and we incorporate it into Chinese fried rice and sushi rolls. Make your next lobster roll a Vietnamese banh mi, garnished with pickled carrots and daikon.
THE BREAD: I’m not talking about a female lobster’s coral roe, which steams up into meaty red “bread” you can eat (or use to color and flavor mayonnaise or risotto). I’m talking about a crucial component of a lobster roll. Libby’s Market in Brunswick makes the best lobster rolls around, on Italian sub rolls from Sorella’s Bakehouse on Anderson Street in Portland. Many of our region’s best chefs swear by these rolls.
SHEDDERS VS. HARD SHELLS: Toby Butler of Erica’s Seafood says summer’s plentiful, soft shells are the “filet mignon” of lobster – the tail meat is succulent and tender. But shedders insulate their new thin armor with seawater, so they squirt and leak more when you crack them. If you’re a claw person, as I am, hard shells (to which most people “from away” are accustomed) burst with more satisfying meat there, though hard shell tails tend to be tough.
CONSIDER CULLS: Most pounds, including Allen’s Seafood in Harpswell and The Lobster Ladies at Brunswick’s Tuesday and Friday markets, will sell you culls (lobsters missing a claw, etc.) for a discount. They’re ideal if you’re picking meat for lobster rolls.
MAKE THE CORN CONNECTION: Take a cue from clambakes that steam seaweed-bedded lobster next to corn cobs. Briny seafood marries perfectly with sweet corn. Think creamy lobster-corn chowder and lobster tossed into the fresh corn, cucumber and Maine blueberry salad I wrote about last week. Boil discarded lobster bodies and corn cobs together for this poblano bisque recipe: www.pressherald.com/2014/07/27/green-plate-special-lobster-corn-and-poblano-bisque/.