Accent on Living

LOBSTERS are cheap along the New England coast. Often during the summer season the supermarkets offer them as low as 45 cents a pound; 50 or 55 cents is a commonplace. Even at the peak of the summer rush, lobsters are to be had, in expensive resort areas, for 70 cents or so. There was a great uproar, a couple of years ago, and the Department of Justice rolled its antitrust juggernaut in all its majesty over an association of Maine lobstermen, when they tried to establish something higher than the 32-cent price paid them by the wholesalers.

Few items can be put on the table with so little kitchen work and so quickly as lobsters. Yet by the time they are ordered, as a treat for the whole family, by the genial summer traveler from the hinterland, their price in many a water’s-edge dining room has risen to S3 to $5 per portion. The gouge in this case is not only an inhospitality to the stranger, but it undermines, also, the principle that whenever lobsters are served, there should be plenty of them.

Fortunately for the traveler, the roadside lobster specialist now comes forward and with outdoor fires, large caldrons, and a tank of briskly kicking lobsters proceeds to restore a fair competitive balance. His sign may have an “S” or two reversed, and his smokestack may be a bit out of plumb, but he has lobsters in abundance at something under half the restaurant prices. His customers can eat their lobsters under the best possible conditions: alfresco, with ample elbowroom, rocks at hand for cracking knuckles and claws, and an easy riddance of debris — in short, a self-service picniclike meal with second helpings ready at short notice.

A vast mythology has developed about lobsters, much of it so silly as to warrant some correction. The quality of the lobster, for instance, is believed to vary greatly from one locality to another. Maine usually tops the list, according to this legend, and the further south one goes, the poorer the lobster; the flavor is said to decline; the meat is tasteless and tougher, much tougher. Yet the same legend sets up an even heavier prejudice against lobsters from Nova Scotia and the Maritime Provinces, although these have been living in freshly circulating sea water, in the holds of the big pickup boats, right up to the moment of their delivery, scores of thousands at a time, to the distributing companies along our own coast. A Marbleheader would be shocked at the idea of an edible lobster being taken on the outside of Cape Cod, but the man in Stonington, Maine, is sure any Marblehead lobster must taste like something out of the freezer. At Gloucester the natives stare in unbelief when one of the Canadian boats comes in and unloads: Can it be that American citizens are reduced to eating Nova Scotia lobsters?

The best scientific opinion holds that the quality of all these lobsters is identical and that most of the bias in behalf of the local product is a carry-over from suspicions — often well founded—of fish from distant parts. Many a trawler’s cargo reaches the market after touring the fishing grounds for days or even weeks, on ice in the hold, with the result that some seacoast residents, especially the down-Easters, refuse all but the catch of local fishermen.

But lobsters at the roadside boiling stations are unmistakably alive and kicking. (They are equally so when on sale in Kansas City or Chicago, but no matter.) The prices are low. The big ones are just as tender as the little ones. Boiled is better than broiled. Melted butter helps but is unnecessary. The only parts worth working on are tails, knuckles, and claws, and the conscientious dismantling of the carapace is a complete waste of time. Beverage: cold beer.