MY LIFE AMONG LOBSTERS by Gretchen Vanesselstyn
I DON’T REMEMBER my first taste of lobster, but I can picture it. That phrase, “my first taste of lobster,” probably conjures visions of a child in an antique highchair, lace napkin tucked under her chin, a buttery silver spoon bearing an ivory morsel perched at her waiting, ruby lips. Instead it was a bit of rubbery claw meat, dangled from my father’s rough hand, his blue eyes watching to see if I was a true lobsterman’s daughter, or a mere landlubber. Legend has it that I laughed, and asked for more, thus cementing my fate, my life among lobsters.
peg into each claw’s hinge so it couldn’t snap shut. He’d bait the pot with a chunk of mackerel or bunker, then toss it back over the side. Sometimes the trap would be empty. Other times a spider crab or two–terrifying creatures with foot-long, eager claws–would wait inside. At the first sight of these sea monsters, I would run to the bow and hide my eyes until Dad said “All clear.” But I was never afraid of lobsters. Back at home, I’d watch them try to fight, try to snap me, each other, anyone. They were angry to be out in the fresh air, but a short, hot bath took care of that. We ate them boiled with melted butter,
In fact, the truth is somewhere in between. My father, despite his most fervent desires, was a paper execu- tive. Weekdays he would mull new cup designs, sit through meetings about desirable colors and scents for toilet tissue. But on summer nights and weekends, he got to take off his business suit, pull on his cutoffs, his stained T-shirt, and bait-shop hat, and pretend. The corporate world has its rewards: stable hours, decent pay- check, walls to shield you from the cold wind. But you really feel like a provider when you haul up a big load and hear the approving grunts of your fellow fishermen as you carry the pails down the dock. You lay them out on the lawn, just for show, then haul them into the house, where your city- born wife waits knowingly with a pot of boiling water and a pound of but- ter. Beats bringing home a piece of paper any day.
corn and potatoes on the side. As a young child I learned to break open lobster shells and extract the meat without using tools, though crackers and picks were always available for guests. Snapping off the tail plates, then pushing my fingers into the niche to force out the meat is a party trick that still impresses, though people now figure that I learned it in cooking school. Rejecting the disgusting green goo in the body cavity, we ate claws and tail first, then sucked the juice from the small, prickly legs. In summer, we ate from the sea. Huge bluefish steaks, whole roast- ed striped bass, tiny deep-fried snappers, and whole dynasties of lobsters fed the VanEsselstyns year after year. From May through Sep-
tember, we lived the life of kings, the life of lobstermen. The rest of the year, Mom got dinner on the table every evening after teaching first-graders all day. Because she attended graduate school at night and raised us two kids, dinner was mostly Hamburger Helper, SPAM, and boxed macaroni and cheese. But it was dinner, and we liked it, and let’s forgive those meals for the sin they seem now to be, the heart surgery they brought my father, the thirty extra pounds that stick to my frame no matter what I do. Dad ate strange concoctions: jellied consommé from the Campbell’s can, which was kept in the refrigera- tor, topped with Worcestershire sauce; peanut butter, mayo, and ketchup sandwiches; and hardboiled eggs sliced into a bowl, topped with a gener- ous spoonful of mayo and a sprinkling of cornflakes. My brother David liked fried eggs, I liked scrambled. For four
It was the 1970s, and Long Island Sound was still rich with food: bluefish, fluke, weakfish, stripers. We had twelve pots in the water, which meant three or four lobster dinners a week in the high season. The sum- mer days were long, spent waiting to hear Dad’s car pull into the drive- way, then waiting again until we were out on the water, salt splashing on my face, wind tangling my hair. We’d cruise up to one of the empty bleach bottles that marked our pots, and the anticipation would build as I watched my father’s tan, muscled arms work, pulling up the line and resting the pot on the boat’s ledge. Sometimes we’d bring up a pot teeming with them. Dad sized them, checked for eggs, and tossed the illegals back over the side. The legal ones would go in the boat, and I’d hold my breath as he forced a white, ribbed
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