Former longtime Editor-in-Chief of Food & Wine, Dana Cowin, travels from New York City …
Lobster Mashed Potatoes and a Life along the Coast
It was a blustery December day when I went along to Bert Witham’s house on Rackcliff Island. He had invited me over to try his lobster mashed potatoes. That’s not exactly true: I had reached out to Jason Witham, Bert’s son, whom I hauled with a few times last summer, to see if his father might have any lobster recipes to share. I knew their family had been fishing for generations, and I figured he’d be a great source. In quick succession I got a text message with a recipe (complete with diagram). I insisted I had to actually eat the dish – and so it was I entered Bert’s gracious home one cold December Sunday. The house was festively decorated for Christmas and had a peek-a-boo view through the spruce trees across the channel to the mainland.
I had met Bert once before, while painting buoys in Jason’s shop, and I knew him by reputation to be gregarious and charming. True to form, he greeted me with a warm smile and immediately began sharing the history of his recipe. While cooking he explained, “My family owned a restaurant in Rockport for ages, this was back in the 40s and 50s. Most of my recipes are from that restaurant, which was housed in what had been the polo stable for an old Rockport estate. Each stall was made into a booth. This is the key,” he said, as he put a stick of butter into a frying pan, “lots of butter.”
Bert was a 4th generation fisherman. His family owns Green Island, about an hour’s steam out of Tenants Harbor and lies low on the horizon as you approach from the West, with just a few camps scattered around. “In the early days, we would head out there on Sunday evening, me and my sternman, we’d provision for the week, fish all week and come ashore on Friday,” he reminisced. “When Jason and his brother were young, I’d tow them out in the morning and they’d haul in their skiff while I hauled around the island. On the good days, they’d come back on their own.”
While he talked he sautéed the lobster meat with the butter. “You have to cook it until the butter turns orange”. On another burner potatoes boiled and on still another he had green beans steaming. “We always made it with peas. I can remember shucking peas with my mother for this dish. I couldn’t find any fresh peas, so I used green beans for today. Whatever you use, it has to be fresh.” Soon, the house filled with the unmistakable smell of lobster and butter: comforting and delectable.
As the lobster sautéed, he gave me a quick tour of the house. It was filled with artifacts: his father had been a painter as well as a fisherman, his oil paintings adorned the walls. They reminded me J.W. Turner’s maritime paintings, meticulous in their detail. Bert was a talented wood carver and his pieces hung throughout the house as well. “This is my lobster room.” Bert brought me into a small alcove off to the side of the great room. It would have been impossible to mistake it for anything else: an old “lobster” sign hung on the wall surrounded by an eclectic mix of lobster illustrations, paintings, sculptures. I had the vague sense of stepping into an archeologist’s study: the pieces were beautiful and obviously revered, collected over a lifetime, or several lifetimes, of life along the coast.
Back in the kitchen, Bert removed the potatoes from the stove top and mashed them. “You like sour cream in your potatoes?” The sour cream was already in the potatoes before I answered, but I shared my belief in going whole hog: if you’re going to have mashed potatoes – better to have real butter, real sour cream. That said, I was not typically a big fan of mashed potatoes: generally I had them only a couple of times a year. I watched as Bert dished the potatoes onto our plates. “This is important, you have to make the well,” and just like the diagram in the recipe he had sent, he created a hollow in the center of the potatoes and then ladled in the lobster–butter-evaporated milk mixture. These were not ordinary mashed potatoes, more like a lobster Shepherd’s pie with a side dish of fresh green beans. And Shepherd’s pie I loved.
As we sat down to eat the meal, which was served on Christmas plates (“my wife Donny enjoys Christmas decorating”), he pointed to a lobster boat steaming in with a load of gear on the stern. “That’s what I love,” he said, “watching these guys come in and out. They wake me up every morning.” Though he didn’t say it, the implication was clear – now that he’s retired, he enjoys sights and sounds without the long, hard, cold days of fishing.
Our conversation drifted easily from a book he recommended (“The Secret Life of Lobsters”, now on my bedside table), to the future of lobster-fishing, to child rearing and to some of the places he and his wife had traveled. The potatoes were rich, flavorful and filling. I cleaned my plate, though I managed to restrain myself from asking for seconds.
As we cleared the table, Bert offered to send me home with the leftovers and I gladly accepted. I was halfway home when Bert called me to tell me that in the confusion of our farewells, I had forgotten the mashed potatoes. I had turned around and headed back to his house before I hung up the phone.
That night my husband grilled a couple of steaks. Having already had my share, I planned to leave the lobster mashed potatoes for the rest of my family. But as the dish went around, I found myself taking a generous portion. Turns out, like a good Shepard’s pie, lobster mashed potatoes are just as good the second time around.
- 6-8 1-11/4lb New Shell (in season) lobsters
- 1 stick of butter
- 10 medium potatoes
- a dollop of sour cream
- 4-5 cups fresh peas (or other fresh green in season)
- Evaporated milk (small can)
- Salt and pepper
- Cook and pick lobsters. Sauté lobster meat in fry pan with butter, until butter turns orange. Add evaporated milk to mixture.
- Cook and mash potatoes; add sour cream.
- Cook peas or seasonable greens.
- Serve mash potatoes on plate, create a “well” in each serving, ladle lobster mixture into “well”, serve with fresh greens.