Travel Holiday

A Taste of Maine

Found! The Ultimate Lobster Dinner

When I visit my friends Hilary and Tom in the small Maine village of Round Pond, I never need an alarm clock.  I rely on the lobster boats.  Every morning, just before dawn, the harbor’s hush is broken in the same way.  First, there’s the creak of oars and the buzzing of small outboards as the lobstermen commuted from the wharf to their boats.  Then a “vroooom!” as the big Kermath engines on the Cindy J., Emily, Slowhand and 24 other boats thrum to life.  A deep roar signals they’ve reached the harbor mouth, let out the throttle and are making for the open water of Muscongus Bay.  I think of it as the snooze setting:  another 15 minutes until the sun lit the tips of the spruces.  By then, the harbor will be peaceful again, empty except for the gulls and medricks weaving in the tangled wakes.

It’s a scene that takes place daily in hundreds of harbors all along the Maine coast.  Although the official state moniker is “The Pine Tree State,” for most people, Maine means lobster.  The classic Maine scene, after all, is a lobster boat cruising through the fog. Even Maine license plates sport a bright-red lobster, proof that someone  in Augusta agrees.  It’s quite a vindication for a creature that was once used as fertilizer.

The lobster’s lowliness was a function of its early abundance.  The Pilgrims at the Plymouth Plantation reported finding them washed up on the beach in piles two feet high.  In 18th-century Maine, where lobsters could be found by kicking over a batch of rockweed, bondservants revolted against being fed the cheap crustacean too often and demanded a clause in their contracts limiting the amount of lobster they were fed each week.  With the invention of the lobster smack, a boat whose built-in water tanks guaranteed that the critters arrived at market alive, and the development of commercial canning in the late 19th century, lobster became available to a larger public.  The result:  Lobster was nearly loved to death, with voracious overfishing practically destroying the industry in southern New England.  What was once fed to pigs became a synonym for luxury.

In Maine, however, lobster is still affordable, especially at the “you pick ‘em, we boil ‘em, you eat ‘em” shacks scattered up and down the coast.  My mission--and I’d have been a fool not to accept it--was to find the quintessential lobster dinner.  But even as I prepared to chomp my way from Kittery to Calais, I quickly realized there was more involved than mere gluttony.  Central to my search was the basic question:  What makes Maine lobster so much better?

I started my quest in Boothbay Harbor, a “working” harbor that’s home to lobster boats and draggers as well as pleasure cruisers.  It’s also home to the Maine Department of Marine Resources, whose aquarium is open to the public.  Sea World it’s not, but it’s plenty educational on the subject of local bottomfishers.  Here’s where to get the answer to such vital questions as whether lobsters have a personality.  “Well, they’re ugly,” ventured one docent.

They’re also adaptable. It turns out that the “Maine” lobster, Homarus americanus, actually ranges along the Atlantic seabord from Labrador south to Maryland.  However, Maine monopolizes the U.S. production statistics for three reasons, according to MMR lobster expert Jay Krouse:  coastline, water temperature and lack of pollution.  The 3,500 miles of rugged coastline, serrated with inlets and pocked with rocks, provide just the kind of protected habitat that lobsters love.  And the near-frigid water temperature cools the lobster’s growth curve; a Downeast lobster may take five to seven years to reach maturity but when it does, it will be bigger than its southern cousins.  In fact, the farther Downeast you go, the larger the lobsters.  The price, however, stays about the same up and down the coast:  between $3 and $6 per pound retail, depending on the season.

What season we were heading into was signaled by the Cutter V slowly steaming out of the harbor, its flat stern stacked high with traps like a Chinese interlocking puzzle.  It was a raw spring day, with ragged clouds spitting occasional gusts of rain.  Whitecaps were kicking up the water just outside the harbor mouth.  Every now and then, a cold green comber crashed against the streaming granite breakwaters, sending froth fountaining into the air.  But although no human swimmer would notice it, the frigid waters of the Gulf of Maine were warming up, letting the lobsters know that it was time to move closer to shore, time to shed their shells, mellow their ornery personalities and mate. 

Shedder season lasts from June to November.  It’s a favorite time of year for lobstermen; although the plentitude of lobsters means that prices go down, the fishing close-in is easier.  “I wish it could be October all year,” lobstermen often say. 

It’s a favorite time of year for lobster-eaters, too; the soft shell can be dismantled without the usual wrestling match involved in cracking open an armored carapace.  Some people claim that shedders taste sweeter; Puritanical types insist that hard labor adds its own reward.  Krouse, however, insisted there’s no difference:  “I’ve never had a lobster that I felt wasn’t quite tasty.”  It’s nice to find a man so satisfied by his work.

Meanwhile, across the harbor, Don Wotton’s lobster-buying operation was taking a break before the afternoon rush.  Mainers usually divide into two groups:  “yuppers and nopers” and more loquacious types.  Trying to hold a conversation with the former is about as easy as prying open an oyster with a dull knife.  Luckily, Don Wotton falls into the latter group.  A soft-spoken man with a vintage Navy flat-top, a leathery complexion and hands callused from too many claw-pinches, Wotton has been buying lobsters for nigh on 20 years.  From a snug office where the chimes of a brass ship’s bell compete with Conrad Twitty wailing about the hard life of a lobsterman, he compares prices with other dealers, takes orders from restaurants and tends to 30 boats, which come to his wharf to sell their catch and buy diesel, bait and trap supplies.

The wharf was piled high with pots, their fluorescent pink, royal blue and bright yellow warps neatly knotted to a styrofoam buoy painted in each fisherman’s signature colors. (The words “pot” and “trap” are interchangeable, but generally lobstermen west of Penobscot Bay say pot while Downeasters use the term trap.)  There were no old-fashioned, bowed wooden pots here; Wotton’s lobstermen, like most these days, use big, flat boxes made of coated wire.

But other than the change in basic materials, trap design hasn’t changed much in two centuries. The lobster enters the trap through a funnel-shaped trap head made of knitted nylon and crawls into the “kitchen,” where a baitbag of cut-up porgies, alewives or, preferably, good corned herring exudes its alluring aroma (which to the novice smells like canned cat food).  Once it snatches off a piece of bait, it tries to escape.  The most convenient path is up the apron of a third trap head, which drops into the “back parlor.”  Undersized “short” lobsters can sneak out through small vents in the parlor, but for their full-sized relatives there’s only one way out: when the lobsterman flips open the top flap, reaches in, bands the claws and tosses his catch into a barrel. 

At this point, Wotton stopped his narrative to pass on a little lobster lore:  If you’re unfortunate enough to let a lobster latch onto you with his claws, don’t try to tear it off.  You’re likely to lose a chunk of your finger and the lobster his mandible.  Instead, raise your hand so that the pincher is hanging in the air.  The lobster will drop right off.

It’s hard to say just how many traps dot the Maine coastline.  Every Maine teenager has the right to fish 150 traps with an apprentice’s license until he’s 18; many start setting traps as soon as they’re strong enough to row a peapod to a buoy and haul up the pot.  Part-timers--shiftworkers at Bath Iron Works, teachers--can also buy a license to supplement their income. Full-timers would as soon brag about the number of traps they set as give out the GPS coordinates for their favorite sweet spot.  Modern equipment definitely makes the life easier. “These fellows don’t work,” Wotton scoffed.  “They’ve got sternmen, automatic haulers, modern fathometers, GPS to locate their traps, LORAN.  But they can work a lot faster.  Now it takes only eight hours to haul 300 traps.”

Lobstering has been good in recent years.  Last year, 36.5 million pounds of lobster were caught, down a few million pounds from 1994’s all-time record of 38.9 million pounds but still a steady 25% higher than the late Eighties.  The figures have Jay Krouse and Don Wotton concerned.  One reason for the trend can be tied to overfishing of the groundstock fish, like cod, once a given in New England waters.  That leaves lobster with no natural predators, except man.  And, as Krouse said, “Man has become much better at catching lobster.”  The results will be more restrictive laws--and higher prices.

It was a sobering thought--and one that piqued my appetite.  Who says carpe diem can’t apply to crustaceans?  I got in the car and headed right to Round Pond for dinner.

Round Pond is the kind of village where everyone who’s not an artist is either a lobsterman or related to one.  Halfway up the coast, it’s about equidistant from Damariscotta and Camden, two self-consciously pretty towns on Route 1, the infamous highway that funnels all the “summer complaints” to tourist havens up and down the coast.  What saves Round Pond is that it’s not on Route 1; you either know where to turn off the main drag or you stumble on it by blind luck.

The village may not be big but it’s got all the essentials:  the Briar Rose, a homey bed-and-breakfast whose proprietress is a twin sister to the children’s book heroine Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle; the Granite Hill General Store, the sort of old-fashioned place that sells everything from root beer-flavored hard candies to striped marbles that resemble root beer-flavored hard candies; an antiquarian book barn with the requisite welcoming cat; and a white clapboard church whose lusty 6 p.m. carillon of “Onward, Christian Soldiers” signals that it’s time to think about dinner.  The wine selection at the King Ro market could be better but they stock crusty Italian bread from Rosario’s Bakery in nearby New Harbor, so who’s quibbling?  Onward, lobster eaters.

Best of all, Round Pond has not one but two lobster shacks, both within a shell’s fling of the water, as the best shacks are.  The Round Pond Lobster Fishermen’s Co-op and the Muscongus Bay Lobster Company share the same access road and the same parking lot.  Thanks to a long-standing feud, that’s about all they share--except a fierce determination not to let the other one undersell them.  The result:  Rock-bottom prices for one of the best shore dinners on the entire Maine coast.

Both of these institutions are no-nonsense places whose only concession to decor is a couple of umbrellas planted on wooden picnic tables.  The tables themselves are planted on the tarmac; other than the cooking facilities, there’s no indoor anything, and that includes the plumbing, which is provided by Porto-San.  It’s strictly BYOBBB--your own beverage, your own bread and your own bug dope.  Paper towels are on the house.

Because Muscongus has an outdoor sink, it gets points for personal hygiene.  But Round Pond wins for its view:  a perfectly round harbor, walled by pointed spruce trees reflected in the brimful blue water at high tide.  Just outside is Muscongus Bay, one of the richest lobstering grounds in Maine.  By late summer, lobsters are crawling so thick and fast that the multicolored pot buoys are scattered as thick as confetti on New Year’s Eve.

The drill is simple:  Give your order to Buddy Poland, the lanky guy with the beaten-up L.L. Bean baseball hat.  A single gets you a good-sized lobster, a pound of steamed clams, corn on the cob and a bag of potato chips.  A double includes another lobster.  We figured two singles and one double for three people, as well as an extra order of the steamers, because they are so small and succulent, and in three years of eating them I’ve never found a single grain of sand.  There’s melted butter, too, but the steamers and the lobsters are so sweet that you don’t need it.  That day, the bill came to $38.50 for three people.  And they take credit cards.

While Buddy’s boiling the lobsters, we stroll out onto the wharf to check out the visiting sailboats.  Or we toss sticks down on the polished granite ledges for Buddy’s ancient golden retriever to fetch (the dog’s name is Skipper but it’s pronounced with a Maine accent--”Skippaaah”).  Or we just sit at one of the blue picnic tables and watch swallows swifting through the gilt-edged air.  Unlike at some larger lobster pounds, there’s no radio blaring.  No crying children, no crowd noise.  Just the mewing and chuckling of seagulls swooping down to pluck a mussel from the rocks, the hum of an outboard, the twang of wire stays as the sailboats bounce in its wake.  There’s an air of peaceful anticipation.  Buddy has our number and all’s right with the world.

 

BOX:  The Claws That Refresh

Round Pond Lobster Co-Op, Round Pond; 207-529-5725.

Muscongus Bay Lobster, Round Pond; 207-529-5528.

Briar Rose Bed & Breakfast, Round Pond; 207-529-5478.  Doubles from $55 to $75.

If you can’t get to Round Pond, never fear.  Here are five other lobster options that are almost as good:

Sea Basket; Wiscasset; 207-882-6581.  The fame of this unpretentious diner on Rte. 1 just outside of Wiscasset can be measured in the girth of its loyal clientele who obviously know a good lobster stew when they taste one.  It’s lobster stew is so rich that a cup is more than enough.  And the lobster roll--available with light mayonnaise--is one of the best, a lovingly toasted roll literally crammed with tender, warm pink meat.  The Sea Basket is barely 10 minutes down the road from Red’s Eats, which boasts that it’s got the best lobster roll in Maine.  Scrawny servings and ice-cold meat don’t add up to a roll worth $10.70 in our book.  Get twice the quality at literally half the price at the Basket.

Shaw’s Fish and Lobster Wharf, Rt. 32, New Harbor; 207-677-2282.  It’s noisy and crowded but sure is convenient after a day trip to Monhegan.  Just walk off the ferry and into Shaw’s.

The Lobster Shack, Rt. 77, Cape Elizabeth; 207-799-1677.  About 30 minutes outside of downtown Portland, the Lobster Shack is cheek-by-jowl to the Two Lights lighthouse and adjacent park.  Bring a kite but avoid the spot during foggy weather, unless you like your meal interrupted by a yowling foghorn.

Harraseeket Lunch and Lobster Company, Town Landing, Freeport; 207-865-3535.  The prices are jacked up for the L.L. Bean crowd but you can save a few dollars by sneaking around to the back window and buying them boiled to order. 

Beal’s, Clark Point Rd., Southwest Harbor; 207-244-3202.  This large shack remains true to its fisherman’s roots, despite its proximity to Bar Harbor.  The only problem is that it’s been praised in too many guidebooks, so go for a late lunch rather than dinner.