Show on the Road: Maine Lobster and Steamer Clams

So there’s a pickup truck heading to Maine for five days in July, and the hunky guy in the driver’s seat says ‘Bring ya anything?’ with a twinkle in his eye. My response is quick and decisive, and involves $100 cash, a couple of coolers, and vague instructions to buy as much crustacean as possible.

Summertime is lobster time in Maine, where the famous Maine Lobster (or American Lobster) is pulled in by lobstermen (and women?), cooked in seawater or steamed in seaweed, then dipped in butter and devoured. While I know a fair amount about lobster, I have never been exposed to the briny culture surrounding their cultivation, harvesting, preparation, or marketing. This is my chance to experience fresh lobster and to get some of the lobster lore.

Geoff returns from Maine with eight lobsters wrapped in paper bags and packed on ice in a cooler; the cooler lacks a drainplug, so the cold water drips out (which keeps the lobbies from drowning) but the ice keeps them sluggish and alive. They each weigh between one and 1.5 pounds live, which is deemed by the Mainer to be the perfect size as larger lobbies have heavier shells and meat that is not as tender. When I open the bags for a peek, they seem to be all beady eyes and antennae; I am glad their claws are safely banded. Their combative claw-waving suggests freshness and health, which is confirmed by the vibrant mottled grey-green, blue and strips of red on their exoskeletons.

When I have cooked lobsters in the past (while working at Hamiltons’ at First and Main) I was vegetarian, but my fellow cooks insisted that I ‘take the plunge’ (that is, throw them in the boiling water seasoned with mirepoix and bay, lemon and wine and absorb their death as part of my karma). Anyway, when I cooked them at Hamiltons’ we turned off the radio to hear the high-pitched keening that indicated either death or steam escaping from the shells (depending upon your belief system).

We appetize with lobster rolls, which is claw and leg meat tossed in mayonnaise and lemon juice and seasoned with parsley, black pepper, and salt, then served on toasted white hot dog buns. We season the lobster-water with a lot of salt (to replicate seawater), and Otis and I make a brown-butter and lemon vinaigrette to replace the uber-rich drawn butter that typically accompanies lobster. Geoff grills 15 ears of bicolor corn in the husk (also from Maine – how do they have it ready so soon???), which fills the air with a delicious popcorn perfume. I rinse the steamer clams in water, looking for responsiveness and intact shells as an indication of life. I haven’t worked with steamers before, but they have a distinctive neck or siphon that protrudes from the gray shells and that withdraws a bit when tapped; this neck lolls unappealingly if the clam is dead. ‘They’re pissers!’ Otis exclaims when he squeezes one and it shoots water at him; we wonder if this is the origin of ‘wicked pissah’, which people apparently say in New England? Wicked or no, we pop the steamers in a steamer basket for about 8 minutes, then dip them in warm water to get rid of any grit, shuck the dark grey ‘sock’ off of the siphon, and pop them in our mouths.

While the steamers are cooking, I try to get someone else to lob the lobbies in the boiling water; in no uncertain terms I am told to buck up and do it myself, so I drop them in one at a time. When I cooked them at Hamiltons’, I heard the scream; I didn’t hear it this time, but then again I didn’t turn off the radio. When the food is ready, we sit outside on the wooden-door turned table, crack lobsters, dip and eat steamers, and unwrap the sweet summer corn to dredge it in a compound butter of garlic, basil and parsley. The lobster is crimson red and beautiful (in an insect-like sort of way); the steamers taste super nutritious, perhaps like iodine or rich clay mud. I agree with the Mainer – the claw meat is the sweetest and most tender, while the tail is too chewy for my taste (not unlike shrimp). Otis amasses a pile of shells on his plate in moments, sucking the legs and moaning ‘the lobster I can get is NOT like this’; Lydia reaches for the pliers and focuses on cracking claws and legs, admiring the flavor amid bites of meat. We toss shells into the nearby trash can, wondering aloud if the woodland creatures will rouse at the tantalizing smell and disturb the trash in the night.

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~ by a local notion on July 28, 2008.

One Response to “Show on the Road: Maine Lobster and Steamer Clams”

  1. I love your site!

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