There was a period while growing up in the seventies where we spent a good portion of the summer in Maine. Dad had retired from his day job, and had gone into partnership with a fellow from Philadelphia, and the benefit of all this was that he could work by phone from just about anywhere. So, we were able to take extended vacations in Maine, renting a small and un-fancy house by the scenic waters on the island of Islesboro, Penobscot Bay. Said house grew closer and closer to the water each winter: originally we’d put up a badminton net between the house and the rocks; by the last year we were there, I doubt such a net would have fit.
The beach was not your regular sandy beach: to this day, I find such vast expanses of sand to be, well, boring. I want a rocky beach, with tidal pools, and striated sedimentary lines. Beaches are meant for explorations, not for lying down on. You walked in Keds (remember those? In the days before tennis shoes went upscale?) or in flip-flops, to protect your feet from both the sharpness of the rocks and from the ubiquitous sea urchins. In those days, we had no knowledge of uni, that golden and softly luscious interior to a sea urchin, or we would have indulged. Granted, it’s a different and larger species of urchin you eat at sushi bars, but we’d have experimented. We did with so many other things. But I did have an urchin who couldn’t bear to part with me for a time, apparently.
I slipped on a rock in the water once, and my ankle twisted against a sea urchin, its green spines eager to do promote vengeance over this. The spines passed through the canvass of my Keds, and into my flesh. Well, okay, ouch. Getting to shore, I pulled most of them out, but a couple spines had broken off in my foot. I entered our cabin and dosed them with a bit of antiseptic grain alcohol that happened to be lying around. (The parents were diluting this for martinis or something. They weren’t going to miss a half-ounce.)
Those extra spines lay there within my foot until somewhere between Thanksgiving and Christmas of that year. One night I just noticed them working their way out. GOOD. GONE! Plucked and tossed.
At some point, one of those years, I ended up with a copy of super-forager Euell Gibbon’s Stalking the Blue-Eyed Scallop. We loved to forage the coast of Islesboro, whether it was the wild raspberry patches beloved of my mother, or the sea spinach that nestled in salty crevices just above high water mark, or the periwinkles and the whelks we could wade right outside and collect. Elsewhere, we pulled tenacious mussels from rocks, and dug steamers from blackened mud flats, thick and oozy mud that sucked down footwear with fervor.
At the times of lowest tide, at an unforgiving 6 am when the moon was right and the werewolves were finally tuckering into their dens with the beginnings of daylight, we’d often go to one of the few sandy beaches, located on the opposite side of the island, and dig for hen clams. This involved wading out in the frigid but limpid water, looking down for tell-tale holes they made for breathing, then reaching down to yank the unsuspecting victim from its home. Occasionally we caught a razor clam that way as well, but those were faster and better-shaped to make their getaway.
I don’t remember the cold of that bay’s water as much as I recall the sweet taste of success. Maine was seldom a place for swimming; it usually didn’t get hot enough, although I recollect the summer we arrived in an un-airconditioned car in a heat wave. We unpacked swim suits before doing anything else, and swam just to swim for a half hour. That may or may not have been the year we brought Kat (or did we bring him twice?) Kat was our white feline, for whom no one could agree on a name. Confronted with the need to have one for the vet, he simply became Kat. Spelled with a K. The one time we took a motel room before getting to Islesboro, my brother put him in a pillow case and smuggled him into the room he and I shared, as if he were a sack of dirty laundry.
Back to the food: Mother’s favorite treat, other than raspberries, were the rock crabs. They’d come up with the lobsters in traps, and we’d buy a bucket of them, whole, for a dollar. The fishermen were either just going to throw them back, or laboriously have them shelled by hand, for sale. It was far cheaper to pick and de-shell our own, and Mother would sit at the table, newspapers laid down, and almost meditatively pick out all the meat which she’d reserve for her own dinner salad that night. If we wanted any, we had to pick our own. This was strictly a do-it-yourself event.
I preferred mine still hot, so I’d pick and eat at the same time, dipping the flesh into the ubiquitous butter sauce. I had less patience, as well, and was content to move on to the clams and the lobsters after my periodic one or two crabs. Besides, after the second, they were no longer remotely warm. Cold may have been okay, but warm was preferred, plus there were so many other fruits of the sea!
Dad cultivated relations with a couple of the local lobstermen. We got good deals on prices, and once or twice we went out with them. Then as now there were a lot of restrictions: we could not so much as touch a line or a trap while aboard. There were size restrictions; the fishermen measured the length of carapace, and a lot of lobsters were returned to the waters to do what they do best, which is grow and produce more lobsters. Being out to sea, and witnessing this work provided us with as close to a hands-on experience as we were like to get. It also provided us with a lifetime’s dose of blackened carcinogenic diesel exhalations when we couldn’t stand upwind of the boat’s exhaust pipe.
We’d steam the lobster, and the clams, and the crabs, and the periwinkles, whelks and mussels. The sea spinach we’d braise in a little butter, probably with some onion. The raspberries were savored straight up and raw, although Mother once or twice made her signature raspberry cobbler dish. I wish to hell I had that recipe. I’m afraid to try anyone else’s. Too sweet? Too fake? Too just-not-right? I don’t want to know.
A momentary interlude into the rare blackberry expedition. There were not that many blackberries but anyhow I joined some other people on the back bed of a pickup truck (I don’t remember much more than this) and we jogged that truck down a dirt lane and the blackberries snagged back into our flesh, their thorns lashing us with their momentos. That’s what you get, permanent blood on the neck of a t-shirt.
We’d eat the whole lobster. Mother didn’t want the tamale, the green stuff inside the body cavity, so Dad and I would vie for that tasty treat from her lobster. It is my perception that Dad usually won. Dad most likely has the opposite perception. You’d insert the spoon in, withdrawing nectar of the sea. You’d crunch open the large claws, and break down through the tail, and you’d suck meat out of the little claws. My favorite meat was the tail and the arms leading to the large claws. And the tamale, but that to me was something beyond meat.
One year early on, we didn’t do Maine, we did Nova Scotia, where the Bay of Fundy tidal zone roared. I don’t remember the name of the place we stayed, although I’d love to. It was a campground with rough-hewn cabins, and they had a commons cabin where young people hung out at night and smoked pot, which both scared and fascinated me at the time. I said no. In the interests of full disclosure, I stopped being scared late in college, a few years later. But that’s not the point, in this food-oriented blog. Dad brought back to our cabin a humungous lobster. I’ve never seen one larger; maybe a plastic one propped up in some seafood restaurant. To get into the claws, we needed a hatchet and a tree stump to rest the poor thing on. It was excellent. I think I was fourteen or sixteen.
For a few years in Islesboro, we had the use of a small boat. We’d go fishing. Dad and my brother caught a few dogfish, which is a type of shark that doesn’t get past the pet size to anywhere close to the Jaws size. Dad would make dogfish balls out of the meat, which today would probably be renamed “dogfish sliders”. We opened one fish up, and there were two yolks — putative future dogfish generation. They looked very chicken-egg like, but I fear none of us got downright adventurous enough to taste them. Surprising, all things considered.
Mother passed away on the Ides of March, 2001. The previous summer, while I don’t know if it was a lighthearted concept or a fully-deep internal need, or (most likely) some place between, she asked for her ashes to be scattered from the ferry that goes from mainland Lincolnville to Islesboro, Maine. On a clear lovely day, no less. I believe it was July 2001 we carried out her wishes. Our drive up was hellish, racked by torrential rains and minimal visibility, but the day of our ferry crossing was everything she wished for.
Butter Sauce for Seafood:
1 stick butter
Garlic powder, to taste
Tabasco, to taste
Melt butter in saucepan on range, low-medium. Add garlic powder while melting. (Let’s not remember the day years ago that I tried melting butter in the microwave. I’ve never seen such a mess!) Mix around with spatula.
Add Tobasco and mix around.
Serve just bubbly hot in a central location on your table, or give everyone their own tiny bowl of it.
In more recent years, I’ve discovered another decent dipping sauce: Lemon juice. Squeeze several lemons into a bowl or into individual small bowls. Dip away! A little garlic powder in this isn’t amiss.