Sunday, August 24, 2008


Neither Diane and I are obsessed with food. We like food. And we really like good food.

The question then, is, what makes food good. Is it the anticipation—planning the menu, devising the seating chart, acquiring new tableware? Is it the pursuit of ingredients—the hunting trip, the fishing expedition, the gardening safari, the shopping trip? Is it the preparation—the refuge of the kitchen, the pleasure of helpful companionship, the heat of the labor itself? Is it the dining experience—before a campfire on a windswept mountain top, in a microbus beside a city park, by candle light with a view of the Eiffel Tower? Is it the quality of the food itself—the flavors, the textures, the presentation? Or is it the aftermath—the satisfaction of fullness, the afterglow of good company, the glory of accolades received?

Of course, good food is all of these. But because Diane and I are traveling through Maine, the palate narrows considerably until it is a taste that trips down the tongue to tap two counts on the teeth. Lob-ster. Sweet, sweet lobster. It is a common crustacean at two pounds even on the ocean floor. It is money in the trap. It is red-hot screaming in the steamer. But on my table it is always Lobster.

Lobster. The most splendid offering among Maine’s many wonders…

…the red-shelled treasure that shines brightly in a sea of yellow drawn butter. You can always count on a Maine writer for a fancy prose style.

Which is to say, it wasn’t just any sort of lobster we were after. After all, you can find lobster everywhere. In Maine, it waves at you from the roadside, credit cards accepted.

It’s pooped out in a McStyrofoam pile under golden arches…

…it’s even churned into a frozen treat.

I know, I know. It’s all lobster. Indeed it is. But it isn’t necessarily good lobster. Please understand that our LobsterQuest was not about sitting down to a simple tourist meal. Please understand we were after something to remember long after the lobster itself was gone. Please believe me when I say we are not obsessed with food.

The quest began in Portland, ME. It’s a sizeable city on the state’s southern coast. It features a fine European-style downtown, replete with cruise ship docks and all of the usual tourist trades.

We had a fine time in Portland, ME. But it didn’t have the sort of lobster we were looking for. So over the backroads we traveled, zig-zagging our way northward along the jagged coastline. The daily board of fare consisted of upscale seaside tourist towns, competed with rustic resorts…

…strange blueberry farms…

…and even stranger engineering wonders.

This bridge’s split granite cribwork is designed to allow the swift tidal waters to flow in and out of the bay year round. It is held together only by gravity and the graces of good fortune, and is said to be the only one of its kind in the world—I think for good reason.

Once safely beyond these troubled waters, we finally encountered a bonafide back roads lobster shack phenom.

But upon closer inspection Red’s did not have the lobster we were looking for. The specialty here is the Lobster Roll—a fold of toasted white bread stuffed with a lobster-mayo salad. This concoction is a Maine institution. For those among us who travel with the herd, by all means, step right up. For those rugged few who blaze their own trail, it’s best just to move along.

It wasn’t long before we found a bayside campground. At the ranger station, we learned that a local fisherman would deliver live lobster directly to our campsite. It was a tempting offer, but we passed on it. Not only were our kitchen pots too small, but the experience would just like getting a pizza delivered to our doorstep.

In an attempt to distract me, Diane navigated us to the fabulous tourist town of Bar Harbor, ME. And make no mistake, in high season distractions abound. But they’re good distractions.

Diane took me for a sail on a four-mast schooner, this despite the fact I have been known to get motion sickness from time-to-time, but only when traveling by car, plane, boat, train, tram, trolley, bus, rollercoaster, merry-go-round, swing set, surfboard, or bicycle.

But don’t let my expression fool you—I loved the sail. I even made it through with my innards intact.

What’s more, we even got our hands on the lines help heave-ho the sails.

But once back on dry land, reminders of the object of my desire were everywhere.

Tired out, wrung out, spun out, worked out, we again took to the open road. It was clear that this little lobster quest of mine was a folly from the start. I scanned the road side for any old lobster pound. Lobster is lobster. It doesn’t matter where you get it and it doesn’t matter how.

But before we sold out, before the fog bell tolled, Diane spied a little sign of no particular consequence.

I didn’t want to stop. I didn’t care to stop. But Diane insisted, so stop we did. No one came out to greet us…

… at least not right away…

This is Robert. He is a salty fisherman and skier turned seafood distributor. He told us about the difference between new shell and old shell lobster (he prefers new shell). We told him about traveling from Oregon to Maine by microbus. He told us about the seaweed trade to the equine industry—apparently discerning race horses prefer kelp for breakfast. We talked about family and skiing in Lake Tahoe and the icy winters of Maine. He showed us how to choose a lobster by size and weight.

We told him that we didn’t have a pot big enough to steam the lobster; he offered to steam this most worthy lobster for us…

… right up in his office.

A fine lobster meal turns out to be a rather simple affair. You don’t need a trap full of food. You don’t need a fancy prose style. All you need to do is find a pot. Add some water. Apply some heat. Get a few sheets of yesterday’s fishwrap. Put yourself in good company. Find a suitable seaside spot. Do it right, and the result is destined to be delicious.

Even if it makes you a little bit crazy.

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