“Just got back from dinner out”, my uncle said on the telephone. “Lobster again. Everyone’s selling it so cheap. Huge lobster dinners for less than ten dollars. Lobster’s going downhill. Less than four dollars a pound.”
My uncle lives in Maine. The price of lobsters in Maine (like the price of tea in China) may or may not have a huge amount to do with a general discussion of food, but it means a lot to me.
It means a lot to me because my family is from Maine, and because of that lobster is in my blood. Lobster is a part of me.
My mother and her brother my uncle-who-eats-lobster-dinners-out and who gives me the lobster news by telephone both grew up in Maine. I lived there for part of my early childhood. My cousins, three boys (now men actually, how soon we forget!) – have lived there all their lives. My uncle stayed in the place of the lobster. My mother ran from it.
But regardless of my mother’s fast exit from the state for Bigger Places, lobster is in my blood. Because she came from the place she came from I know the smell of the damp North woods with trees that close out the light in the sky. I know pine trees, sticky with their hint of turpentine scent. A clear cold light in a sky with no clouds enclosing the sharp red brick edges of a factory town – its bell tower centered with clock hands stuck in some position of time edged into decades ago, as two or three white church steeples careen into the heights vying for position of power as close to the center of town as possible . . . I know that too because of the place she came from. The dank smell of a lake with small wooden docks proudly rotting into the edges of it, motorboats bobbing alongside as drifts of moving water shift them – dribbles of lost gasoline adding its urgent essence to the smell of gunky lake bottom. Snow of brilliance is something I know. I can smell it, if I say the word. Snow. It is acrid, sharp, burning the nose and most delightful. Snow is not mushy gray stuff. Snow is a trumpet of glory, deep and new. A moose is not a thing named Bullwinkle from a cartoon but rather a large ancient-looking skinny-legged animal who peers out from the edges of woods near roads at the cars going by as the cars peer right back. But mostly, more than all these things, I know lobster.
Knowing how to cook it is part of it. Knowing as a natural thing how to get every sweet drop of meat out of the curled shell is another part of it. But the eating, the cooking – that’s the least of it, really.
I once caught my own lobster. It was during a time I lived on a boat, a wooden sailboat to be exact. The setting fit in with my deep-set Pippi Longstocking internalization, but Pippi, as far as I know, never caught a lobster. I’d made a fish trap out of chicken wire, just because I could. And I tossed it over the side of the boat tied up there to the dock at City Island and each day fish would be trapped by this charming and useful device. Blackfish, flounder, small nameless whatevers. Then one day I pulled up a lobster. It was mean and snappish, quick-moving and vicious. Finally I extricated it from the trap and cooked it and we ate it. It was not a Maine lobster. It meant nothing to me.
My mother who ran from Maine as soon as she could, would tell me lobster tales as she raised me in other places. “Now Maine lobstermen” she would start – and her Maine accent, the accent I did not have – would become stronger to the point where it almost sounded like Old English from a fairytale – “Maine is the only place that has lobstermen like this. Independent!” she’d announce. “Independent! They do what they please and they don’t let anyone tell them otherwise!” And we, my mother and I, were somehow part of the Maine lobstermen. We too were independent. We too somehow relied on the lobsters and the generosity of the sea to give us life – no matter that we lived far from the sea in an apartment with a Persian cat named Princess Puff who I believed somehow was my sister (lacking a real one) and that the closest either one of us came to fishing was when we lifted the tiny tropical fish out of the aquarium in the living room when we had to clean it – our tool of trade being a little blue net the size and heft of a cotton ball.
Now New England in general has a thing for being independent. “Live Free or Die!” cries New Hampshire. Vermont is the place to go if you want to start a commune in any century. Rhode Island of course grew Newport so is unassailable in all rights. Massachusetts (aside from being impossible to spell correctly) had the Bay Colony and is big, so you’d better understand how independent it is. Connecticut is an afterthought of course but Greenwich makes a stand for a new variety of new-money independence.
But how can any of these come close to matching me myself and I who is a lobsterman in my mind, with salt spray in my hair and a lobster-trap dripping from my strong independent hand? How can any of these even think they can approach the swell of the sea and the salt spray on my yellow slicker as I pull up my lobster pots filled (or sometimes not filled but that is part of my independent life) with grasping primeval sea-bugs clattering sharp claws and waving springy tentacles at my approach?
“Independent cusses” my mother would say, and she’d smile one of her small rare smiles. A rising sense of power made a trajectory straight out from within her and my seven-year old heart adored her for it. My mother was a lobster, and a big one. There was no denying it.
Lobster is in my blood. It runs through my veins directly into my heart. Lobster is me, myself, and I – when I stop to think about it.
And that’s what has to do with the price of lobsters in Maine.
This is also what has to do with the price of lobsters in Maine. It’s from The Bangor Daily News of October 16, 2008:
The boat price of lobster hovered near the $4 mark throughout much of the summer, according to some fishermen, but in recent weeks it has dropped rapidly to $2.50 and then to $2.25. There are reports that in some areas lobstermen are getting just $2 a pound.
Fishermen say they can’t afford to fish with the price of lobster at around $2 a pound.
“Four dollars is the break-even point,” said Dick Bridges of Deer Isle. “At $4, you might even make a little money.”
There’s been some discussion of limiting the lobster catch in order to stave off a full-fledged market glut. Many fishermen can’t afford not to fish, however, and continue, hoping to sell lobster where they can.
The crisis in Maine is tied directly to the collapse of Icelandic banks which were key lenders to processors in Canada, according to Dane Somers, executive director of the Maine Lobster Promotion Council. Without ready credit from those banks, Canadian processors don’t have the cash to purchase lobster from Maine, Somers said.
The credit crunch hit Canada early in October, Maine’s peak season for lobster production and value, according to the Maine Lobstermen’s Association.
October is the time when fishermen make the bulk of the money they need to see them through the winter months. They’re worried about what will happen if things don’t turn around.
“This couldn’t have happened at a worse time,” Somer said. “And this is not going away right away.”
On average annually, between 45 percent and 50 percent of Maine lobster is sent to processors in Canada. At this time of year, however, 70 percent of the catch usually goes to Canada, but processors there are not buying.
According to the MLA, there are a number of reasons for that. The international credit problem is one. There also are reports that some processors already have inventory on hand and that others are operating at less than full capacity so they don’t create more supply than they can sell.
What to do? Here, from central Maine where Bangor lies (say Ban’-Guh) is an idea: A Thanksgiving Lobster Dinner.