210801scl lobsters

Tyrell Clarke, an employee of Narragansett Bay Lobsters Inc., and Chris Campanale, captain of the “Barbara Ann,” offload lobsters from the vessel on a recent summer afternoon in Galilee. Campanale, who emptied some 1,700 traps on this trip back, followed his family’s footsteps into the lobstering and trawling business.

In “Consider the Lobster,” author David Foster Wallace said, “Lobster is posh, a delicacy, only a step or two down from caviar.”

He offered that well-known sentiment in the August 2004 edition of Gourmet magazine.

It wasn’t always that way for these unsightly “cockroaches of the sea” that today have the revered reputation of being food of the well-off and bringing a chic sense of living when ordering it.

To understand the lobster is to know that this high-end menu item has an episodic journey in what could be a play titled “From Sea to Table.”

It is presented in various acts with this character from deep and dark ocean having a starring role. The production offers a final - and expensive - scene in a restaurant, home kitchen or other special event.

Let’s take a look at this drama “From Sea to Table” that captures the attention of so many lobster lovers.

 

The Play’s Background

We seldom think about how the food gets from its natural origin to our mouths. Gathered with friends around a table or perhaps just getting a bite to eat, we don’t have time - or real interest - in thoughts that might turn our stomachs.

However, the lobster has a storied role as a New England favorite in sea-to-table billing on the menu of restaurants, sand clambakes or festivals and special-treat or invitation-only meals for celebrations. It’s worth knowing a little bit about.

It once was not famous as today, but really the dredge from the ocean floor spit out for the poor.

When the first European settlers reached North America, they wrote that lobsters were so plentiful that piles of them two-feet high would be found ashore in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Gathered by hand along the shorelines in New England in the 1700s, they were cheap and plentiful. Rejected by the elite of the time, they became the diet of prisoners, apprentices, slaves and children during the Colonial era.

Some servants even sought stipulations in their work contracts that lobsters would be served only twice or at maximum three times a week.

People would bury lobster shells rather than throw them out with garbage. They wanted to keep them hidden from prying eyes of neighbors.

“Lobster shells about a house are looked upon as signs of poverty and degradation,” wrote John J. Rowan in 1876. Lobster was an unfamiliar, vaguely disgusting bottom feeding ocean dweller resembling an insect.

That’s how the nickname “cockroaches of the sea” was given. Its antennas, beady eyes on long, thin structures called stalks and fan-shaped tales don’t have even a slight look like clams, fish or scallops.

But like a bug? Yes.

The last 100 years, however, has brought it a prominence in line with jewels from Tiffany and a must-have item on the diet of the wealthy. They made the “sea-to-plate” production fashionable long before farm-to-plate entered the popular lexicon of trend-setting restaurants.

Shedding its negative reputation, the lobster gained a following among discriminating eaters, particularly in Boston and New York City, during the 1880s. That change put a higher price tag on the once cheap meal.

Considered exquisite by the time World War II began, lobster was not rationed. The booming wartime economy allowed rich cravers of crustaceans to consume them at unprecedented rates.

By the 1950s lobster was firmly established as a delicacy.

Lobster was something movie stars and those with delineating tastes, like food expert Maureen Kirkpartrick, would eat when they went out to dinner. “It was the sort of thing girls from new-rich families ordered for their weddings, something the wealthy Rockefellers served at their parties,” wrote Daniel Luzer in “How Lobster Got Fancy.”

Among many restaurants in South County serving this now sought-after shellfish is George’s of Galilee. It borders Point Judith Harbor overlooking the fishing docks where lobsters are brought to port. Patrons of the lobster can find any number of sizes at George’s and different ways to prepare them.

“We sell over 30,000 a year to customers and even have a September Lobsterfest,” said Kevin Durfee, owner of George’s.

But far from George’s - about 100 miles off shore near the continental shelf - the first act of “From Sea to Table”  begins and rivals the endurance now of the 54-year-old movie “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?”

 

Act I - Selecting the Main Character

On a recent very summer day, Tom LaFazia, manager of Galilee’s Narragansett Bay Lobsters, Inc., stood outside his processing depot. It was chilly inside and wafting with the smell of fresh fish amid crates of lobsters and tanks of 40-degree water holding the live delicacy for delivery.

“These boats are out often for a week at a time to pull up their traps and fill the hold with lobsters,” he said while standing next to the large black and white trawler “Barbara Ann.” Its white letters outlined in red stood out proudly against the black hull.

A large crest with a “C” on the bow implanted this boat’s family history. Owner Chris Campanale, 40, was waiting to unload lobsters emptied from his 1,700 traps during the last three days ago, stood watch. His family has been lobstering and trawling for over 50 years.

This day’s catch to be unloaded after a four-day continuous journey were kept alive in below-40-degree cooled fresh sea water resembling temperatures on the ocean floor where lobsters are found.

Skates, a particular kind of fish, are used as bait and hung in the trap or “pot” as they are sometimes called. The traps are put in certain sections, whether far off shore or closer to shore by lobstermen using skiffs. The traps have floating overhead markers for the owners to find them.

 The Campanale’s baited traps lure the lobsters inside.

“It becomes something of a pick ‘em up and put ‘em down when you are out there emptying traps one after the other,” said LaFazia, who also was a lobsterman before managing the company.

However, there limits to lobsters that can be kept.

All lobsters must be measured immediately. Any lobster with an carapace under 3 and 3/8-inches in length much be returned to the water, according to the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.  Lobsters are measured from the rear eye socket to another back point on the body.

A DEM checker passed by the Barbara Ann several times waiting to review the catch coming off the boat.

Once the lobsters are unloaded, LaFazia explained, they go into his holding area in crates. Bands are put on their claws before going into salt water tanks. From there, they are counted out for orders from restaurants, he said.

 

Act II - Performance Preparation

The next stop for many of the crustaceans is George’s, just across the street.  

Narragansett Bay Lobsters wheels the orders over by handcart to ensure both a quick and continuous supply as well as a fresh catch for customers.

It’s also the restaurant’s way, said Durfee, to help reduce a carbon foot print. By using local businesses, there’s fossil fuel reduction and that is his contribution.  

“There are days we will do 100 to 150 lobster tails in a hour. It’s insane,” said Mike Tatro, assistant to the general manager at George’s. The lobsters served can go from one and a quarter pounds up to three or four pounds on special orders, he said.

Waiting customers have hand-held crackers to open the shell and remove the pink and white “meat” found in tails and claw parts. However, it isn’t just a matter of steaming their lobsters and serving them in bright red shells.

“We have a lot of ways that we serve up lobster,” Tatro said. Here are a few of them.

He said the top three popular ways are: traditional steamed with French fries and coleslaw. There’s also baked stuffed lobster with seafood stuffing and a choice of sides and -  the crown jewel - Galilee baked stuffed lobster with scallops, shrimp and topped with lobster bisque.

“That last one is just a calorie-busting lobster feast,” Tatro said with a smile and nod to those who indulge even just once or twice a year.

At George’s, as in similar restaurants, lobster lovers also get special promotions. For Instance,  the grand finale of summer brings on “Lobsterfest” in September.

Durfee pointed out that the fest is both a “Welcome Back” to local residents who have deferred going out to eat during the summer when tourists pack food establishments. It’s also a “Hello” to those fall tourists coming to explore South County in the off season.

During the fest, twin and triplet lobsters below market price are offered along with lobster grilled cheese, buckets of claws, lobster avocado toast, lobster risotto, lobster beignet with grilled corn and tomatoes and other dishes that hype the crustacean, said Tatro.

Personal passions or cravings of frequent-flier lobster eaters get attention, too.

Tatro said that there’s a 50-50 split between customers who like to crack the hard lobster shell themselves and have fun working to pry out meat themselves. The other half wants restaurant staff to tug, pull and torque out the rich-tasting meat that has far less marine gaminess when comparing it to clams and mussels.

LaFazia at Narragansett Bay Lobsters said that soft-shell and hard-shell lobsters also bring out different preferences among connoisseurs of lobster meat.

“With the soft shell you don’t need a hammer to get into the thing,” he said with a laugh, noting that the soft shell appears as a lobster molts and loses its hard shell.

Satisfying the many people who like lobster is something Barbara Ann owner Campanale said gives him pride when spending a string of days hauling the crates up and down to remove his catch that to goes to the customers sitting down to a lobster dinner.  

 

Act III - Show Time

One of those customers is Brian Burke, 36, of Wakefield. He has a love for fine dining on lobster about anywhere he can get it. He’s also a regular visitor to George’s.

On a recent day he was getting his napkin and utensils ready to cut into and munch on some lobster truffle.

Growing up in Rhode Island has helped make lobster, his favorite dish, though as a little kid it seemed “like I was eating a big bug. It weirded me out!” he said.

Now he gets lobster whenever he can. “It’s just unique. It doesn’t taste like anything else. It’s dipped in butter and fresh lobster has a sweet flavor and it’s not chewy. It goes down smoothly,“ he said.

So, what is that taste like? Well, say those who prepare or eat lobsters, that depends on a number of factors.

Its lean meat brings the sweetness and there’s the crispiness of the tendons’ fiber. Both give it that special designation as a delicacy.

Comparisons have been made to crab and shrimp, yet that might not be accurate. Lobster tends to be chewier with high protein creating a spongy texture.

There’s also the way it is cooked. Fried, grilled, sauteed, smoked, steamed and boiled as well as marinaded in seasonings, all bring a medley of tastes.  A sweet and salty sensation comes with boiling while steamed brings sweet and tender.

Traditional soaking in butter moistens the plied out meat even further to highlight the flavor.

Although considered a rich and decadent food, lobster meat contains fewer calories than an equal portion of skinless chicken breast. It also boasts of healthy omega-3 fatty acids, potassium and the vitamins E, B-12 and B-6.

While Burke likes getting his nutrition, he said he mostly savors that extra bit of decadence, such as in George’s Lobster truffle. It’s his favorite and Durfee shared how that dish all goes together.

Prep and cook time is under 25 minutes for a serving size of two portions, the long-time restaurant owner said.

Ingredients: 9 oz lobster meat (the equivalent of two 1 ½ lb lobsters);  4 oz asparagus tips; 1 tsp minced garlic; 5 oz cannellini beans; 3 tbl olive oil; 1 tsp of truffle oil; 3 oz sundried tomatoes; 9 oz bucatini pasta; 5 oz heavy cream; 1 oz grated parmesan cheese; sea salt and pepper.

Steps: Sauté garlic, sundried tomatoes and asparagus tips in olive oil for five minutes over medium heat. Add lobster meat and cannellini beans and cook for an additional four minutes. Add heavy cream, truffle oil and parmesan cheese.

Turn heat to low and allow sauce to thicken. Fold bucatini into the sauce. Garnish with garlic toast.

Served on a dish and ready to eat without effort.

“I am a ‘lazy man’ lobster kind of guy. Cracking the shell - it’s too messy, and that’s why I like the truffle dish,” said Burke, who said he eats lobster that way either alone or in the intimate supper à deux.

 

Act IV - Epilogue

Lobster might seem to taste better to us because it’s so expensive, wrote Daniel Luzer in “How Lobster Got Fancy.”

This year there’s definitely truth to it.

Lobster is more expensive than usual this season due to a limited supply from high demand coming with the reopening of the economy post-pandemic. Consumers are headed back to seafood restaurants and markets for the first time in months.

Lobsters are there to greet their devotees, but at a premium, according to various media reports from around New England.

Some stores charged $17 or $18 per pound for live lobster in May, and that was about twice the price a year ago. Prices are now lingering in the $13 or $14 range. Lobster is usually expensive in late spring, but this season has seen prices that are higher than typical, those reports noted.

It is important to note that the per-pound charge includes a shell and other parts that are discarded. Actual lobster meat is far less. For example, for every pound of shell lobster, you only get about one-quarter pound of meat.

Translated into a food dish, a lobster roll with five to six ounces of lobster meat could need at least two shell lobsters to make,  depending on their size.

The wholesale price in early spring for live, 1.25-pound lobsters in the New England market was $9.01 per pound, about $2.70 per pound more than a year earlier. It is reported to be the highest spring price in at least five years.

High lobster prices indicate the high demand for the high-end seafood, said John Sackton, an industry analyst and founder of SeafoodNews.com.

“It’s become a summer time thing - people get an ear of corn, some steamers and a lobster, at least here in Rhode Island,” George’s Tatro said.

Customer Burke doesn’t think about any of it. He gave his thoughts in a Dr. Suess rhyme from the author’s well-known book, “Green Eggs and Ham.”.

“I’ll eat it in Spain, or riding a train and I’ll eat lobster when sunny or in the rain. But lobsters are better than green eggs, even if plain,” he said. 

Write to Bill Seymour, freelance writer covering news and feature stories, at independent.southcountylife@gmail.com.

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