I was about to post a snazzy lobster recipe for New Year’s when it hit me that you might wonder why someone in Calgary who professes to love “local” is now writing about lobster of all things. Here’s a little backgrounder to explain.
I was a teenager the first time I ate a whole lobster. It was late November and Dad’s birthday. “The season” was on and the lobster feed must have been a treat for a special year because as a rule we ate the fish Dad caught about four days a week and hamburger in some way, shape or form the other three. My long and happy relationship with lobster started on that fateful night.
Warning: this post might leave you with a terrific craving for lobster which depending on your income and geographic location could be inspiring or very, very frustrating.
Anyway, here goes…Dad took us all by surprise that evening by hefting a soggy box filled with wet newspapers and a squirming mass of speckled blue-green-brown live lobsters through the kitchen door. He’d bought them straight from a fisherman who’d pulled them straight from their briny habitat in the Passamaquoddy Bay that very day.
We boiled them up in the giant enamel pot my parents still have for this special purpose. You can see the Passamaquoddy from my parent’s kitchen window and Dad lugged salt water up from the shore to fill the pot. That truly salted water sputtered, spit and hissed its way out from under the lid as it came to a full rolling boil. The kitchen windows fogged up and let droplets trickle down to the sills below like they were crying a slow and steady stream of tears for the lives claimed within Dad’s cauldron.
Hah! I’m just messing with you. I was not at all sentimental about eating such ugly-looking bottom feeding crevice dwellers. As far as I was concerned, delivering those huge, bright red creatures from their blistering bath to my plate was the perfect start to their afterlife. They were the sacrificial lambs delivering a bright spot slash antidote for the dreadful weariness of cold and grey that Canada’s very Northern Novembers deliver ad nauseam.
As if on queue, the relentless wind whipped a ghostly gale at our door. I tried to imagine going out on that icy bay, that tossed a fit of waves not 200 feet from our door, to tend a couple hundred lobster traps a day as my sole source of making a living. I shivered and appreciated being in a kitchen warm enough to keep my melted butter liquid.
I remember that first feast so well.
The kitchen table was covered with newspaper and our shirts with cheery red and white plastic bibs that Mom dug out of the junk cum “just in case” drawer. Nut crackers were rounded up, butter melted and potatoes baked in their jackets.
Dad helped me with the cracking of my crustacean and we marvelled then as we do now at the sheer determination and horrible hunger that drove humanity to seek these fierce oversized sea bugs as a source of nutrition. His big strong hands took the brunt of contact with the razor-sharp spiny horns and spikes that are part and parcel of accessing the tender meat within each oversized claw.
Those first bites were as tender as the shells were hard. Each mouthful of the sweet meat brought with it the tang of the ocean and a bath of rich golden dairy to tantalize my tongue. I savoured the delicacy of it down to the salty soul of my inner siren of the sea. I was pleasing her with something nourished in the ocean’s dark depths.
My love affair with lobster had begun in earnest.
This was not the case for all members of our family. My grandfather owned the town’s only fish market and though he sold a lot of lobster he never ate ANY. He told me that as a child his family was so poor they had to scour the beaches of Metaghan, Nova Scotia, where he grew up, in search of lobster for their school sandwiches. The rich kids could afford bologna from the general store and they made fun of him for scavenging sustenance for his struggling-to-survive depression era family of ten.
Every time a known-to-be-wealthy person (and there were and still are lots in the resort town I grew up in) came into his fish market to buy lobster he’d happily serve them. He’d chuckle as he helped them pick out “a good one” – which of course there never could be in his mind. He’d laugh out loud as he took their money. He’d see them to the door, wave merrily and once we heard the crunching of their car tires on the gravel in the yard he’d do a little jig and break out in a little ditty that made absolutely no sense to anyone but those close to him. Merrily he’d sing, “They’re going home to eat a lobster and I’m going home for my bologna. Cha Ching, Cha Ching, Cha Ching – its such a funny thing”.
He really felt he’d arrived. He’d made it out of poverty and now the joke was on those poor but rich folks at long last. I guess the bitter taste of shame he associated with les homards overpowered any chance of him every enjoying what we lobster lovers find so succulent. It was pure joy for Pap to never have to eat one again. Come to think of it…this also explains why my father would buy his lobster straight from a fisherman and not his father.
It’s pure joy for me to eat a lobster anywhere, anytime – as long as they’re fresh.
Hot Tip – no matter how much you miss fresh lobster don’t order “fresh” Atlantic lobster in Vancouver. It’s not going to be up to Maritime standards. Trust me on this. I’ve eaten enough lobster in my day to tell you how many hours it’s been out of water waiting around to be cooked for my dining pleasure. Taste avalanches downhill after 24 hours.
I once ate six small “canners” in one sitting. On average I can easily put away two if they’re one to one and a half pounds. Canners are only about three-quarters a pound each. They’re hardly worth the bother but will do in a pinch even if I do have to eat six to satisfy my craving.
I like a side of corn on the cob and some cool potato salad with my lobster and nothing else. My family goes crazy for a feed of mussels prior to lobster but I’ve seen them get carried away and then be too full to enjoy the main attraction. I don’t make that mistake. If I’m not having a straight from the shell feed, there are several other ways I enjoy lobster.
When I was a college girl and away at university in Halifax, Dad surprised me by bringing me a six-pound lobster that he caught by chance when he was fishing the Georges Banks off the southern coast of Nova Scotia. He was a Department of Fisheries and Oceans research technician and spent two weeks at sea every six weeks for the 34 years he worked for our government. He could have eaten that burly beauty on the boat but instead he froze it and brought it to me when he made port in Dartmouth. The beast was no burden because he knew how much I would love it and that I would revere it all the more because of the 25 to 30 years it took to grow to that size.
I plotted out the meals I made with that behemoth. I lived in a run-down old frat house with five other girls that year but we lived like royalty that week.
We had lobster rolls the first day (that’s just roughly chopped meat combined with a whiff of chopped celery, salt and pepper and lots of real mayonnaise all stuffed into a really, really good roll). A creamy, but not too rich, lobster and haddock casserole served on a bed of rice seemed an elegant follow-up for the second day, and I used up the tidbits in a seafood chowder for our farewell to that glorious giant.
A purely lobster stew was part of the first romantic dinner for two I prepared when I began falling for my husband. I sautéed a diced yellow onion in butter, added a bit of water and a few cubed potatoes, simmered them till they were tender, added a can of lobster and its juice, then enough cream to cover everything, a sprinkle of salt and pepper and a few chives as garnish once it was all warmed through and voila: I had what I thought of as seduction by seafood.
Later my sweet man told me it was the steak and asparagus that came after the stew that he liked best but regardless; my Atlantic surf and his Alberta turf have paired nicely since 1985. I would never underestimate the power of lobster as a love potion despite his beefy testimony otherwise.
When we got engaged, a seaside seal of the deal in my hometown of St. Andrews-by-the-sea was planned. We gave everyone a year’s notice and told them if they came from the west we’d have them all to my family’s place for a Maritime lobster boil a few days before the wedding. Forty guests took us up on that offer.
I thanked Neptune that my Dad was so experienced at putting on a lobster boil. Until a few years ago he would boil up a few hundred for the church’s fundraising lobster supper every summer. He got quite a kick out of welcoming our western guests with this very eastern rite of culinary passage.
If I had it to do over, I’d have just had the priest pop by for a dockside wedding on the water and we could have all worn something we would not worry about getting lobster juice on. Perhaps it’s the lessons learned from complex things like planning a wedding from three thousands miles away that allow me to seek simplicity now.
I keep my visits home to New Brunswick each summer very straightforward now. I have a few guidelines. I visit my family and I eat lobster – daily, if I can. Here are some of the ways I enjoyed it last summer.
At the end of each visit to the Maritimes, I buy about a dozen frozen one-pound cans of lobster for about thirteen bucks apiece, wrap them up tight in newspaper and haul them back to Alberta in my suitcase. I store them in my freezer and ration them like wartime sugar to get me through the land-locked year in my beloved Prairie meets Rocky Mountain home in Calgary.
Lobster is my way to celebrate the end of one year and the beginning of a new one. I always save a can or two from my stash for a special meal at the terminus of one year and the genesis of a new one. Lobsters must moult in order to grow. They are vulnerable during this process but they cannot defy their predisposition for expansion.
I think we are a bit like lobsters in this regard. We invisibly shed a bit of our selves each year, we are frail and vulnerable but we reform and become stronger. We may not change in appearance like a lobster but we can have a new start spiritually any day we choose. We can grow and expand and help nourish the universe with all we are able to contribute and create.
My creativity is most often expressed when I’m cooking. Lobster is a great ingredient that inspires me and in the next post I’ll share a favourite recipe that I hope my fellow lobster lovers will enjoy.
Maybe the biggest reason I love lobster is because it is not now, nor has it ever been commonplace in my life.
It’s a special treat that causes me to slow down and savour it. When you learn to savour even one thing, the door can open for you to Savour it All and that is my wish for you now, for the New Year and for all time.
Live long and lobster! Karen