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Lobster Tales

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Lobster Tales

History of Lobstering  |  Lobsters of a Different Color  | How to Order a Lobster | How to Cook a Lobster  |  Eat a Lobster Like a Pro

The History of Lobstering in Maine

"And towards night, we drew with a small net of twenty fathoms very nigh the shore; we got about thirty very good and great lobsters ... which I omit not to report because it showeth how great a profit fishing would be ..."

These words, penned by John Rosier—explorer, chronicler, sailor, and fisherman—while traveling on the 1605 coastal exploration of Maine with British Captain George Waymouth—are the first known written record of a Maine lobster catch. They may also have been the first economic forecast for what would become one of the world’s longest-lived, most well-known, and most productive lobster fisheries. Today, those prophetic words ring true in what is now the state’s billion-dollar-a-year lobster industry. During the past 150 years, the humble lobster has proven a lead actor in the story of Maine. Despite their popularity, lobsters are quirky creatures. Their anatomy is rife with mysteries and live an independent existence, preferring a dark huddle among seabed rocks over a day at the beach. All of this aside, the Maine lobster has become an unmistakable (and unmistakably delicious) icon.

Caption: Burnham & Morrill Red Jacket Brand Lobster took home a won a gold medal in Paris in 1878. In 1913 as canned lobster and other canned foods fell out of favor, the company pivoted canning operations to focus its efforts on establishing a Boston Baked Beans line. The B&M (as in baked beans) factory in Portland only just recently closed. Image courtesy of Maine State Archives.
Burnham & Morrill Red Jacket Brand Lobster Image courtesy of Maine State Archives.

A star was boiled!

The path to icon status was not easy for the lobster. Native Americans along the New England Coast had only two uses for the piles of lobsters that were sometimes swept into the shallow waters along Maine’s rocky shores: food and fertilizer. This was likely because as experience had told them, a deceased lobster begins to decompose almost as soon as it dies. So a pile of soon-to-be odiferous lobsters sitting in the summertime sun left our forebears the option of hosting a massive lobster feast of making fertilizer. And so it was that until logistics and processing caught up with demand, lobster remained a local delicacy for the 150 years following Rosier’s historical catch. 

POUND FOR POUND, HOW Lobstering changed FOREVER.

Well-smacks, an early lobster boat with a storage area below the waterline suitable for keeping lobsters during transit to Boston, had been in use since the 1840s. This shipping method allowed Maine lobsters to arrive alive and ready for sale to hungry customers in Boston and New York. But it was not until 1875, and with the wisdom (and moxie) that only a lobsterman possesses, when Maine’s first lobster pound was built.

By 1885, the Maine coast was home to eight other lobster pounds of similar scope. At the same time, under harsh criticism and concerns about overfishing, several fishery conservation efforts came into effect to protect the industry. These conservation laws and changing food trends led to the closure of the last Maine lobster cannery in 1895. Many now believe it was those early conservation practices that fostered a lasting culture of self-policing and sustainability; practices which allowed the Maine lobster industry to become a profitable model of sustainability. Without knowing it, these original lobstermen and entrepreneurs laid the groundwork for elevating the dark-hued spiny-shelled lobster to icon status while forever binding it with Maine’s cultural identity.

Maine lobstermen are a hearty breed.
"If the good Lord made anything better than lobster, he kept it for himself."
- Jason Gross, Stonington; Maine Lobsterman

Lobsters of Another Color

Scroll over the images below to learn about the rare color varieties of Homarus Americanus that get pulled out of the cold North Atlantic waters of the Maine coast.

Blue

Odds of Capture: 1:2,000,000

A blue lobster turns up in the traps of a Maine lobsterman roughly every other year. North of the border, Nova Scotia lobstermen, think of the capture of a blue lobster the same way many think of a four-leaf clover; as a sign of good luck.

Live Red

Odds of Capture: 1:10,000,000

Dining on crabs and shrimp, the very rare naturally red lobster becomes even more brilliantly red-colored. One such specimen arrived in a shipment to a New York City restaurant; rather than cook the rarity, the feisty red lobster was donated to a Long Island Aquarium.

Yellow

Odds of Capture: 1:30,000,000

While the food they eat can play an essential role in their coloration, color-morphed lobsters, like yellow, are often inherited traits. The most famous Maine yellow lobster, "Banana," was caught in Tenants Harbor in February 2021 and now makes its home at UNE’s Marine Science Center in Biddeford.

Orange

Odds of Capture: 1:30,000,000

In July, 2022 a bright orange lobster, now called "Cheddar," was pulled from the Gulf of Maine (it then traveled to a Red Lobster restaurant in Hollywood, Florida). Orange lobsters like "Cheddar" lack normal lobster pigmentation, a genetic defect which allows the orange carotenoid pigmentation to emerge.

Calico

Odds of Capture: 1:30,000,000

More often than not, the rare calico gets mistaken for a standard lobster. This extraordinarily rare coloration is not as distinct as the other more brilliant color-morphs, allowing the lobsters to make it all the way to the kitchen before being spared.

Split-Color

Odds of Capture: 1:50,000,000

The most commonly caught split-color lobster is the Orange and Black "Halloween" variety. In theory, splits can be a combo of any colors. With a perfectly straight dividing line right down the middle of the back and tail and a claw of each color, these creepy crustaceans are a true freak of nature.

Cotton Candy

Odds of Capture: 1:100,000,000

A cotton candy lobster’s coloration comes from the pink and blue cast under its mostly translucent shell. In 2019, one Oregon lobsterman managed to capture the same cotton candy lobster twice in one month. Named “Lucky,” the fortunate lobster was kept the second time and given a new home at an aquarium.

Albino

Odds of Capture: 1:100,000,000

While all other color-morph lobsters have an imbalance in the proteins that make up their coloration, those with albinism lack all color proteins. The most recent Maine albino lobster was captured in 2018 by a Stonington lobsterman.

OVER $1 Billion Sold.

Over the last 14 years, the economic impact of all lobster related (not including restaurant sales) has grown each year and now contributes over $1 Billion to the Maine economy yearly. This massive number (split 75/25%) comes from the 6,000 lobstermen (a number that has only grown by 1/3 in over a century) and the 4,000 jobs in logistics, marketing, finance, and engineering held by Maine people. 

An Iconic American Experience

A recently conducted informal study (around the author’s office) resulted in a list of just three other US states with a cultural identity so bound together with an animal as Maine’s is to the lobster (sorry, moose). These include Texas and the longhorn steer, Wisconsin and the American badger, and Florida and the American alligator. While we have shown that the “Maine” moniker is hard to separate from lobster, it happens. Each year, hundreds of tons of Gulf of Maine lobsters are air freighted to China. Alas, those Maine caught lobsters have come to be known as “Boston lobster” likely for the simple reason that they they arrive in containers clearly labeled with the name of the shipment’s city of origin. Go figure. 
Blue Lobster Icon

Let's Learn How to Order a Maine Lobster

Freshly caught lobster is about as classic a Maine summertime meal as it gets. Some like a lobster feed at their campsite or on their deck after a day out exploring with friends. A great way to do that is to stop at the lobster pound and have them steam them up for you. Die-hard Maine lobster fans will buy them live and boil them up themselves.

The only better thing is having someone do the hard part for you at a restaurant. If you don’t want to look like a tourist when you place your order, we have some helpful tips that will have you order lobster like a pro in no time.

Maine Lobster Shore Dinner
Shore Dinner

The classic order! A shore dinner comes complete with a 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 pound lobster, some corn on the cob, a small bag of steamer clams (small soft-shelled clams), and some new potatoes, salty, crispy fries, or chips. On the side, you'll find some drawn butter, crackers and picks to get the meat out, and a jaunty plastic lobstah bib.

Enjoy a Lazy Man's Lobster Dinner
Lazy Man's Lobster

It's in the name. This choice is all the salty-sweet goodness of a Shore Dinner with a fraction of the work. First, the staff cooks the lobster (typically in a large steamer contraption), then they do all the hard work of cracking the claws, knuckles, and tail—leaving the meat in place. Finally, the whole thing is served up with sides, butter, and usually no bib.

Maine Lobster Roll to Go
Lobster Roll

Fan-favorite. Take a top-loader bun, which looks a little like a slice of white bread molded into a bun shape, then toast it up and fill it with cooked chunks of the lobster's claw, knuckle, and tail meat. Those are the fundamentals. The tricky part can be figuring out whether you want it hot vs. cold. A hot lobster roll is a symphony of drawn butter, salt and pepper, and lobster. On the other hand, it's mayonnaise, a little seasoning, and loads of fresh lobster meat that make up a cold lobster roll.

Dropping a lobster in the pot.

Get Cooking

Boil them, steam them. But, whatever you do, please don’t drown them.

Ok, it may seem a touch dramatic. But whether it’s storing lobsters to eat later or when you are ready to cook them go with a light hand on the H2O. Bringing home lobsters from the pound can be a thrilling affair. Make sure to look in the bag before you stick in your hand as those tight rubber bands on their claws can sometimes come loose—the author speaks from experience. Once they are out of the bag (most likely into the kitchen sink), resist the urge to give them a “bath” to keep them happy. It’s the best way to send them to a quick and watery grave as they lack the physiology to survive in fresh water.

All you will need is two to three inches of well-salted water (or, even better use seawater) in the bottom of a broad and sturdy pot. Anything more, and you’ll be serving a waterlogged lobster. Do it like the pros at the pound and bring that salty water to a rolling boil, drop the critters in the steamy bath and cover them up. No, a rattling lid isn’t a lobster trying to escape. In about 10 to 12 minutes, your lobsters will be ready to come out, all red, steamy, and cooked to perfection.

Eat a Lobster Like a Pro

Hover over each number below to reveal some tips and tricks for eating a whole boiled lobster like a Mainer. Plus a few thoughts on what to order along side it for the full dining experience.

Lobster Shore Dinner and all the fixings
1

Claws First:

– Twist the claws off of the freshly cooked lobster.

– Pull each claw down and away from the body to remove it at the base of each claw.

– Separate the claw from the knuckle.

– Use a cracker (the v-shaped tool) to break the claw and knuckle open.

– Remove the meat with fingers, fork, or pick.

– Dip in melted butter (optional) and eat.

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2

Move on to the Tail:

–Separate the tail from the body by bending it up and away from the body in a twisting motion.

– Remove the tail fins from the end.

– Crack the tail in half (the long way) by pushing down on it on a firm surface or slice it open with a sharp knife down the center.

– Then, using a fork, remove the meat from the tail in one piece.

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3

Explore the Body:

– Pluck off the little legs and save them for the last step.

– Remove the shell from the back of the body (carapace). Pick out any pieces of white meat that you can find. There is a lot more there than you may think.

– To get to the meat in the cracks and crevices, you may have to move some orange or green stuff out of the way. If you find an orange mass inside the body, those are lobster roe (eggs); the mushy green matter is called the tomalley. Not everyone likes how the roe and tomalley taste; others consider them delicacies.

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4

The Last Morsels:

– Finally, if you aren’t stuffed, try the walking legs—those are the four small ones on each side.

– It is easy to simply suck the meat out of the legs or use a pick to work out the meat from the legs.

– If you want to show off a bit, use a bottle or rolling pin to push out the meat like a pro.

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5

Tools

– Used to crack open hard-shelled lobsters it is formed to the shape of the lobster claw and legs in order to easily grasp the hard-surfaced area.

– Be sure you have a lot of napkins or paper towels handy. 

 

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Sides

– Butter and lobster are like Oreos and milk; they are yummy and go perfectly together. 

– Coleslaw is a classic lobster side dish. It’s crunchy, light, slightly sweet, and tangy.

– Corn on the cob often boiled alongside the lobster, is also great with butter. Bonus: during late July and August, it is often fresh from a nearby farm.

– French Fries, crispy and salty, are always on the menu when you are at a seafood restaurant. Some offer options, such as onion rings, dinner rolls, cheesy biscuits, or homemade potato salad.

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© 2021 The Maine Beaches Association

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