Beach House Diaries: Lobster Tales

lobster haul

Atlantic Canada is a bucket list destination for seafood lovers -- and understandably so. Plump, sweet scallops from Digby, on the Nova Scotian mainland, are considered delicacies everywhere; and Prince Edward Island's Malpeque oysters have had an international reputation since winning the "best in show" title at the 1900 Paris World's Fair. Newfoundland and the province of New Brunswick, meanwhile, are both renowned for trophy-size wild salmon. But my island is all about lobster, and one of my beach house goals is to eat as much as possible.

Ever since the early 1880s, when Pictou Island was first settled, lobster has provided sustenance here. Generations ago, Islanders ate it all the time, which sounds enticing on the surface. Think twice, though, and you can almost hear the collective whine of kids groaning "awwww, Mom, not lobster again!!" Even in my dad's day, the fact that lobster was abundant and basically free for the taking meant what we now call the "crème de la crème of crustaceans" was then perceived to be "poor man's protein." What he craved was stuff like baloney which had to be processed, purchased and "imported" from the mainland, a daunting six-and-a-half miles away.

While that has obviously changed, lobster remains a democratic dish across Nova Scotia. In summer, it not only graces most menus, it is available in every price range -- from the rich lobster thermidor served at upscale establishments to down-market (yet still delicious) variations on the lobster roll, including the McLobster sold at local McDonald's outlets. I personally prefer it straight up -- in other words, boiled with just a little melted butter on the side. That's a matter of taste and also a necessity given that Pictou Island doesn't have a single restaurant and my Spartan beach house kitchen isn't the sort of place where one whips up a last-minute lobster bisque.

Plunging a writhing lobster into a pot of boiling sea water (head first, please!) is not for the faint-hearted, and gorging on what emerges 12 minutes later is no easy feat. Cracking claws, scoring tails, ripping off legs, scraping gooey green tomalley (the digestive system) out of the carapace: it's a time-consuming and decidedly messy task. Despite having donned the mandatory bib, I'm always doused with brine-y juice by the time I'm done and, frankly, I smell bad.

My culinary challenges, however, are nothing compared to what the commercial fishers who share Pictou Island with me go through to procure my dinner in the first place. They operate in Northumberland Strait, which is shallower and more sheltered than the open ocean, so we're not exactly talking Deadliest Catch. Nevertheless, pulling heavy traps and handling critters with bone-crushing claws at the break of dawn is demanding, potentially dangerous work.

Although my tiny corner of the continent is synonymous with seafood, we certainly don't have a monopoly on it. Maine, too, has legendary lobsters. Massachusetts has clams; Maryland and the Carolinas have crabs; shrimp abounds in the Gulf States... and all of it has to be caught by somebody. Beyond supplying a literal taste of area culture, fishers also help create the aura of authenticity that makes many of us fall in love with beach house communities. After all, those bobbing boats and colorful buoys, that weathered wharf stacked with gear -- be it lobster traps, crab pots or a camera-ready tangle of shrimp nets -- aren't just props for a tourism board photo shoot.

So supporting the local fishing industry is really a win-win situation no matter what waterside locale you vacation in. As National Lobster Day approaches (it's celebrated across North America on June 15), I plan to do my part and get cracking. Hmm, maybe this time I'll try to better manage the mess by taking off that plastic bib and tying on a tarp instead.

Next:5 Tips for Savoring Local Seafood

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Each week writer Susan MacCallum-Whitcomb will report on summer beach house life from her vacation home on Pictou Island, Nova Scotia. Follow along for a glimpse of the shore, plus tips on what to pack, how to entertain guests and how to relax at your own beach house.
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