A little background is required before I embark on my first lobster tale. I came from a middle-class family and my paternal grandparents were at the upper limit of the socioeconomic boundary, but as immigrants, lived quite modestly. My grandmother was from the strongly Polish influenced region of Lithuania, so being almost orthodox in her Judaism, she kept a strictly kosher kitchen and marshaled the dietary laws of kashrut under her command like George S. Patton. She could speak five languages but wrote only four – her writing in English was totally phonetic and unintelligible unless spoken aloud. Even her dog barked in Yiddish. My grandfather was Prussian and for his means and period, was a bit of a Beau Brummel in dress and dietary preferences but deferred to his wife in silent acquiescence in her domain. When I was old enough to understand, he was introduced to me as daddy’s daddy. As a practical toddler, his name to me was “Daddy’s Daddy” until he died. My grandmother ALWAYS attended Friday night services at a nearby synagogue, but always unaccompanied in passing through the doors – she quit trying to learn to drive decades before, so Daddy’s Daddy almost always chauffeured her round trip. He was not an atheist, but something like the adult I have become – we are/were unacquainted with God and have no relationship and I am not Facebook friends with him.
My parents separated when I was six, officially divorced when I was seven and my father lived “at home” for the first two years following the split. I would spend alternating weekends with my father, sleeping nights at my grandparents’ home. Frequently, I would go to my father’s office on Saturday, which he shared with his father. We often talked about all matters trivial and important. If I went home late Saturday afternoon with my grandfather, it always involved a stop at Ward’s Cut-Rate Drug Store on Lovers Lane for a bottle of Scotch. At the checkout counter, there was a small candy display and my grandfather always bought me a small orange and blue box of rock candy, which I loved. He was not a corrupting influence and was an honorable and thoughtful man. One day he made a sincere attempt to explain kosher laws, which seemed alien to my young ears… fins and scales? “Gefilte fish has neither but it is prominently served on every Passover,” I replied. He told me that it was made from carp or pike and both had fins and scales. I should quit trying to make all the laws coherent and rational – most of it was faith-based. He also cautioned me to always adhere to the law of the land in my grandmother’s kitchen. He then went on to explain the dietary world was much more expansive than “Granny’s” kitchen… beginning with shellfish! He told me if I took a solemn oath never to speak of it in my grandmother’s presence, he would deflower my palette. Very soon thereafter, he took me to lunch at Vincent’s in downtown Dallas and ordered a Maine lobster for me. The event is as fresh today on my tongue as it was that day over sixty years ago, parallel to losing one’s virginity. I kept my word and I was ultimately rewarded with introductions to clams and scallops. Thank you, Daddy’s Daddy – I think of you often and not only when I am famished. Thanks for Canadian bacon and white chocolate too!
My second lobster tale has a curious medical pathology angle. Life can sometimes be like living in a Pachinko game. In my mid-teens, my mother befriended a wonderful man from New York. Ben was upper crust by every standard; early education at Horace Mann, been to Europe before his tenth birthday and was matriculated at the University of Pennsylvania. His father was a nationally recognized necktie, scarf, and cravat manufacturer. He had a spacious 3,000 sq. ft. hunting and fishing lodge on his own tiny island in southern Nova Scotia outside Yarmouth, with its own landing strip. Growing up, I never knew people like that. Ben was an erudite, gracious, excessively generous, thoughtful man, capable of reciting Keats and Browning or discussing the nuances of Verdi, Klimt, or Shakespeare. The curse of being the child of a very successful man is never measuring up or never caring to equal the accomplishments of one’s father – Ben was the latter. I first met him as his wife was in the final stages of severe narcolepsy. As the face of his deceased father’s company, Ben attended large industry showings of product lines, where I first met him in Dallas. Over the next year, following the death of his wife, he became close to my mother and treated me like a son. He gave me my first rifle because it was only natural a boy learns to shoot, to the horror of my mother. I never fired that Mossberg. In 1965, he invited mother and her two boys to Nova Scotia. The lodge was on the market because Ben could no longer bear the expense, but two generations of his family had spent so much time there, he was well known to everyone and was childhood friends with his father’s hunting and fishing guide’s son – a bond that existed all of Ben’s life. We would be staying with his friend in Hectanooga, which was only negligibly as remote as the US research base on Antarctica. In the second year vacationing there, the Gaudet’s (Ben’s childhood friend) finally got a telephone, which we would answer on the third ring. This city slicker loved everything about rural life. I would get in a rowboat in the early A.M. to catch fresh perch for breakfast. Ira’s wife Julianne would bake fresh loaves of bread daily in a wood-fired stove. My primary duty was to lead the geese down the road about 1,000 yards in the morning to let them into the strawberry patch where they would eat weeds all day and then lead them back home late in the afternoon, just like the Pied Piper. I even assisted in the fresh slaughter of a calf – that was an experience and I still continue to eat veal today.
Ben and Ira along with a small handful of locals would gather most weekdays for a few hours of nickel/dime/quarter straight poker at Joe Patwell’s “residence” on Meteghan Bay. Joe’s shack had tables loaded with screens of herring and pollack drying outside, to be sold as fish jerky. Ben literally had to physically drag my mother inside, because what she saw and smelled far exceeded her sense of propriety (she came to enjoy it). I doubt there were fewer flies on the hillsides of Mt. Suribachi in March of 1945, but it mattered to no one. Inside was a large spool table, eight chairs, a bed, and a stove… all in about 300 square feet! Joe was in his late fifties, had three teeth, stood all of 5’2”, weighed about 250 pounds, chain-smoked Galois, and had a deep raspy laugh interspersed with paroxysms of coughing. I make none of this up, but Joe’s relevance to me was his other occupation – lobster pirate. A lobster pirate complies with none of the national or regional regulations regarding fishery husbandry and would often put out unmarked lobster pots out-of-season and fetch them the following night. Since the enlightenment provided by my grandfather, I had grown enamored with decapods of every ethnic persuasion. Ira was the area game warden, but his dominion was officially terrestrial in nature, so following most poker games, I would depart with a two-gallon metal bucket or two of lobsters, for $10.00 US each and Ira blessed the transaction. More than once, I accompanied Ira chasing down hunters “jacking” deer using intense light to freeze deer for the “kill.” He assumed that responsibility with a loaded shotgun in his arms.
Now to the point; in August of 1966 late one afternoon, I began experiencing very sharp pain in my right lower quadrant. I was given various stomach remedies, but the pain only intensified as the sun was setting. It was decided, I needed to see a doctor, but that was almost as easy as seeing a unicorn in such a remote area. Calls were made, now that they had a phone and a doctor working out of his home was identified somewhere between Saulnierville and Comeauville and off we went (me in the back of the rusting Int’l Harvester truck). Following lumber trails (never anything paved) we came upon a house with one small bulb burning outside and knocked on the door. A general practitioner by the name of Urzevec answered the door and welcomed the four of us in. He did a cursory examination and took my temperature, which was normal. He clearly identified what any field medic would know as mild appendicitis, given I had not spiked a fever yet and the pain was not yet unendurable. Then he asked me, “Laddy, what did you have for lunch.” I had witnesses, so I had to be honest – “five lobsters, a bucket of clams, some herring roe, 4-5 pieces of freshly baked bread and two Mooseheads,” I told him. He was mildly taken by surprise in the enormity of my reply but gathered himself with a smile saying to us all but looking directly at me, “ First, if the pain becomes much worse and or you start to run a serious fever, we’ll have to pluck your appendix. Second, short of that, ease off the lobster and clams at least until the pain subsides. Third, you are having a mild appendicitis attack aggravated by the unbelievable amount of food you ate just this afternoon and I am not even going to ask about the past few days. I think I have all the information I need. This may pass, but you will likely have to have it removed in the near future.” I was somewhat relieved. He would not accept payment, but Ira took him some lobsters and veal a few days later. Everyone made sure I ate like a normal human the next day and it did pass and by the second day, I was back on my regimen of at least a bucket of lobster and clams every other day. Fourteen months later, after calling my mother at work, I took a bus to Baylor Hospital because my appendix became “hot” and I had a fever – surgery was imminent. That was the bad news – the good news was I would no longer have a vestigial “organ” crimping my appetite for lobster!
There is no humor in this one; only natural wonder. I became a very proficient scuba diver in 1970-1, learning how to accurately navigate underwater, deal with emergencies, and even become relatively comfortable in zero visibility bodies of water, but exclusively freshwater. In 1977, I made a dive trip to the Florida Keys; my first venture into the marine sanctuary. I studied the fauna and was very excited. I had heard about the Caribbean Spiny Lobster (Panulinus argus) “marching” single file off the continental shelf into the abyss towards Cuba, in a phenomenon known as ”queueing,” but gave it little thought. Lo and behold, southeast of Key West about ten miles offshore in about one-hundred feet of clear blue water, there it was – a procession of groups of forty or fifty spiny lobster in single file, headed south. It was as exciting as leaving Joe Patwell’s shack with a bucket of Maine Lobster (actually Bay of Fundy) for dinner! I also appreciate things I cannot eat!
I still have one living witness to this lobster tale, but she is in the final stages of Alzheimer’s and can no longer reliably testify to my veracity, but it is absolutely true in every detail. In the 70s, I lived in Houston and had a friend who was raised in New England and you cannot get much more New Englander than the hardware capital of America – New Britain Connecticut. Her grandfather was once the largest landowner on Martha’s Vineyard. Judith and I shared an interest in parrots, macaws, and cockatoos. When I was in grad school, I worked at an exotic pet shop and she told me to call her if I ever got a special bird in the store. One day a couple returning from Bolivia walked into the store and let their bird out of the carrier onto the counter. A modest-sized Green Winged macaw emerged and began a performance like a George Burns rehearsed routine, engaging all who would stop to watch. “Sold,” I told them, then I called Judith. That was 1979, and two years this October after arranging to get Judith placed in a competent Alzheimers care facility, I drove not just her Green Winged macaw but also her Hyacinthine macaw to a sanctuary in Iowa, where I was certain of their care for the remainder of their lives. That is all tangential except to illustrate some degree of my friendship and truth be known, it was more for my concern for the birds. Picture that – me driving two perfectly flighted birds nine-hundred-fifty miles!
Here’s the punchline… In 1980, a seafood restaurant near us in the Montrose area of Houston would have a Wednesday special; all-you-can-eat lobster for $50.00. That kind of promotion was and is like a carillon to my ears. Now the lobsters were all culls, missing a claw and were rarely over two pounds, but so damn what? I could compensate for the handicapped lobsters by simply eating more of them to arrive at my fair quotient of claws. Judith presented me with a birthday gift of Pappas Seafood on October 1st 1980, no cost to me. WOW. You may have surmised by now, I sometimes eat like a samurai warrior wages combat – we take no prisoners. We are both efficient and conduct ourselves honorably.
On that October evening, the maitre’D politely greeted us upon entry and seated us promptly. I immediately told them I was there for the lobster special and Judith uttered something cautionary to our waiter, who smiled at her. I did not take the smirk as underestimating his quarry, because he did not see it as a zero-sum game and he did not know me. He told me he would only bring lobsters one at a time because Americans can be lazy and wasteful, so I did not hold a grudge. It was game on. “Sir, would you like some bread or stuffed mushrooms?” “No thank you, but maybe some more ice tea and when you return, I will have decimated another decapod,” was my iterative reply. After an hour-and-a-half and ten lobsters, I was sated. Other waiters and patrons noticed the regular traverse to and from our small table – it was impossible to avoid seeing. When I made my official pronouncement, my waiter turned and loudly proclaimed, “He’s finished!” I was immediately met with thunderous applause and a standing ovation, not only from the customers but from waiters and cooks. I rose and took a bow and while most people might feel some embarrassment on such an occasion, I only felt full. Well maybe there was a tear of pride in the corner of my eye.
I am almost sixty-nine years old now, so my days of being a formidable competitor for the Guinness Book of Records in the category of Decapod Consumption are past, just as I will never be a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader. As one final addition to my Lobster Tales, I hope to eat a lobster my own age and report on it before I depart. Bon Appétit