Food writer and teacher Christine Rudalevige is a mother of two navigating a family move from agriculturally rich central Pennsylvania to coastal Maine. Eating locally now means more fish on the dinner table. In this biweekly column, she explores family-friendly ways to enjoy sustainable seafood.
This week, Christine discovers some of the many plates used to serve up Maine lobster.
The Lure of the Lobster
This was not the plate upon which I expected to entertain my first lobster as a Maine resident.
But such is life as the wife of a political science professor who truly believes in the inner workings of government, and obeys them to the letter of the law. I visited town hall to pay my excise tax and register my car before I made it to the fish monger. We paid extra for the lobster license plate because part of the fee goes to support the Maine Lobster Research, Education, and Development Board, so -- as is true with 99% of my dealings -- there is indeed a food connection.
My first actual taste of Maine lobster took place at one of Brunswick’s culinary institutions, a seasonal drive-in restaurant called Fat Boy. To dine here, you pull in to the parking lot and leave your lights on to signal to one of the servers that you’d like to order. You turn them off once you’ve done so, and wait for the server to come back with your food, which arrives on a wire tray that attaches to the rolled down driver’s side window.
I had the Fat Boy lobster roll, one of those perfectly plebian combinations of fresh pink-tinged meat, a bit too much mayo, and iceberg lettuce on a toasted hotdog roll, with a side of onion rings, of course.
Turning your lights back on indicates that you’ve thoroughly enjoyed your meal and you need the basket and scads of crumbled napkins to be removed before you drive away to see what else the Maine coast has to offer.
The Maine lobster industry has long been environmentally conscious and still harvests lobsters the way it’s been done here for over 125 years: by hand, one trap at a time. There are strict rules harvesters follow to ensure future supply. Female lobsters with visible eggs cannot be harvested. Before releasing these momma lobsters back into the water, the harvester notches their tails to identify them as good breeders, thus protecting them for life. The carapace (that’s the solid piece of shell that covers a lobster’s core) of legal lobsters must be longer than 3.25 inches and shorter than 5 inches, measures taken to allow the juveniles to mature and to protect the larger, healthy breeding stock. New lobstermen and women must apprentice with veterans to learn these regulated, sustainable practices.
I got schooled in how to safely band a lobster’s claws from Lindsay Strout, a woman in her early twenties who’s been lobstering for over 10 years, and this summer is selling the catch from Potts Harbor Lobster at my local Saturday farmers' market at Crystal Springs Farm. Next to eating the lobsters once they’ve been steamed (butter is nice, in her opinion, but not necessary), Lindsay contends the most thrilling part of lobstering is pulling up the traps to discover the catch.
She’s spent the last couple of summers out on the boats, using a stainless steel tool that resembles a large, rounded set of pliers to put those thick rubber bands around the crustaceans’ claws, mainly to protect them from each other in the close quarters they will be sharing until they are sold.
I did not feel the urge to try banding a lobster myself, electing instead to leave the rubber claw cuffs on my lobsters until they’d been fully processed and lay bright red on my dinner plate.
I did, however, try my hand at a technique that puts a lobster to sleep. My friend, Johanna, lived in Maine in the 1970s as a student and remembers the last time you could get them here for just over $3.00/pound, which is the going rate at the moment due to a glut of soft-shelled lobsters precipitated in part by the very warm winter. Johanna places a flailing lobster on its back and soothingly rubs the underside of its tail until it nods off, its claws falling back over its head like the relaxed arms of a peacefully sleeping infant. It’s a state that makes going into the pot much easier on everyone.
Fittingly, I sold my house in Pennsylvania to a Mainer and to sweeten the closing deal, Amy gifted me her favorite lobster recipe. On the deck of her childhood home in Orono, Amy and her sister would hold lobster races. The winner was the last lobster put in the pot. Amy still plays with her lobster, but in a more sophisticated fashion. She’s created this seasoning mix that both brings out the natural sweetness of the meat and adds a kick at the finish.
Amy suggests adding both homemade lemon aioli and diced fresh fennel to make an interesting twist on the standard Maine lobster salad.
Amy’s Fennel Dust for Lobster
Makes enough seasoning for a summer of lobster rolls
2 tablespoons whole fennel seeds, toasted
1 tablespoon ground black pepper
1 tablespoon granulated garlic
2 1/2 tablespoons fleur de sel
Like this post? See Christine's previous topic: Baked Scallops with Spicy Ginger-Lemongrass Butter.
Photos by Christine Rudalevige.
Christine Rudalevige is a food writer and mother of two who always fits in three square meals a day -- which occasionally means making up for a skipped breakfast with an ample late-night refrigerator raid.