A Shell to Pick with Maine Cuisine
OK, so we just got back from Maine. And we had never been to Maine. Whenever that happens, people who have been to Maine have all kinds of things to say about it–places you should go, places you should stay, and especially things to eat. Everyone seemed all het up about eating lobster rolls–oh, you gotta you gotta you gotta!!! Everyone raved. Everyone insisted. Everyone needs to take it down a notch.
OK, so I like to eat. One look at me should tell you that. And I’m an adventurous eater. I still remember the lunch buffet in a diner-type restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown with a steaming bouillabaisse where baby octopus was the least of what was swimming around under there. So after all the build-up, I was more than ready to experience my First. Ever. LOBSTER ROLL!!! At our first dining opportunity, I ordered one.
So this is it? Hmm.
Thinking I didn’t give it a fair enough shake, I ordered it three more times, at three more places–running the gamut from fancy, established types (DiMillo’s on the Water, Portland ME) to your basic window-service gedunk stand (Clam Digger, St. Andrews, NB). And my opinion hasn’t changed. Meh.
Quite possibly, this foodstuff falls into the category of Things That Used To Be Better Long Ago, and childhood memories always trump present-day reality. Here in Austin, one need look no further than Schlotzsky’s or Thundercloud Subs for evidence of that. I was a UT student in 1975 and remember the joy of eating a Thundercloud avocado sub at their Lavaca Street location (their only location, at the time). The thing was over a foot long and swimming in avocado spread, to the extent that you could make a secondary entree by scooping up the overflow with your bag of chips. To eat one was a rapturous mess. We affectionately referred to the aftermath as “the wearin’ of the green”.
Or you could go for a Small, which was the size of Thundercloud’s present-day Large, but still with way more stuffing. This is definitely one of those Things That Used to Be Better Long Ago, along with Popular Music and Still-Attached Body Parts.
So, I get it. But let me describe what I got in Maine, July 2015.
The bread varied, but usually a thinner variant of Texas Toast fashioned roughly into the shape of a hot dog bun with one crucial difference: it’s closed and squared at the ends. So envision a thin trough of white (always white) bread, lightly toasted. A bread box sans lid, if you will.
Into this box goes the seasoned and lightly mayo-ed lobster meat, piled in and slightly above the sides. You’re definitely getting lobster. And it’s chilled, like crab or seafood salad from your supermarket’s deli case.
The whole thing is about the size of a standard 7-11 hot dog. No, not the foot-long Costco loss-leader that costs a buck fifty with a drink. The dinky kind that you buy when you are desperate for something at 2:00 a.m., and perhaps your judgement is a wee bit impaired.
Cost of a lobster roll? $20. Practically standardized across the state, like buying Bose speakers or Microsoft Office. Doesn’t matter where you go, that’s what it costs.
Thing is, I’m almost always hungry on the other side of one of these mini-hoagies. But ordering two, besides the outrageous expense and social stigma, is out of the question. And unlikely to fill me up, either, truth be told.
Undeterred, I decided the best way to attack a lobster in Maine was head-on: order a whole steamed lobster and go to town! So I ordered Norman the Lobster, pictured above.
This, alas, has its own pitfalls. Basically, Maine lobster seems to be one of those dishes that, if you have to ask, you can’t afford it. It’s a prestige food that really will never fill you up, and it’s a lot of work to get to it, and it’s really kind of bland–because it is, after all, lobster. Anything you have to drench in butter to make it taste like something–well, why not just make popcorn and be done with it? Remember, lobster used to be only considered fit for prisoners.
There’s also the whole thing about lobsters living over a hundred years, with scientists unsure on just how old they can get. Do you really presume to take the life of a creature that can outlive several generations of your family just to satisfy an afternoon’s hunger? And lobsters continue to grow until they die. Who among us can make that claim?
If they get big enough, PETA gets involved. ‘Nuff said. This is an aggravation attached to my Blue Plate Special that I do not need. So after Norman, I stopped. Sorry, Missus Norman. Sorry, Baby Normans.
OK, enough with the lobster already. Another aspect of Maine cooking I found off-putting is their penchant for putting Sugar. In. Everything.
Everything has its place, I suppose, but sugar kept cropping up in the unlikeliest of places. Like in the batter of the fried chicken, for example. That initial bite was a bit of an ice-water enema.
Even where you expect sugar will have a cameo appearance–Thousand Island dressing, for example–it ends up taking center stage. Now, I understand Thousand Island often contains ketchup, which contains sugar. But that should be an undercurrent, subservient to vinegar, Worcestshire, pickle relish, and any of a half-dozen other variants.
In Maine? Fuhgeddaboudit. The state seems completely free of anything resembling pickle relish, and its Thousand Island, besides being distractingly sweet, is as texture-free as a glass of kefir. Maybe it was kefir, for all I know. Thousand Island Kefir. Bleah.
Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t all disappointing. One high point of dining out in Maine is that virtually every restaurant–from the fancy to the mom&pop–brings out hot bread before your meal. Lunch or dinner, doesn’t matter, there’s your hot bread and softened butter, wrapped coyly in a cloth napkin, awaiting your eager exploration. I found this refreshingly civilized.
But for my next eating holiday, it’s New Orleans or Jamaica, where the seafood doesn’t outlive you and they aren’t afraid of a little spice. And no, sugar does NOT count as a spice.