Tim Sample: Stories I Never Told You

How to eat a lobster

Tue, 09/03/2013 - 8:00am

Perhaps you’ve noticed that just as the weather has begun to cool in the waning days of summer, the rhetoric in the long running feud between Maine lobstermen and their Canadian rivals is heating up.

Don’t worry, I won’t be jumping (literally or figuratively) into the middle of a disagreement between rival gangs of lobstermen.

I’ve had enough first hand experience with lobstermen to know that they tend to be precisely the sort of tough, pragmatic, rugged individualists you wouldn’t want pick any sort of fight with, particularly one which involves the manner in which they choose to make their living.

Let’s face it, lobstermen have been hauling traps and hurling insults (among other things) across the border at one another for about as long as anybody can remember. If there were a simple solution to this longstanding maritime squabble, somebody would have sorted it out by now.

So I won’t use this space to weigh in on the Maine/Canadian lobster spat. In fact, I only brought it up because it involves different approaches to the harvesting and marketing of soft shell and hard shell lobsters. The soft shell/hard shell brouhaha is a whole other kettle of shellfish, one about which, like a lot of Mainers, I have plenty of opinions.

Of course, not everyone considers the prospect of making a meal of a lobster to be a particularly enticing proposition. Honestly, can you blame them?

Even a lifelong lobster lover such as myself must ultimately concede that one’s first encounter with a steaming hot, fresh-out-of-the-pot Homerus Americanus staring balefully up at you from a dinner plate is liable to be a tad off-putting.

No doubt, the prospect of breaking and entering the rock-hard carapace of a critter, which until about 2 p.m. yesterday afternoon was minding its own business, crawling along the ocean floor, takes a little getting used to. Nor am I one of those judgmental types who view failure to appreciate this Maine delicacy as a sign of moral turpitude. It’s simply a choice. But I believe that it should at least be an informed choice.

Here’s what I mean: For a decade or so, Dan Gianneshi was my regular soundman for my “Postcards from Maine” essays on CBS.

Prior to working in Maine, Danny’s experience with lobsters had been almost exclusively influenced by stuffy, overpriced, upscale urban eateries. No wonder he wasn’t impressed.

That all changed the first time I took him to out for a meal at the Boothbay Region Lobsterman’s Co-op. The pure joy of bellying up to a picnic table with a spectacular water view to chow down on fresh Maine lobster while dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt was a revelation.

It didn’t take him long to figure out that tearing into a lobster using his bare hands, with no fear of embarrassing himself in front of his friends or generating a massive dry cleaning bill for that rented tux, was a real “game changer.” From then on, any Maine video shoot with Dan commenced with a visit to the nearest lobster wharf.

Having established that atmosphere is a critical aspect of any successful “lobster feed,” it’s time to take the crustacean by the claws and tackle the perennial soft shell vs. hard shell controversy.

In terms of Maine culinary lore, this controversy ranks right up with there with the epic “crumbs vs. batter” fried clam debate (another story for another day), and people certainly have different tastes. So, there’s really no right or wrong answer.

Wait a minute! What am I saying? Of course there’s a right answer.

Hard shell lobsters are far better than those wimpy soft shells any day. Basic lobster 101 teaches us that lobsters achieve their growth by the periodic shedding of a protective outer shell. This means that a lobster which is almost ready to shed (the “hard shell” stage) yields nearly twice as much meat as one, which has recently slipped into a new (soft) shell.

For a lobster lover like me that makes hard shell the obvious choice. As far as I can tell, the whole point of the soft shell lobster is that it’s easier to break into.

What fun is that? Should we simply abandon our vaunted Puritan work ethic so easily? I think not. I was raised to believe that anything worth having is worth working for. So I’ll take my lobster with the hardest shell available, thank you very much, the harder the better.

Oh, in case you were wondering why I insist on keeping a hammer in my silverware drawer? Well, now you know.