Comfort and Joy

August 6, 2007 on 9:27 pm | By | In Food Musings | 5 Comments

Lobster RollA reporter for a local newspaper was conducting a reader poll recently and posed the following question: “What is your favorite comfort food and what memories does it evoke?” As a chef and food lover, it was tough to nail down an answer. But I eventually decided upon lobster. Now, lest you think me Marie Antoinette (“Let them eat lobster!”), I chose it specifically for the fond childhood memories.

Every summer our family would load up the station wagon and head to our cottage in Trenton, Maine. Our luggage would be strapped to the top; mom and dad in the front seat, my sisters and brothers squeezed in the back seat. As the youngest, I’d get to sprawl out in the rear with a blanket and pillow (this was before seat belts were mandatory). The trip from our home in Connecticut took about 7-8 hours, but our whining would begin about halfway into the trip. “How many more minutes? How many more miles?” (My dad had the patience of Job).

Our excitement grew as we crossed over the Piscataqua River and saw the “Welcome to Maine” sign. We’d overnight at my paternal grandmother’s house in Waterville, then continue on to Trenton where my maternal grandparents would be waiting at the door to the cottage. It was one of several summer places along a 2-mile stretch of the Bayside Road called “Shady Nook” where generations of families would come to relax and play. My maternal grandmother — we called her Aga — summered there as a young girl, and she continued the tradition with her kids (my mom and her brother). They bought the current place in the 1950s, eventually giving it to my mom (my uncle bought a place less than a mile down the road).

Our first stop in Trenton would always be the Seavey General Store for penny candy. The Seaveys were quintessential Mainers: simple, down-to-earth folks with Down East accents as thick as molasses. We’d arrive in Shady Nook just as the nightly softball game in the Haines’ field was getting underway. We’d hug and kiss Aga and Grandpa, then rush down to the field for the game. Everyone was welcome, no matter what the age or athletic ability (I personally enjoyed hanging out in far right field eating green apples more than actually playing).

Shady Nook was kid heaven, offering numerous opportunities to explore — from the barnacled rocks and seaweed in the bay out front, to the ancient cemetery next to the ball field, to the woods where we’d go snipe-hunting (our youngest cousin always fell for it!). We’d tire ourselves out swimming in the bay and running along the beach; come suppertime we’d drag our salty, sandy bodies to the table, ravenous.

And oh, the food!

At low tide we’d head down to the water’s edge, stamping our feet next to every hole we’d see, hoping to find the tell-tale spit of a clam. We’d load up our clam baskets, dunking them in the bay to wash off the sand. We’d then cover them with seaweed and bring them up to mom for steaming. In later years the clam population diminished, but fortunately the mussels thrived. Mom would pop a batch into her smoker, leaving some to be steamed in a bit of white wine.

It was at the cottage that I ate my first fresh pea, straight from my grandfather’s garden. Up ’til then the only peas I knew came in TV dinners; they were tasteless and mushy, and I could barely eat a few bites without gagging. But my grandfather’s peas? Sweet and crisp, they tasted like sunshine.

Of course, blueberries — Maine’s official state fruit — were always abundant at our table. We’d bake them into pies, pancakes and cobblers, or just eat them plain out of a bowl. But raspberries were (and still are) my favorite; there were a few bushes growing alongside the dirt driveway down to the cottage, and I loved walking up to get the mail, stopping to get my fill of the juicy berries.

The culmination of our vacation would signal the most special of treats: the steamed lobster dinner. We’d place our order at the Trenton Bridge Lobster Pound, where the lobsters — typically 1- to 1 1/2 pounders — would be steamed to perfection, then wrapped in newspaper to keep warm during the trip back to the cottage. Dad would thwack the claws with a butcher knife to make it easier to crack them, as well as cut a line down from the stomach to the tail for easy removal of the morsels inside.

The dinner was NEVER fancy; the butter was simply melted, not drawn. We ate outside at our picnic table, our Frank Hamabe cloth lobster bibs under our chin. Our side dishes were typically hot bread and a green salad, and perhaps a few steamers. My method for eating lobster hasn’t varied: I start by pulling off the legs, biting each segment so that the meat pops out. I then tackle the claws, dipping each piece of meat into the butter. I break the tail from the body, saving it for last. The body gets broken in two; if I’m lucky there’s plenty of tomalley to slurp up. I then meticulously pick out the small pieces of meat from the body, depositing them all into my cup of melted butter. I then pick up a forkful of meat, and butter dripping, stuff it into my mouth. Finally, the pièce de résistance: the tail!

Because my parents were raising five kids on a school superintendent’s salary, lobster was a once-a-year splurge in the early days. However, as my older siblings grew up and moved away (and my dad’s salary increased), we’d sometimes get to enjoy the delicacy more frequently.

Enter the lobster roll.

New England rollsWhenever I attempt to explain lobster rolls to a West coaster, they’re always confused (they think it must be lobster rolled up in a tortilla, or something). When I explain it’s a sandwich — the filling similar to tuna salad, only with lobster — they then don’t quite get the importance of the New England-style roll. While most hot dog rolls are split on the side, New England-style rolls are split down the top. But more importantly, they have sides that can be spread with butter and toasted on a griddle.

So, what’s my point with this trip down memory lane?

My darling and I are training for the Marathon du Medoc, and this past weekend we ran our longest run of the program — an actual marathon (26.2 miles). We typically base our long runs around our lunch cravings (typically burgers & beer, but sushi and pizza are also popular choices). But given the intense pain we were anticipating, we thought finishing at home — where we could collapse in a puddle on the couch — would be a better choice for this run. Therefore, I was tasked with coming up with an aprés run lunch that could be made ahead. But not any ol’ food would do for this momentous occasion; it had to be extraordinary. I couldn’t think of anything more fitting than lobster rolls.

I yearned for authenticity, but knew I’d be unable to find the right rolls locally. But I somehow convinced Mom and Dad to ship a package to me (I think the postage cost three times the amount of the rolls!). I decided on salt & vinegar chips and a dill pickle for the sides (I had toyed with having Mom and Dad ship Humpty Dumpty chips as well — they’re “Wicked Good!” — but I actually prefer the thick crunchiness of Tim’s).

Live lobsterI saw that HT Market, a newly opened Asian market just up the street from us, was offering fresh lobster for $10.99/pound (it’s typically $17-$18/lb.). While the cost per pound was certainly reasonable, I saw the tanks were only carrying behemoths. But I was undeterred, and soon the fish monger was wrapping up an almost 5-pound monster for me (so we’d be eating lobster rolls for days; what could possibly be wrong with that?)

I drug out my 24 quart stockpot and filled it with about 6 inches of water. Although many people boil their lobsters, I prefer steaming, preferably in sea water. But it was late in the day and I didn’t feel like driving to the beach for a bucket of water (I just heavily salted the water from my tap). My lobster was a big boy — one of his claws must have weighed at least a pound itself — and he took about 45 minutes to steam. Once done I plunged him into ice water to stop the cooking. While I was able to crack open the smaller segments of the claw with my regular lobster crackers, my darling had to break out a pair of channel lock pliers for the actual claw. Cracking lobster

I squeezed some fresh lemon juice over the meat (must have been at least a couple pounds — enough for 8 rolls), then added a couple of chopped celery stalks, a couple of sliced green onions and about a half cup of Best Foods mayonnaise (the full-fat version; it would be sacrilege to taint this delectable dish with low fat or, heaven forbid, nonfat mayo). Anything more and the flavor of the lobster will be lost.

To serve, I spread the sides of the rolls with softened butter, then toasted them in a skillet. Placed a piece of romaine lettuce on the roll, then filled it with the lobster salad. While it wasn’t quite the same as eating one on a picnic table at a lobster shack in Maine, these rolls sure hit the spot.

5 Comments

  1. I hadn’t realized you were training for the Medoc!!! My hubby is a runner and I told him he should run in this one…simply so I could enjoy the food and wine :o) Oh my…am really going to have to see what you say about it!

    As for the lobster rolls…yes, as mentioned before, those are fab! Such a great story about your summers in Maine. And there is nothing like Maine blueberries!

    As for me…my comfort food is a steak and fries…a rancher’s daughter to the core!

    Comment by Caffienated Cowgirl — August 7, 2007 #

  2. Ayuh! Sounds like the right stuff.
    Did you know that even McDonald’s in Maine had lobster rolls available years back. Not sure if they still do since I won’t set foot in one these days.
    Lobstah sistah,
    Kim

    Comment by Kim — August 7, 2007 #

  3. Reminds me of my summers on Pemaquid Point, raspberries and all! Heading to Maine in October for my fill of wicked good lobstah. Had a yummy lobster roll outside LLBean on my last trip.
    Friend of ‘lobstah sistah’
    Cindy

    Comment by Cindy — August 9, 2007 #

  4. Hola Betsy! congratulations for your blog—great colors and photography!

    Best,
    Melissa

    Comment by melissa_cookingdiva — August 12, 2007 #

  5. Hi Betsy,
    I couldn’t find an email address for you on your site, but Urbanspoon.com has a t-shirt for you if you’d like one. You were one of the first to use our site, and this is a tiny thank you for that. It’s not lobster rolls but it’s something. 🙂

    Would you like one?
    If so send me your size (Mens S, M, L, XL, Womens S, M, L) and
    snail mail address and I’ll pop it in the mail.

    Comment by LauraMac — August 13, 2007 #

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