by Caitlin Shetterly
The story of one family’s experience teaching their young son about responsible eating while enjoying one of Maine’s favorite culinary traditions.
Last summer, on a hot July day, my three year-old son and I decided to escape the oppressive heat of our third floor apartment to go take a dip in the water at the Falmouth Landing—a wonderful shelf of pink granite rocks that stick out into a working harbor, only a few moments from downtown Portland. Though scoring a parking spot at the landing is always a challenge—priority is given to Falmouth residents—when we get lucky, it’s the perfect respite.
That afternoon, after splashing around the rocks, my son and I agreed that before we went home for dinner, we would walk out onto the long dock and “fish,” which, in our case, involves casting a line populated with ten or more bobbers (and no hooks) into any large body of water available, reeling in, and casting again.
As we stood there, the warm afternoon sun making our skin glow and the red and white bobbers floating contentedly in the green water, a big, white lobster boat motored in. The boat was driven by a gray-haired man with a broad face. A boy, who was maybe twelve or thirteen, leapt off the boat and helped secure it, while the man started to unload huge crates of live lobsters. My son and I stopped to watch.
One of our favorite books has always been the 1962 Maine standard, Lobsterman, by Dahlov Ipcar. Myself a born-and-raised-Mainer, I remember reading it as a child. In the book, a young boy, named Larry, helps his father ready their boat and traps for a summer of lobstering. This year, he gets to make his own trap, which he does all by himself. Then, he goes out with his Dad to set and haul the traps. At the end of the book, Larry catches three big lobsters and decides that rather than selling them—as his father suggests—to “save up for a skiff or an outboard motor”—he wants to bring the lobsters home for his mother to cook: “I want to have one for supper tonight, and you and Momma can eat the other two, because they’re the first lobsters I ever caught in a trap of my own,” Larry says.
The message of the book is simple: you can go out and hunt or gather your own food and then, if you’ve taken responsibly from the earth, you may relish eating it, without guilt. As a mother of a young and sensitive child who has been curious about the fact that we eat other creatures in order to survive, I’ve found that I often turn to this book to help me teach a balanced message about harvesting sustainably from the earth and its waters. For this reason, Lobsterman has remained one of my favorites.
After he had finished unloading his boat, the real life lobsterman turned to my son and me: “You want some fresh lobstahs to take home with you for suppah tonight, deah? I’ll give ’em to you for 4 bucks a lobstah.”
Although we were hungry and it was almost dinnertime—and the price seemed outrageously cheap for such a gourmet treat”—I knew that since my husband, Dan, was working that night, I wasn’t quite up to cooking lobsters by myself. Unlike Larry’s mother, who has no trouble cooking Larry’s three big lobsters until they are crimson, the idea of bringing lobsters home to our little apartment and negotiating the spiny creatures into a pot while our dog and cat got in the way, all the while trying to teach a calm and important lesson about food and where it comes from, seemed like more than I could handle on a hot July night.
“My husband is working,” I told him. And then quickly (and somewhat abashedly) I added, “and I’ve never actually cooked a lobster by myself, even though I was born and raised in Maine,” (lest he think I was ‘from away.’) But we’re going to Boston tomorrow to visit some friends. I wonder—would it be too crazy to take lobsters down there for our dinner?”
“Nope, not crazy at all. I can help you pack ’em tomorrow morning before you go. My name’s Jerry Grondin. Let me write my number down for ya and you can call me tonight to tell me if you want to do it.” He ambled back to his truck for a pen and paper.
‘What do you think about that idea, Bud?” I asked my son.
“Good,” he nodded enthusiastically.
When I told Dan our plan, he was amazed at the price. Although we both knew that Maine lobstermen were facing an ongoing conundrum of falling lobster prices combined with a population boon (due to both the State’s good management of the lobster industry and warming ocean waters), we hadn’t ever anticipated buying six huge lobsters for twenty-four bucks.
I did a little research that night and learned that, because of global warming, Maine waters are now 2 to 4 degrees warmer, which makes it so that many other fish species—like cod, flounder and monkfish—are migrating northward and aren’t controlling the lobster population by eating young lobsters, as they normally would. On the one hand, this population influx has been wonderful—Mainers have more lobsters to sell to the rest of the world than ever before. But with an abundance of lobsters come lowered prices, making it hard for lobstermen to cover their costs.
The state of Maine has moved quickly to address the economic issue. This year, The Maine Lobster Promotion Council is promoting lobster across the country, hoping to help the lobster industry come in with a stronger profit. And, this past spring, the Maine lobster was awarded a Marine Stewardship Council Sustainable Seafood Certification, because of how well the population is managed. This means that the “Maine lobster” can now be internationally marketed as “ecologically sustainable,”—two words fishermen (and consumers) of all stripes are reaching for.
That night, Dan decided he wanted to learn how to cook lobsters in the most humane way possible. He found a video lesson on YouTube that taught him to first put a lobster in the freezer for twenty minutes, so that its nerves are numbed; then, when the water is boiling, he learned how to quickly and succinctly cut the spinal nerve with a knife before plunging the lobster into the hot water. I asked him if he was really up for all that (knowing full well that I would not be!) He told me that he was.
I called our friends, Andrea and Harlan to tell them we’d bring dinner. They had just gotten their CSA box, they said, filled with corn on the cob and salad greens. We agreed to bring butter and some homemade baguettes, as well as the lobsters and a big pot. They said they’d supply the wine.
Early the next morning, Dan met Jerry at the Falmouth Landing with his cooler, a bag of ice and some slippery rockweed he’d pulled off the rocky shore. Then he and Jerry packed up six big lobsters. On the way to Boston, Dan and I were matter of fact with our son: “We’re going to have a big celebratory dinner with Andrea and Harlan and Aidan and eat the lobsters,” we told him. “Just like Larry in your book Lobsterman.” He accepted this information with eager anticipation.
A few hours thereafter, Dan and Harlan stood in the kitchen with a sharp knife and a pot of boiling water. Andrea, our two boys and I found something fun and distracting to do in the living room.
Just minutes later, we all gathered around the table—the six bright red lobsters on a platter, the salad emerald green and the sweet corn bright yellow. As we cracked the shells and dipped the succulent meat into Maine MOO Milk butter, we all exclaimed at how it was the best lobster we’d ever had. Our son beamed with pride, explaining to our friends how he’d met the lobsterman himself and been a part of bringing this dinner from Maine to Boston. He regaled Andrea, Harlan and Aidan with tales about Jerry’s big boat and “tons of lobsters,” as if he, himself, had hauled the traps.
Later than night, satisfied and groggy, our son and dog conked out in the backseat, I turned to Dan, lit up in the dashboard glow, and asked, “What was it like?”
“I’ll never do it any other way, “ he said. “It was so quick.”
I prodded for more details. “How did you do it?”
“Well,” he said, “I held each lobster and then I said ‘thank you.’ Then I cut the nerve and put it in the pot.”
“You said, ‘thank you’?”
“What made you think to do that?”
“It just seemed right. And then Harlan wanted to do a couple, so he took the knife and he also said ‘thank you.’ It was all really wonderfully peaceful.”
Suddenly, I felt tears come into my eyes as I thought about these two men, so far away, in our modern world, from hunting and gathering our food on a day-to-day level, standing in a Boston kitchen having the grace and humility to say ‘thank you’ to our dinner.
“Thank you for doing it,” I said. “And thank you for saying ‘thank you.’”
Caitlin Shetterly is the author of the memoir “Made for You and Me: Going West, Going Broke and Finding Home,” published by Voice/Hyperion in 2011.
“A Lobster Tale” ran in the Summer/Fall 2013 issue of Green & Healthy Maine