Most memorable meals, take two: a lobster tale

We’re in England and off the grid this week, but we have spared no expense in securing the services of a guest blogger, the lovely and talented Elizabeth Kohout. In this post, the second in what we hope will be an occasional series, Elizabeth relates the chilling tale of her first confrontation with one of New England’s most emblematic (and frightening) foods.

I’ve liked crustaceans (with one notable exception, which I’ll get to later) my entire life.

This initially manifested itself as a deep affection for Sebastian, the crab from the Disney version of The Little Mermaid, possibly because my father does an excellent imitation of him and possibly because he stars in one of the greatest animated sequences of all time. Then, somewhere around third grade, I became the proud owner of a hermit crab, Scout, who liked to clamp herself to my T-shirt while I did homework. This ownership was joyful but brief, as Scout met an ultimately tragic end when a certain mother (who shall remain unnamed) failed to regulate a certain sister (ditto), who thought it would be a great idea to release Scout underneath the stove. We found her shell and her poor, desiccated body (Scout’s, that is, not my sister’s) beneath the stove four or five years later when we moved out of that house.

At this juncture, I began to shift my attention from caring for crustaceans to eating them, a pursuit I have found to be infinitely more rewarding. Our neighbors had an annual mudbug party, in which the entire neighborhood descended on their house to talk, drink Coke or beer (depending on one’s age), shriek and chase each other around with the live crawfish (not necessarily depending on one’s age), supervise the boiling of said crawfish, and eat a possibly unhealthy amount of boiled crawfish. (We also spent a lot of time shooing their enormous dogs away from the food.) Beyond mudbugs, I developed a deep and abiding affection for shrimp (especially from this place), crab cakes, and squid (SQUID!), which I realize is not a crustacean but still falls under the seafood umbrella so I’m including it anyway.

Lobster, however, is a different story. I have a very fraught relationship with lobster. It began when I was quite young and pitched a fit in the grocery store because I wanted to visit the “yobsiss” and my mother wouldn’t comply because she had absolutely no idea what I was talking about. Several years of speech therapy later, I was able to say the word “lobster” like a normal person, but no longer had any particular interest in talking about them. Aside from appreciating the lobster cooking scene in Annie Hall, I think it’s safe to say I didn’t really think about lobsters for most of my adolescence. I certainly didn’t encounter many in land-locked Austin, Texas.

But then I went to a fancy liberal arts college in Massachusetts, where, every fall, the dining halls outdo themselves and cook up a really lovely and highly anticipated meal, the Harvest Dinner. We spoiled-rotten students got to dine on seasonal roasted vegetables, local greens, pumpkin and apple pies, and other edible autumnal delights. Oh, and lobster. That’s right, lobster.

My freshman year, I queued up with my friends and picked up a ticket to get my lobster. We all went through the buffet line, marveling at the bounty laid out before us; I turned my ticket in to pick up my lobster and my eyes nearly bugged out of my head when one of the dining hall ladies plunked a giant red beast down on my plate. I lugged my laden tray to the table my friends had staked out, and as I sat down I realized that none of them had picked up a lobster. I had absolutely no idea how to eat the strange animal sitting in front of me and was embarrassed to ask, so I decided to play it cool and slowly ate all the food piled around it. Then I got freaked out by its unwavering, empty gaze and put a spinach leaf over its head when I thought no one was looking:

It turns out my friend Lilly was, in fact, not only looking at me but also armed with a camera phone. She burst into hysterical laughter, which then spread around the table, and captured the moment for posterity (see above). Once everyone had stopped laughing with (at?) me, the conversation drifted into lobster-related eating adventures. I tried to look like I, too, had spent my summers in Maine or other parts of the country where eating scary-looking armored animals is totally normal. Finally my friend Noah realized I was way out of my element and patiently coached me through dismantling and devouring the creature. My memory about this part of the meal is mercifully vague: I know that I squirted Noah and at least one other person in the face with lobster juice and that no one told me I was supposed to get melted butter, so once I finally got to the lobster meat, it tasted like mild, meaty salt water—not bad, but not amazing either. I wondered what all the fuss was about.

After dinner, we walked back across campus to our dorm. At some point, I paused for a moment. The sky was velvety and spangled with stars; the air was fresh and cold, and I thought there would probably be frost on the ground when I went to my English class the next morning. Anticipating the crunch of frozen grass underfoot reminded me again of the puzzling meal I’d just eaten. I thought about how odd New England is, how strangers don’t smile if they catch each other’s eye, how trees light up the hillsides with leafy flames, how even the mildest salsa causes people to whimper and fan their mouths, but they think nothing of boiling alive and then eating what essentially amounts to a living dinosaur for dinner. Then I ran to catch up with my friends.

What we’re reading
Nick Reding, Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town (still)
Martin: Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall

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