Rumor has it that lobster and clams don’t taste the same bought in town rather than at the lobster pound. This is entirely true, so a drive to the lobster pound set way out on the dock where waves crashing up against the rocky shore spatter saltwater onto your face is always the first step to do for anyone who wants a Shore Dinner.
Back at camp (“camp” being Maine slang for a summer house on a lake) big pots the size of small steamships are set on the stove. The grownups start their dinner with lashes of stiff libations – usually gin and tonics.
They always drank heavily in those days but never appeared to be inebriated, aside from the same jokes reappearing year after year as if they were new . . . and for the occasional slurred word. We children jumped in and out of the lake eating potato chips, cashew nuts or Cheetos – whatever could be caught up in a fast handful while throwing the bent and battered plastic Frisbee to the wet smelly archetypical Golden Retriever wandering from family to family endlessly through the summer days, amiable tail slowly wagging, panting big pink tongue ever-so-slightly drooling.
The call to “Come Eat!” brought us to a table ready-set with piles of grayish-silver steamer clams. They were the color of city sidewalks, their long black necks sticking out rudely like ugly tongues. Eating them was both a grim challenge and a titillating delight – how gross they really were! – chewy with a slight hint of underlying bitterness, a textured blend of rubber cement and jelly with the occasional bit of grit to hit teeth with resounding crunch.
The grownups switched down to beer for the meal, the kids poured themselves kool-ade, the ice clinking into the tall glasses from plastic flower-decorated pitchers. Then, with a whiff of dense essential sea rising from them, the lobsters arrived.
Huge platters came out from the kitchen carried by the women with much pomp and circumstance – each one piled with a tangle of jolly red lobsters still steaming from the pots they’d been dunked in head-first such a short while ago, kicking, snapping, and still alive – to boil just five minutes to fragrant sweet perfection.
Everyone grabbed their lobster, a lobster cracker, a lobster pick, and set to work with serious and messy intent, for each piece of meat had to be dunked quickly in the only thing God put lobster down on this earth for: drawn butter.
There was corn on the cob and potato chips and sometimes a little salad. That was it, and that was enough.
When every bit of lobster had been pulled, squeezed or tormented out of its shell, we ran to the lake to wash off all the sticky bits while the fireflies timidly started to blink in the gathering dusk.
The dragonflies drew ever-lazier circles in the air around us till it was time for dessert: strawberry shortcake – a simple thing – sweetened warm biscuits drenched with juices of crushed berries picked almost-melting that same day. Sweeter than any Popsicle invented those berries were, and the freshly whipped cream was generously ladled out, falling sideways in huge mounds over the top.
When night had truly fallen, when it was so dark nobody could really see the face of who they were talking to, one of my three boy cousins would usually try to stick a small frog or some other disgusting thing down the back of my bathing suit as we played near the lake. I’d scream and run and cry while the boys just laughed their heads off. My aunt would scold them vigorously (something they seemed immune to), and off we went to bed.
That’s a Shore Dinner as I remember it, at the end of a warm summer’s day when I was a child. I hope it still exists, within driving distance of the Maine shore, for those who live there now.
Postscript: Maine lobster is on the list of “sustainable seafoods”.