James Beard Award-winning chef, Karen Akunowicz, heads to Spruce Head Harbor, Maine to join …
Bringing in the Gear and Celebrating the Holidays
As winter bears down on the Maine coast, talk among lobstermen has turned to bringing in gear. While some lobstermen fish all winter, most wind down by late December. It took me a little while to work out what “bringing gear in” meant, but once I figured it out, it seemed absurdly obvious. The “gear” refers to what most of us might simply call traps. When you’re involved with bringing the gear in, however, you quickly see why it’s called gear – there are the traps, sometimes two or three to a trawl, or in Casco Bay 10 or 20, then the lines that connect them together (groundlines), the endlines (the long lines connecting the buoys to the end traps), and of course the buoys themselves. Each trap needs to be untied, stacked on the stern, and all the rope coiled and sorted according to length. Depending on the size of the boat, anywhere between 60 and 100 traps can be stacked and brought in at one time. Once the gear is in, it must be unloaded on the dock and then moved to wherever it will be stored for the winter. With an 800 trap limit, it’s a long process, especially given that the weather windows become fewer and fewer: what may seem like a beautiful clear late fall day ashore can often mean 25 or 30 knot winds with seas on the water.
It was late November when I went hauling with Danny Miller, the eldest of the Miller siblings. I had gone with Peter, one of Danny’s four brothers, on a balmy August day – which on this November morning felt a lifetime ago. A heavy frost coated the dock, the water in the bottom of the skiff, left from a rain a few days earlier, had frozen. Cold aside, the forecast called for winds of only 10-15 knots, an ideal weather window, and as we headed out, the day broke crystal clear. We hauled through the morning and into the early afternoon when we began picking up gear. Danny brought each trap up and while he was untying the trap, I picked any lobsters out and removed the bait bag. Once the trap was untied, I carried it to the stern. Then came the coiling of the lines. I was pretty handy with coiling and knots from years of sailing, but I felt as though I’d never coiled a line in my life. The coils were small, and the knots used to tie them off foreign to me. If my dive into the world of lobstering had taught me anything it was that there was always more to learn. Invariably as I gained confidence in my ability to be a help rather than a hindrance, I would encounter something else I didn’t know. I decided to leave the coiling and the tying to Danny and Mallory, his stern(girl), I could only imagine the mess I might create with fathoms and fathoms of line when the time came to uncoil and reset the traps in the spring.
Traps aboard, we headed in. It was mid afternoon, but the sun was low in the sky and its relative warmth waning. Frost on the dock, ice in the skiff, shortened daylight, narrow weather windows, and gear coming in – the season was winding down. Soon it would be time for winter maintenance: trap repair, buoy painting and line splicing. But first: holiday celebrations.
A few days before I went hauling with Danny, I had a chance to sit down with Peter Miller who shared not only the Miller family recipe for lobster stew, but the Christmas Eve tradition this large family has maintained for generations. As an only child, I have always been convinced that lacking siblings, I was somehow missing out on something around the holidays – Peter’s rendering confirmed these suspicions.
The Millers hail originally from Cape Porpoise, Maine. In the late 70s Anne and Red Miller relocated to Tenants Harbor, their 9 children following suit. I worked for Mrs. Miller at Cod End, the fish market she owned which serviced pleasure boats cruising into Tenants Harbor. I was the girl who carried the ice down to the boats, helped them fuel up and ran a lobster delivery service from the market. I knew virtually all the Miller children, though they were considerably older than I was, or so it seemed at the time. When they came to Tenants Harbor, they brought with them their longstanding family tradition of a Christmas Eve gathering featuring lobster stew.
“As far back as I can remember, we’ve always had lobster stew on Christmas Eve,” Peter told me. “My mother always made it, and family as well as friends would stop in – it’s more like an open house, with people coming and going.”
We were sitting in the wharf office, above the bait storage, and the smell of the bait permeated the air. It was just coming on dusk with the temperature dropping, and even with the heater on, the office was cold. Listening to Peter though, I could envision the large open fireplace in Hale and Joan’s house where the gathering is now held, people coming in from a bitter December night to the aromatic kitchen — family and friends sharing the evening and the pot of lobster stew.
“Back when my parents were alive, there were years we’d use an entire crate of lobsters for the stew, now I use about 40 pounds, which yields between 8-10 pounds of lobster meat. It’s better if it sits for a night, or even two.” Clearly there was no “recipe” per se, but he walked me through cooking the lobsters, sautéing them in butter, adding the black pepper, whole milk and cream. “I took over making the stew some years before my mother passed away,” Peter told me. “My siblings and their families all come, and all the grandchildren, friends, it’s very casual” he said.
I was spending Christmas in Tenants Harbor with my own family but after hearing about the Miller family Christmas Eve, my only-child envy kicked in. We’d have our own traditions – indeed I had planned to attempt making a lobster stew myself as my father always had. But I knew no matter how good the stew, and no matter how cozy the evening, it would pale in comparison to what the Millers would put on.
That night, after I put my kids to bed, I found a group text message on my phone – many of the numbers I didn’t recognize. Scrolling to the top I read the following from Peter’s younger brother Hale: “Hi all, we will be hosting Christmas Eve here this year. Please feel free to invite your family and friends. We expect to start around 1700. Look forward to seeing everyone that can make it. Hale.”
Perhaps, I thought, I would wait another year before attempting the lobster stew on my own.
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