Eating A First Whole Lobster

Left: The sign and some of the prices at Gurnet Trading Co. in Brunswick, Maine, where I had my first whole lobster that I actually enjoyed.

I had first attempted to eat lobster in May of 1991 at a popular seafood restaurant on the east coast. I won’t say which restaurant, as it’s still open at the time of this writing and they’re still serving lobster as they always have to happy customers. But to say that I was sorely disappointed is an understatement. I had no idea how to open the thing as it didn’t come with instructions, and the meat was not only a bit tough but rather rubbery as well. The flavor seemed “off”, not being anything like any crab I had ever eaten of any variety, including Chesapeake Bay blue crab, opilio, or King. I decided lobster is nothing more than an expensive way to eat melted butter.

I wasn’t about to give up though, and as time went on I attempted to enjoy lobster every chance I got. I rarely got back to the Atlantic shores very much so most of the lobster I tried was in the midwest. The classic preparation in the Michigan or Ohio is that of grilled lobster tails. They’re rarely fresh there, being processed and frozen raw on the coast before being shipped to frozen food distributors. At larger gatherings and restaurant buffets where they offer a “lobster bake” the lobsters arrive already boiled, packaged in individual nylon nets. They’re then thawed, the nets are removed, and the whole lobsters are boiled quickly for about another four minutes before serving.

The prices for both whole and cooked lobster at Gurnet’s in Brunswick, Maine, in late July 2018, and the frozen raw lobster tails and prices at a grocery store in the midwest in early August, two weeks later.

The day after we got to Maine in the spring of 2018 our daughter ordered a full twin lobster dinner at a restaurant that’s popular for such meals, Taste Of Maine in Woolwich. In the image slider on the Home page of this site you can see her kissing one of the cooked lobsters before breaking into them. But even having never tried lobster before, she ate both of those lobsters … Except for the two smallish chunks I’d snagged. Realizing lobster in Maine is far better then anything I’d tried in the past, over the next few months I ordered lobster rolls at places known for them as well. Having enjoyed every last lobster roll I tried, I began looking for a place to enjoy my first whole lobster.

The interior of Gurnet Trading Co.

One of the places I’d enjoyed a better lobster roll was at Gurnet Trading Co. in Brunswick. The tanks in their inside dining area were clean with numerous active lobsters in them, and the water was crystal clear. Each lobster in those tanks had a more brilliant and fresh coloring than those in tanks I’d seen all my life in the midwest in what now seemed like cloudy water. Gurnet’s also deals in other types of fresh seafood including mussels, clams, and the whole cleaned bodies of squid for use in calamari. The open kitchen and overall cleanliness of the place made it easier to decide this was where my first whole lobster would be.

The live lobster I chose for my lunch at Gurnet’s in early September 2018.

Left: My friend, my lunch.

On September 13th we were headed back from somewhere in Harpswell and decided to look for a place for lunch. I mentioned Gurnet’s to Mary and told her that was where I wanted to try my hand at cracking open and eating my first hole lobster. She understood and said that we should head right over there. It had been almost five months since our daughter had ordered the twin lobster meal in Woolwich, so honestly my first whole lobster was now long overdue. Heading into the restaurant I found that a delivery man, from one of the local lobsterman at the wharf down in Harpswell, was pulling live lobsters from the floating transport crates. The crates are used at sea to hold lobsters in the water after catching. They’re then stacked directly into trucks for transport to local dealers and restaurants.

As the delivery man told me, the lobsters he was moving from the crates to the scale, then into Gurnet’s tanks, had only been in the ocean about an hour before. I glanced at the one he had in his hand and said “Well, I’ll take that one.” He put the lobster on the scale, and I immediately took the above picture. He then took my camera and shot the photo of me holding the live lobster, which I then handed off to the cook who headed right to the stove.

My cooked whole lobster, fresh from the pot, almost too hot to touch.

About fifteen minutes later one of the staff came out with my lobster on a platter, which was labeled with instructions on how to open the lobster and enjoy what was inside. Knowing the meal was going to be a mess, I handed my camera off to Mary, read the instructions, and dug in.

Twisting the claws off was simple enough. I imagine the freshness of the lobster and the quickness of its cooking had something to do with it. But what I didn’t expect was how easily a lot of the lobster came apart. I’d heard stories of how difficult that might be, and how first-timers are generally made fun of when they can’t quite figure out what they’re doing. But that turned out not to be the case. In fact, I was honestly surprised when I was able to get the meat out of both claws intact.

The whole meat from one of the claws.

After finishing off the claws it took some finagling to get the tail extended to break it off. After removing the fins I once again figured I’d have a hard time getting the meat out of the tail with the provided plastic shellfish fork. So I held the tail as straight as I could, which wasn’t much, put the fork in the fin end, and gave it a shove. The meat actually slid right out, almost dropping onto the platter.

The whole tail meat and its shell. Some of the tomalley can be seen on the left of the meat.

The green tomalley was something I had been told by many in the midwest that I should avoid. Providing the functions of both the liver and the pancreas, it’s undertood the tomalley is where the largest concentrations of mercury will reside, if any. But to those in New England, particularly an old friend from my childhood who grew up in New Hampshire, the tomalley is a delicacy that is not to be missed. I happily followed the tradition of the locals. Overall, the tail meat was tougher than I expected, but it was only later that I found out why: I should have removed the top layer of meat, and then removed the digestive tract along the length of the tail similar to deveining a shrimp. But the instructions on the platter didn’t mention this, so I hadn’t known. The top and bottom meats of the tail are supposed to be more tender separately as well. I’ll find out next time.

Cracking open the body exposed a lot of other good meat, as well as more of the tomalley. I fished all of it out with my fingers, happily making a mess while avoiding the fork as most locals would. I tried sucking the meat from the legs but I either don’t have enough suction for that, or I just wasn’t doing it right. Again, maybe next time.

I came to the conclusion that the freshness of the lobster I chose, along with the rapid cooking technique by someone experienced in the craft, made for a considerably sweeter and more tender meat of this particular lobster. Throughout my meal I dipped come of the pieces into the melted butter, but for the most part I ate the meat as it was directly out of the shell. As I told the cook afterward, I could have happily eaten a second one if we weren’t on our way back to the apartment to take care of the dogs. Laughingly, she offered to cook one up for me to go.

I almost took her up on it.

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