August 1, 2012

Soup to Nuts: Lobster bake 2.0

The classic Maine summer feast has evolved in myriad ways from its fire-pit-on-the-beach beginnings.

By Meredith Goad
Staff Writer

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Courtney MacIsaac, right, is the owner of the Maine Lobsterbake Co., which caters a lot of corporate events and wedding-related gatherings. She and server Cheryl Scribner-Rocha survey a steamer filled with lobsters and corn at a recent bake on Peaks Island.

Photos by Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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Courtney MacIsaac perpares strawberry shortcake for dessert.

Additional Photos Below


A LOBSTER BAKE is a messy meal, and most people don't want to deal with the clean-up. Courtney MacIsaac of Maine Lobster Bake Co. composts all the waste from her lobster bakes. On Peaks Island, any leftover food goes to the local pigs, while strawberry tops and corn husks go to the horses. On the mainland, she takes the waste to Alewives Farm, including compostable plates and bowls. The rubber bands are taken off the lobster claws before they go into the cooker, and MacIsaac gives them back to her lobstermen so they can reuse them.


YOU CAN FIND contact information for companies that put on lobster bakes, including the ones mentioned in this column, at

Wolfe's Neck Farm in Freeport is also throwing weekly lobster bakes this summer that are open to the public. For more information, go to


This year, she'll be making gazpacho for a wedding on Chebeague Island. That will go well with lobster, but it's not exactly what the 19th-century rusticators ate at their seaside lobster bakes.

Most people trace the origin of New England lobster bakes back to native Americans, who then taught Old World settlers how to do it, but Oliver pretty much scoffs at that idea.

"Perhaps when the settlers got here they noticed that the Indians did something which all people around the whole world do, which is cook in the ground," Oliver said. "People for millennia have heated rocks in a hole with a fire and put food next to them to cook it. It's just something human beings do. It was a fairly self-conscious choice to do it this way in this country, and it starts happening in the 1700s."

A century later, as New England settlers began looking to the past and celebrating their forefathers, they started holding shellfish feasts as a leisure-time activity on the beach. In southern New England, Oliver said, they were called "squantams" after Squanto, the Patuxet Indian who helped the Pilgrims survive their first winter in the New World.

"And you don't wear your best clothes," she said. "You bring bread and butter from home and whiskey in a jug, or maybe rum, and it's a fun time and you do it the summertime. But you need a lot of leisure time to do this, and people weren't taking a lot of vacations in the 1700s. Only the really prosperous could afford to go off on a vacation. Then you get into the 19th century, and more people are either entering professional classes, or they might be working in a factory but they get one day off a week."

Lobster bakes of the time included lobster, corn and clams. Sometimes they were all-male events, Oliver said, but by the mid-1800s many of them included cakes and pies suplied by the ladies. This is also the time items such as eggs and potatoes were added to the meal.

Courtney MacIsaac grew up attending beach parties on Peaks Island that included cookouts over open fires, so she has a special appreciation for traditional technique. But she also knows what a hassle it is to deal with permits and keep an open cooking fire burning evenly.

"Technically, on Peaks Island you're supposed to have a permit," she said. "You just go to the fire station. It doesn't cost anything.

"On the mainland, it's a bit different. They're not as laid-back about open fires, so it really depends on what town you go to. You'd have to check with your town office. Most places don't want you to have an open fire."

MacIsaac designed her own steamers so she can cook efficiently but still keep some of the traditions, including layering the food in the pot and using seaweed between the layers.

Lexi Schaffer of Foster's Downeast Clambake said that company uses an onsite fire pit for its bakes. The meal is cooked over the fire in custom-made "bake boxes" with two-inches of water in the bottom. She said they used to use seaweed, but it has been hard to come by the past couple of years, so they stopped.

James Toennis, owner of Coastal Critters Clambake and Catering in Northport, doesn't see the point in trying to stay traditional. He uses portable propane gas burners, doesn't use seaweed, and cooks all the different parts of the meal separately.

"I can set it up in somebody's driveway," Toennis said. "I don't have to dig a hole and start a big wood fire. I can come and go without making a big footprint. I don't have to wait for any of the rocks to heat up or any of that stuff. When it's time to start cooking, I just turn on the heat."

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Additional Photos

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At the recent annual feast thrown by the Portland law firm Thompson & Bowie LLP and catered by Maine Lobsterbake, Tom Marczak, left, Roy Thompson and Mark Franco dig in.

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Cheryl Scribner-Rocha, Courtney MacIsaac and Jim Dinsmore plate servings of lobster and corn.

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Maine Lobsterbake head chef Jim Dinsmore loads the food into an insulated container to keep warm until dinner is served.

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Courtney MacIsaac stirs the clam chowder that will be the first course.


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