The text read: “Friday looks like a day if you’re available. 5:30 at the dock.” …
Easterlies, Lobster Chowder and the Art of Pie Making
Not long ago I had the good fortune to receive an invitation to join longtime fisherman Gordon (“Skip”) Connell for supper. He promised to make lobster chowder (not to be confused with lobster stew!).
There had been a raw easterly breeze blowing all day long and I had spent much of the day messing around with boats, winterizing a camp, and otherwise getting cold and wet. By the time I showed up (late) for supper, I had a good appetite, and when I walked into the house, the sweet briny smell of freshly cooked lobsters met me at the door.
I knew Skip reasonably well; we had worked on several projects together over the past few months and had driven up and back to Stonington together, a ride long enough to get to know someone fairly well. He was a third generation fisherman working out of Spruce Head and Pleasant Island, which his family owned. Over the time I’d known him, I’d been continually amazed by his ability to fix or build virtually anything. His maritime knowledge was eclectic and far reaching. His skills, I suspected (hoped), extended to the kitchen.
When I arrived, he greeted me warmly and introduced me to Richard (Dicky) Waldron, a friend of his who had stopped over, also a Spruce Head fisherman, now retired, but still hand-hauling. The cooked lobsters were in the sink and the three of us crowded round to begin picking the meat out. My hunger got the better of me and I kept eating the legs, which I knew would not be used in the chowder. I felt a little like Sal, in the classic book Blueberries for Sal, pick a few, eat a few. The lobsters were mostly New Shells. “It’s unusual to see such nice shedders (as New Shells are colloquially called) this time of year,” Dicky observed as we finished picking the meat out. It was true: most lobsters shed their shells in summer, and by this time of year, the shells were typically pretty hard.
After the lobsters were picked and the meat set aside (with the shells in a bucket for the chickens), we moved onto cutting onions and potatoes. As I set to work (“Merritt, try to cut them so they are sort of the same size, otherwise we’ll get some that are mush and others that are like rocks”), Skip’s mother, a spritely woman in her 70s stopped in for a visit. She and Dicky had gone to school together and the house we were in was the one Skip had grown up in. There was a familiarity among the people and the place I took comfort in, and I listened intently as Skip and his mother recounted spending summers living on Pleasant Island. “We had everything out there then, pony, goats, chickens.”
It wasn’t long before Skip, Dicky, and I sat down to our steaming bowls of chowder. “This will be better tomorrow,” Skip noted, “after it has time to set, but it should be alright for tonight.” Alright it was. I virtually inhaled my first bowl and didn’t slow down much when I got to my second. The difference between a lobster stew and a lobster chowder is that a chowder has potatoes, onions and, in this case, corn, where a stew just has lobster in a cream base. I had always been a chowder fan; corn chowder, fish chowder, I love the heartiness of it. And with the easterly still blowing hard outside and my day of work behind me, nothing could have been better – except possibly the conversation that accompanied the meal. Skip has a fairly strong Maine accent (“I don’t pronounce my Rs,” he told me once with a wry smile) and I was so busy eating I didn’t say too much, but I thoroughly enjoyed the easy banter between lifelong friends. Dicky extolled the use of Ritz crackers to make a lobster stew last longer; the two discussed fishing territory, reduction of trap limits (both thought it a good idea); signs that the ground fish population was returning; and, as the meal wound down, Skip’s apple pie baking. “I finally got the crust down, you have to use all butter. Then, this year I switched from Macs to Honey Crisps for my pie. So I’m learning all over again. I haven’t gotten it down yet, but I’m getting there.”
As we cleaned up, I kept thinking about that pie. I figured if Skip’s pie-making skills were half of his lobster chowder skills, the pie would be delectable. As I left that evening, back out into the driving rain, I was already thinking how I might conveniently get myself invited for pie.
- 12 small-med size lobsters
- 2 medium onions
- 2 sticks of butter
- 6-8 red potatoes (small)
- 2-3 cups corn (to preference)
- 3 quarts half and half
- salt and pepper to taste
- Boil lobsters and pick meat out, cutting to bite size pieces.
- Chop onions and potatoes (also to bite size pieces).
- Melt butter, add onions and lobster and sauté until onions are translucent.
- Add 2 quarts of the half and half, and then add potatoes (potatoes can be precooked if desired) and corn.
- Pour in remaining half and half, and add lobster meat.
- Heat to steaming, but don’t let boil.
- Season with salt and pepper to taste.