Considering the Lobsterman: Welcome to Lobstering School, and How to Use Maine Lobsters

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Measuring the lobster [Photographs: Helana Brigman]

Editor's Note: Please welcome Helana Brigman, a Maine-bred, Louisiana-based author, columnist, and photographer who spent her summer researching a lobster boat in Port Clyde, Maine, as part of a project on the Maine lobstering industry. She documented many of the challenges and triumphs of the season on her blog, Dances with Lobsters: Clearly Delicious Recipes from the Coast of Maine to the Gulf of New Orleans, but now she's compiled her experiences into a comprehensive narrative. Last week we looked at the numbers game that dictates the lobstering industry, and today we're learning about the physical realities of life on the boat and five essential tips for using Maine lobsters.

Growing up in Maine, I have always found lobstermen to be intimidating figures. They were big men who handled snapping sea creatures, most often seen on their boats, fighting the weather.

But it takes more than applying for a fishing license to trap off the coast of Maine. One element of Thompson's success is that he was born into a family that has fished the Port Clyde area for two centuries. Being a lobsterman from an old family typically gives him access to some of Maine's most coveted waters. Centuries of fishing have taught men where to look for lobsters and how to think like the Homarus Americanus.

Today, successful trapping requires a masterful blend of ancestral and technical knowledge. In addition, a lobsterman's ability to keep up with the possible effects of global warming and damaging species like "gorilla hair" (a thick brown algae that weighs down traps and tangles gear) is also a plus.

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When asked about his family's ties to the fishing industry, Thompson proudly admits that a huge part of what he knows about lobstering has been passed down to him from his father and grandfather. "By the time I was fourteen, I already had my own boat in the water and some of my father's old traps," he explains.

For Thompson, these are the perks of being born into a fishing family, but for the stern men on his boat, even being as established as "third-generation" can indicate a lack of necessary skills for life on the water. Because so much of what lobstermen do is learned firsthand, shared, and inherited, fishermen hoping to join the likes of the Maine lobster industry must pay their dues and fight for admittance into an already insular community. In fact, "lobster gangs" and territory wars are a fact of life amongst these densely populated pockets along the Maine coast. "Trap-Cutting Feuds" makeup regular local media stories and often revolve around the same issue: someone fishing in someone else's waters.

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Chris "The Kid," Ruthless's new second stern man.

There are no schools for lobstering. "I've been through 14 stern men since January," Thompson announces, wrinkling his brow. Since starting this piece, I've seen Ruthless's second stern man turn over twice, and there's much speculation as to whether the iPod-wearing twenty-year-old "kid," Chris, he just hired will be able to finish the summer.

"He's just unprepared for class," Thompson explains after hauling. He's referring to Chris's poor attire, granola bars for lunch, and the ear buds he wears when baiting traps. "Unprepared for class" might also mean failing to have "sea legs," easily becoming sick, disliking long hours, complaining of sunburn, or not owning a poncho, gloves, or pair of boots.

"This was my first day even touching the traps," Chris says. "Or the lobsters," he adds, lighting a cigarette. Later, Chris tells Thompson he's never spent so much time working with his hands, except for video games. Thompson is not amused.

But despite Chris's lack of experience, Thompson might have underestimated him. The second Ruthless docks at Port Clyde Lobster, he hustles to transfer their haul from blue water tanks to orange bins, sorting hard shells from soft and "select" lobsters. "Ow!" bursts from Chris's direction as he shakes his hand rapidly above the tanks. A hard shell's walking legs have pinched through the stern man's gloves.

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Erupting in laughter, Thompson and his first stern man joke, "It pinched you, eh?" as they poke fun at his beginner status. When the jokes subside, Thompson's good-humored smile transforms into a hard, stern look when he scolds the boy for sorting incorrectly. Picking up a robust hard shell Chris has placed in the wrong barrel, Thompson flips the lobster onto its back, points to the knuckles, and says, "Look, see how this joint moves little when you flex it? That's a hard shell."

Chris nods his head in agreement, but I can tell he's failing to see the significance. He's still recovering from the pincher claw, an incident that, by now, has occurred several times. It is clear that Thompson expects his stern men to learn the tricks from firsthand experience, rarely cutting anyone slack. Working on a lobster boat means being a lobsterman, not the twenty-year-old "kid" you were on shore.

"I know I'm hard on him, but it just seems so clear to me," Thompson remarks after hauling that day. If Chris had made this mistake half a dozen times, then he could have cost the boat anywhere from forty to fifty dollars. At $4.10/lb., hard shells are worth twice what soft shells receive at the wharf, an important detail to keep in mind as a Maine lobsterman.*

*Note: 4.10/lb. reflect July 2013 prices at Port Clyde Lobster Wharf. Pricing has gone up since this time.

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Conclusion
Two months have passed since I first watched Justin Thompson haul a rusted metal trap aboard the Ruthless. The Atlantic's temperature has dropped to the 50s, and Maine lobsters have begun their migratory crawl to darker, more temperate waters. At the Port Clyde Lobster wharf, prices have jumped across the board, reflecting decreases in soft shell lobsters and a sign that summer must come to an end. Like the seasons, the Maine lobsterman follows a system of change, tracking valuable—although less and less rare—resources and making them available at my local market and yours.

Speaking with these men, experiencing life on their boat, and studying the Maine lobster industry has taught me a lot, but most importantly, it has taught me the value of taking advantage of our natural resources, whatever they may be. What's "affordable, fresh, and available" has long been my motto when cooking, and I find the glut of the Maine lobster and the hard-working lobsterman a lesson in food trends around America. That Maine lobster is born of long-held food traditions, and Mother Nature's ability to grow and breed may be an analogy for your state's changing food traditions, too.

After all, indulging in what's abundant and available is what made Maine lobster great—and later, what allowed it to become a kind of expensive, less accessible seafood that few people had the privilege to enjoy. Although these numbers are changing today, it may be time to rethink the abundance of the Maine lobster. So the next time you're planning menus or grocery shopping, seek out not what is missing, but what is already there. And, while you're at it, check out the price of Maine lobsters.

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The Marshall Point Lighthouse in Port Clyde, Maine. Built in 1932, the lighthouse houses a new Memorial for Fishermen Lost at Sea.

5 Essential Tips for Making Use of Maine Lobsters
You don't need to spend time on a commercial fishing boat to learn lobstermen's secrets for selecting and cooking Maine lobster at home. Here are five no-fail tips.

  • Be Sexist: Gender affects everything when choosing live Maine lobsters. Typically, males will have larger claws and females will have wider—possibly, larger—tails. Because of time spent fighting other males, male lobsters develop oversized crusher and pincher claws that yield far more tender, sweet lobster meat that's less likely to shrink down when cooking. Similarly, females grow wider tales for mating purposes, a tip to keep in mind when looking for thicker, meatier hunks of lobster meat for your recipes. But, if toughness is an issue for you, don't be afraid to ask for male lobsters over female ones.
    • Use Everything: Some of the best parts of lobsters are what we tend to throw away. After picking the shells clean, you can recycle lobster heads, claws, knuckles, and tails by converting them into homemade stocks for soups, stews, and sauces. I always compare this tip to well-done recipes for Vietnamese pho: like the bone marrow necessary for flavoring an authentic broth, so too do Maine lobster shells pack serious flavor. Loaded with salty, seafood goodness, shellfish leftovers should be boiled with a mirepoix (onions, carrots, and celery), herbs, and enough water to cover.
      • Cut Unnecessary Sodium: Brining is a hot button issue with everything from corn to Thanksgiving turkeys. When boiling Maine lobster, locals suggest heavily salting the water so it tastes like the sea, or using fresh seawater if you can get it. However, Serious Eats taste tests have shown that Maine lobster packs enough flavor from time spent in the ocean and requires no extra salting. Do yourself a favor and cut the unnecessary sodium here.
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          • Avoid Over-Cooking: Nothing is worse than over-cooked meat, especially shellfish, which takes on a rubbery quality if exposed to heat for prolonged periods. Fortunately, lobster meat is relatively easy and quick to cook. For hard shell lobsters, add lobsters to boiling water and wait until steam begins to escape from under the lid. At this point, set your timer for 17 to 18 minutes. For soft shells, set your timer for 15 minutes. To test if the lobster is done, check the two frontal antennae. If they've already fallen off or remove easily when pulled, then the lobster is done. But if they still possess some give, continue cooking for several minutes until the antennae remove easily. Here's more on how to cook and shuck a lobster.
            • Be Prepared (to Make a Mess): First-time lobster eaters might wonder what the red and white bib is really about—lobsters, in one word, are messy. After they've been boiled, steamed, or baked, they still possess a relatively high amount of liquid from both cooking and life under the sea. When cracking the shell, always have a bowl handy to crack over. The biggest mistake first-time lobster diners make is eating over a flat plate, which will instantly pool with liquid (this is especially bad if tearing into a soft shell for the first time, which has more space between the meat and shell to contain liquid). This way, you keep your plate relatively clean and can save the liquid as a flavoring agent/ingredient for seafood stock or other recipes.

            About the Author: Helana Brigman is a food writer, photographer, cook, and the creator of the award-winning blog Dances with Lobsters: Clearly Delicious Recipes from the Coast of Maine to the Gulf of New Orleans. She writes the "Fresh Ideas" column for Louisiana's state newspaper, The Advocate, and is the author of the book, The Fresh Table: Cooking in Louisiana All Year Round (LSU Press, 2013). A doctoral candidate in English, Brigman lives in Baton Rouge with her dog Cara, where she writes and cooks. She is currently finishing her second book, Salt for Pepper: Cooking Up the Victorian Recipe. Follower her on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Tumblr, and Instagram.

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