By Tracey Teo
[dropcap]P[/dropcap]risoners in 19th-century Maine didn’t live on bread and water. They dined regularly on lobster, but they sat down to their meals with a sense of disgust and loathing. After all, the ubiquitous crustacean was frequently used as fertilizer and was only consumed by the truly desperate. Who would voluntarily eat such a revolting-looking, bottom-dwelling creature?
I would and did every chance I got in Bar Harbor, Maine, on Mount Desert Island (pronounced Dessert by locals), a quaint seaside town that was once a summer oasis for the most affluent families in America. Think Rockefellers, Astors, and Vanderbilts.
Obviously, attitudes toward consuming lobster have changed drastically since the 19th century, and the price reflects that. In some parts of the country, lobster lovers may feel they need a trust fund provided by one of the aforementioned families to afford such a luxury. Not in Maine. Lobster is plentiful and relatively inexpensive.
I kicked off my week-long lobster feast at Stewman’s Lobster Pound, an outdoor eatery right on Frenchman Bay. My family and I settled in at a picnic table painted with cartoonish lobsters and perused the menu. I chose that New England classic, the lobster roll. A mound of fresh lobster mixed with just a touch of creamy mayonnaise was bursting out of the buttery, toasted roll, making it more of a fork-and-knife affair than a handheld sandwich. The sweet meat was at once firm and tender. Crispy sweet potato fries and a side of coleslaw rounded out my lunch. For me, the meal perfectly captured the flavor of summer in Bar Harbor.
My husband, Wesley, is a lobster purist, eschewing mayo or anything else that could detract from the true flavor of the most prized of shellfish. He went for the Simply Maine Lobster, which is kettle steamed in sea water. A server lifted the lid of a large oval-shaped pan with a flourish. Voila! Inside was a fire engine-red lobster that was probably crawling on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean that morning.
Uninitiated diners tend to stare at a whole lobster looking as bewildered as a Maine moose that’s wandered onto the highway, but Wesley knows how to eat a lobster. He started by grabbing the body in one hand and the tail in the other, then gave it a hard twist. Next, he twisted off the claws, then yanked off the legs. Not everyone is such a proficient lobster eater. Many lobster pounds are so used to inept summer tourists, they offer written directions on how to properly disassemble and eat a lobster.
We visited as many pounds as possible during our trip, including Thurston’s, where customers will see boats stacked high with lobster traps come into the busy harbor, and Trenton Bridge, where the lobster of your choice is cooked over a wood-fired cooker.
I found the term “lobster pound” puzzling when I arrived in Bar Harbor. It sounds as though a bunch of unruly lobsters were caught running around the streets making a nuisance of themselves, and now the poor things are brooding in their cages, waiting to be reunited with their rightful owners. I soon learned “pounds” are simply casual, no-frills restaurants that keep live lobsters in a tank and serve them fresh.
Maine lobster had humble beginnings, once eaten only by prisoners, servants, and the very poor, but it’s come up in the world, really made a name for itself. I think of lobster the same way I think of those country music stars that started out dirt poor picking cotton or coal mining in some Podunk town, then one day they discover their true talent lies in playing the guitar and singing about picking cotton or coal mining in some Podunk town. They rise from peon to superstar, finally getting the respect they feel they deserve.
Once the lowliest forms of sustenance, lobster is now a delicacy. If lobsters could hold a pen in their claws, discerning foodies would stammer out a sheepish request for an autograph. But here’s the thing, like a country music star returning to his home town, lobster is not such a hot shot in Maine. Sure, they’re proud of him and all, but they’re not going to kowtow to him the way fans do in landlocked states.
Mainers knew lobster before he got to be such a la-di-da fancy pants, strutting around garnished with edible flowers and sucking up to his snooty friend Turf of surf and turf fame. They don’t want lobster to forget where he comes from.
So, in Maine, you don’t have to dine at a pricey, white tablecloth restaurant where the waiter places your napkin in your lap to enjoy lobster. Just tie on a lobster-emblazoned bib at a Bar Harbor lobster pound and get crackin’. If a little melted butter dribbles down your chin or a bit of shell flies across the table when you break off the claws, well, you’re in good company. When it comes to table manners, it seems to be an unspoken rule that lobster pounds are a judgment-free zone.
Maine’s lighthouses are as famous as its lobsters, so one August afternoon, my bunch boarded a three-level sightseeing boat operated by Bar Harbor Whale Watch Co. and set out for a guided lighthouse tour through beautiful Somes Sound.
The sky was as blue as the sea, and we couldn’t have asked for a more perfect summer day. We were all in good spirits, so when the wind sent my hat spinning like a Frisbee into the boat’s wake, we fell into spasms of childish giggles.
At first glance, historic lighthouses such as Winter Harbor on Mark Island and Egg Rock at the southern entrance of Frenchman Bay, may seem like little more than quaint antiquities, but there was a time when these navigational aids were crucial in preventing mariners from crashing onto craggy rocks and being pulled down by angry waves into an aquatic grave. Lighthouse keepers were the guardian angels of the sea.
I pondered what life must have been like for the keepers and their families, isolated in these remote outposts with only seagulls for company. Many lighthouses are still active today, but, of course, they are now automated and don’t require a keeper.
We sailed toward Bass Harbor Head Light on Mount Desert Island inside Acadia National Park, and the captain paused so we could take photos. Perched high on a cliff above a rocky coastline, it stands at attention like a watchful soldier. It’s the only lighthouse on the tour accessible by car, and my family and I agreed that one evening we would drive over and get a few sunset shots.
When we returned to Bar Harbor, the whole town seemed be eating ice cream. We couldn’t resist the power of suggestion, so we bought cones in flavors that included Maine wild blueberry and chocolate moose tracks. We ate them while strolling along the Shore Path, a walking path that is more than a century old and winds past the majestic Bar Harbor Inn.
In many parts of the country, an afternoon walk in August would be about as appealing as sticking your head in a hot oven, but Maine’s mild summer temps are ideal for hiking, biking, sailing, and picnicking in Acadia National Park, which offers stunning views of Cadillac Mountain.
On our leisurely walk, we observed sailboats skimming along the water, admired a string of elegant summer homes, and finally, looped back around to Agamont Park. Kids were chasing each other through the park’s white gazebo and using a pair of old cannon as a jungle gym. Adults a
nd their canine companions were splayed out lazily across the perfectly manicured grass, mesmerized by the lull of the sea. The scene was one of such exemplary summer bliss, it reminded me of Georges Seurat’s 1884 Pointillism masterpiece, “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte” — minus the ladies in bustles, of course.
As we took it all in, Wesley asked the question that had been on everyone’s mind all afternoon. “Would we be eating lobster tonight?”