Former longtime Editor-in-Chief of Food & Wine, Dana Cowin, travels from New York City …
Lobsterbakes and Islands – Summer in Maine
Few things are as emblematic of summer in Maine as a lobster bake. Along our rocky shoreline all summer long this tradition plays out: the gathering of friends and family; last minute runs for ice; children scampering about sneaking cookies, playing tag, the lobster, purchased at a local wharf, sometimes directly from a fisherman, ready for cooking. My own extended family has, over the generations, put on our fair share of lobster bakes: driftwood gathered in the morning for the fire; seaweed lugged up from the rocks to cook the lobsters and clams in, the snapping sound of the fire and the smoky smell that lingers in your hair long after the day.
This past July 4th, while others gathered for parades and fireworks, a group of us hopped aboard the f/v Dorcas Anne, Josh Miller’s lobster boat. The large tank that typically holds the lobster he catches as well as bait, temporarily removed to create more space: today the f/v Dorcas Anne was for pleasure, not work. The weather had cooperated, we had bright sun and a light westerly breeze. We loaded a crate of lobster aboard, as well as coolers, a lobster cooker, and endless amounts of gear, then steamed East out of the harbor; past iconic Whitehead Island with its majestic lighthouse. We were a small flotilla, two fishing boats and a handful of skiffs, headed for Graffam Island, which lies in the southwest corner of Penobscot Bay. My great grandfather had purchased the island in the 1930s and it had been passed along through the generations. My memories of the island are vivid and plentiful – skimming across the bay on calm mornings, an easy 20 minute trip in my little Boston whaler; rounding the point, seeing first little Hurricane Island then the meadow unfold; Walter’s cabin and then the “big” cabin, a simple log cabin my great grandfather had built. Beaching my whaler, there was always the cry of an Osprey or two, rare in my childhood, alarmed at the intrusion.
Each summer my family was treated to a lobster bake on Graffam by Walter Drinkwater, the fisherman who, in exchange for the fishing rights around the island, was its caretaker. My memories of Walter are vague but iconic: the pipe he smoked, its sweet smell, and the lore that surrounded him. He lived year round on this small island by himself, sculling his way across to Spruce Head, which lay a few miles to the west, once a week for groceries.
All these years later as we arrived at Graffam, the Osprey still called in alarm. As is always the case with any island trip, we lugged gear ashore, setting up for the day. The kids (a dozen or so strong, a hive of energy and activity) brought the lobsters up from the crate which had been tied off the small dock. Practicality had won the day for this island lobster bake. We steamed the lobsters in the cooker set up on the beach, a dozen or so at a time, rather than cooking them in seaweed. As the lobsters cooked, the rest of us set out the salads and side dishes, all balanced carefully on a tree that had washed ashore years ago, bleached white by the sun.
When cooked, the lobsters were placed directly on the expansive granite rocks “Come and get ‘em,” Josh invited. We milled over, kids diving in first, sitting side by side and eating their lobster straight from the shell, no utensils, just butter, fingers and the briny sweet taste of summer new shell Maine lobsters.
Friends from neighboring Pleasant Island stopped in to visit. With a few members of our fisherman’s co-op they had been working on scallop aquaculture and brought along with them several dozen freshly harvested scallops. Chatter among the fishermen – all of whom had spent considerable time aboard scallop draggers – led to a veritable contest to see who could shuck the scallops fastest. They were all equally adept, and the result the same, grilled scallops alongside our fresh lobsters.
The day wound down and we got ready to head out, lobster shells dumped below the low tide mark, dogs, children and treasures collected on the beach loaded back aboard. I had volunteered to bring one of the skiffs back. The sou’westerly breeze that picks up most summer days had kicked in and I knew going back in the skiff would be a wet affair. Years ago, after I had returned from the island soaking and with the steering console to my whaler ripped out from pounding into the chop, my father sat me down with a chart and showed me how to come back behind the islands and then up through a small channel just passable in a skiff. I took the skiff, headed west cutting in behind Whitehead and stayed in the lee. There was no protection on the very last stretch from Norton Island to the mouth of Tenants Harbor, and by the time I entered the harbor and felt the wall of warm land-air that always meant coming home, I was soaked, but happy for the day and the continuation of this summertime tradition.