Down East 2013 ©
On Matinicus Island, making lobster chowder is generally a man’s work.
The lobsterman who lives across the road was taking up traps a few days ago, as most do ahead of the worst of the winter. There are two widely-held misconceptions, by the way, which I keep hearing: either that we are not permitted to catch lobsters all winter, because there is some sort of limited season (that would be Monhegan you’re thinking of,) or that if fishermen may fish all year, then they will of course do so. No. Many haul out their boats and gear for annual maintenance and consider a vacation, long or short, if that year’s money permits. Even those who keep going all winter usually back off a bit. They have to. These guys are not, however, removing their traps from the water under anybody’s orders. Don’t be ridiculous.
Anyway, Dennis gave Paul a few lobsters. We didn’t choose to have lobster for New Year’s, it just worked out. My year-round island household does not shelter even one lobsterman. Mainlanders ask me all the time if I eat a lot of lobster, living on Matinicus. We eat this delicacy, I try to explain, when it is issued us. Once in a while is plenty. The iconic bright red whole lobster on a plate is less a treat here than an expediency. Sometimes it’s cheaper than hot dogs, but that’s a subject for another time. In terms of lobster as a luxury, I have become entirely spoiled; lobster available anywhere else is so far inferior that I generally refuse it. The couple of “bugs” in a scaly old bucket left on the doorstep in trade for sticky buns or a tow out of the ditch taste far better than anything you’ll ever get in a restaurant.
By the way, forget that pretentious nonsense about “drawn” butter. Who ever heard of such a thing? Just melt the butter. If we’re exchanging recipes, allow me to interject that actually boiling your lobsters is a waste of time. It takes forever to bring a huge kettle of water to boil, when all you need is an inch or two of water in the pot. They steam. Item the third: if you are reading this somewhere far away, remember—every time you see a red lobster, it is a cooked lobster (with one-in-a-million genetic exceptions, but for that matter, they come in bright blue or two-tone right down the middle as well. They do.) Those people in red lobster costumes, moving around? Nope.
The best thing to do with lobsters is to make lobster chowder. Make plenty; it just gets better for a couple of days. Around here, making chowder is often the man’s work. The best chowders I have ever had anywhere have all been built on Matinicus by Matinicus fishermen. The exception that proves the rule is Janan’s haddock chowder, although I am certain that she learned at her father’s knee, not from Martha Stewart. There are quite a few excellent cooks on this island, as I have mentioned before, and by no means is that skill limited to the women. As far as the seafood cooking goes, the guys have it hands down. When I was the teacher here in 1987 I was invited to an island wedding, at which the primary solid refreshment was an enormous chowder of short lobsters, other seafood, and copious amounts of cream. The rummy old geezers who cooked it in Max Ames’ kitchen hardly looked like something off the Food Channel. It was absolutely the best I’d ever had. We’ve joked for several years about having a church supper where only the men cook. Maybe we should stop joking.
Anyway, given my own particular history of choosing less-than-classically-feminine hobbies, I figured I could manage to construct an adequate lobster chowder. A decent lobster chowder by Matinicus standards, of course, will mean a very good lobster chowder. The bar is set pretty high.
(There is also the fact that a mess of chowder sounded awfully good for after my little swim in the ocean on New Year’s Day, but that is another story.)
We own all three of the Matinicus community cookbooks (published in the early 1970’s, ‘80’s and ‘90s) and although I basically know how to make chowder, when the time came to cook this up I figured there would be no harm in checking to see if some local experts might offer any particular special advice. I thought there would be dozens of recipes for chowder in the Matinicus Cookbooks from which to glean tips. Not so. In the most recent book I found exactly one recipe, submitted as it happened by my mother-in-law, which assumed (a bit apologetically) that you might be stuck with nothing but fake crabmeat, which is some kind of extruded fish product. The note at the end assures the reader that this is just a substitute “if you can’t get some fresh Matinicus lobsters or crab claws.” Right. In the 1980’s book, I saw recipes for lots of crabmeat goodies…hot dips and au gratins and quiches and such. I did find “Mrs. Bunker’s Lobster Chowder,” but reading it indicated that Mrs. Bunker assumed that you already knew how to make lobster chowder. In the earliest island cookbook, the chowder department yielded nothing whatsoever. I suppose the reasoning was that nobody would actually require a recipe for something as ubiquitous and logical as chowder.
I tend to agree with that latter sentiment. The other reality might be that the men, being the chowder makers, neither wrote down recipes nor contributed, in those days, to community cookbooks
Herewith, I offer my method. With this dish we celebrated New Year’s Day and looked forward to the leftovers. Thanks again, Dennis.
Lobster Chowder Recipe
Cook your lobsters, and cool enough to handle. Remove meat. For this recipe, I used a strong 1½ pounds of meat. Most people toss the shells in the road. May be advisable to stomp shells if for some reason questionable. You know what I mean. We don’t do this because Paul’s dog once got hurt eating tossed-out lobster shells so he dumps ours back overboard.
Peel a strong 3 pounds potatoes (I had 3 pounds of potato after peeling) and slice them to different thicknesses, between ½” and quite thin. Slice 2 or 3 onions thinly. Place these in a large pot (I used a Dutch oven). Cover with just enough water to cook…I used 6 cups. Boil until larger potatoes are done.
Meanwhile, cut up lobster meat and sauté briefly in at least 1½ sticks butter. Use real butter.
When potatoes are soft, dump the lobster and butter into the potato pot. Add ½ teaspoon salt, ¼ teaspoon pepper, and 2 cups half-and-half. Combine and LEAVE IT. Put it somewhere cool and wait until the next day to eat.
Re-heat carefully without boiling or scorching. You will likely want more salt and pepper. One of the fishermen suggests paprika and garlic powder. You can use evaporated milk or a combination of milk and cream. You might include scallops or shrimps (the little kind). You might fry up some little pork scraps and toss them in before serving. Those are good. Don’t get complicated.
Eva Murray would like to thank Vance Bunker.