Former longtime Editor-in-Chief of Food & Wine, Dana Cowin, travels from New York City …
Lobster Cakes & Living Well – A Downeast Portrait
Every now and again in life you have the good fortune to meet someone who simply knocks your socks off. I had that stroke of luck last October when I met Donna Brewer. I had traveled up to Stonington with Skip Connell and Peter Miller, two fishermen who were working along with Donna’s husband Marsden Brewer and son Bobby Brewer on a burgeoning scallop aquaculture project. To get from Tenants Harbor to Stonington, you have to drive all the way around Penobscot Bay, Maine’s largest bay, and as you come down the northeastern side of the bay you literally island hop: mainland to Little Deer Isle; Little Deer to Deer Isle and then all the way down the bottom of Deer Isle to Stonington. Needless to say, by the time we arrived and unfolded ourselves from the truck we were all glad to be there. I had spoken to Donna briefly on the phone, but never met her in person, nevertheless, she welcomed us warmly into her home. Inside, there was already a crowd and we all gathered in the kitchen, clearly the heart of the Brewer household, where a counter held mason jars filled with cider from apples that she and Marsden had pressed and a platter of home made goat cheese.
We ate scallops, which Marsden and Bobby Brewer had grown, sliced raw with wasabi, a salad of spinach from their garden, and lobster cakes, passed around and served with aioli sauce. I have always loved lobster cakes. With their crispy browned exterior and tasty inside, they are the perfect finger food. I took several the first time the platter was passed around, and (somewhat guiltily) several more the second time it made the rounds. Home made goat cheese, fresh scallops, spinach salad and lobster cakes, it had been the perfect meal – except that we hadn’t even had the meal. Before I knew it, Bobby and Marsden (both fishermen) were serving up Stonington lobster they had caught the day before. I was sure I couldn’t eat an entire lobster, but I did. Living in Maine and spending as much time as I do with fishermen, I rarely have a traditional lobster meal (sort of like New Yorkers who never visit the Empire State Building), but that day I remembered why it’s such a treat. As our meal wound down, I went into the kitchen to help Donna clean up and prepare the (home made) apple crisp for dessert.
While we worked, I asked Donna about herself and her home, “This was my grandparents’ house, my grandmother ran a bakery out of here, and I washed dishes for her.” As Donna shared pieces of her life, a picture formed in my mind of a woman who had done just about everything, picked crabmeat, gone clamming, shucked scallops, waitressed, baited halibut hooks, alewife fished, owned a seafood business, and run ground fish trucks back and forth to Boston. She had sat on the school board for 4 years, was currently in her 7th year as a selectman and had been the president of the Island Fisherman’s Wives Association. Now she’s making goat cheese and goat’s milk soap, which she and Marsden sell, along with freshly caught live lobster, from the Red Barn Farm store adjacent to their house. With Donna, the question should have been not what have you done, but what haven’t you done. “I was the original latch key kid,” she said with a smile. “Back when I was a girl around here most everyone’s mother stayed at home, but my mother always worked. My grandfather was a wood cutter, he used to take us out in the woods in the winter to cut trees; he’d always say ‘if you promise not to tell your grandmother, I’ll take you guys back to the camp to warm up with a hot rum toddy.’ That was his cure for everything, a hot rum toddy. We loved it, and it never slowed us down a bit,” she laughed at the memory.
As we cleaned up the goat cheese platters, I asked her how she had come to have goats and make goat cheese. “Well, Marsden had always wanted a goat, so we got one, and then pretty soon we had quite a few and more milk then we knew what to do with. So Marsden started making cheese and I thought, ‘I can’t have him messing around in my kitchen’ so I just took it over,” all this with a laugh as we dumped the lobster shells from plates into a 5 gallon bucket “these are for the chickens, they love the shells.”
The sun crept down, and we all piled into trucks and went down to see Stonington Harbor. It had been years since I’d been to Stonington, and then it was as a girl, by sailboat. Stonington is known for its lobster, the economy is almost entirely driven by fishing, and the layout of the town told the entire story: a tightly packed village clustered on a hill around its harbor. Stonington boasts two lobster co-ops and a fishing fleet of 200+ boats. Their annual lobster landings are the largest in Maine. I looked west out the harbor, and all I could see were lobster-fishing boats.
We said our goodbyes and I piled in the back seat of the truck, with Peter and Skip in the front. With a full belly, a pillow of coats and jackets, and Peter and Skip discussing boat hull design, I drifted off. I had risen at 3:30 that day, spent the morning on the water before driving to Stonington and I knew I still had to drive down to Yarmouth. I was bone tired when Peter and Skip dropped me at my car in Rockport and I started the drive west to Yarmouth. Then I thought of Donna Brewer, running ground fish trucks from Stonington to Boston in the dead of night; suddenly my ride seemed short and my day, despite its length, leisurely.
Serves 6-8 as a meal (burger style) or 10-12 as an appetizer (small patties)
- 4 1 ½ lb. lobsters, cooked
- 2 eggs
- ½ cup mayonnaise
- 1 ½ cup panko (or other breadcrumbs)
- 6 tablespoons finely chopped scallions or red onions
- 2 teaspoons lime juice
- 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
- 1 ½ tablespoons butter
- 1 ½ tablespoon of vegetable oil
- ¼ teaspoon Old Bay Seasoning (“You can use any seafood seasoning, but I love Old Bay seasoning, and it’s also delicious with bloody Mary’s” – Donna Brewer)
- 1 cup Mayonnaise
- 2 teaspoons graded lime zest
- 4 tablespoons lime juice
- 2 teaspoons finely minced fresh garlic
- I teaspoon freshly ground pepper
- Cook lobsters, pick meat out and cut into small pieces
- Mix ingredients together and pat into patties (you can make burger size or finger size)
- Set patties in fridge for at least 6 hours
- Cook in a fry pan on a medium-high heat with butter and vegetable oil, brown on both sides, serve hot
- Mix ingredients together, microwave or warm over stove top for flavors to set.