"What makes a lobster supper special?"
I was initially taken aback when a prospective summer guest recently asked this question of me. Special?
It just is
. As a boy growing up in the tiny province of Prince Edward Island known today by many Canadians as a remote outpost on the Atlantic Ocean deserving of little attention for most of the year but providing one of the great all-time summer escapes, lobster suppers existed as one of many threads within the fabric of PEI summertime culture -- not something that stood out in one's consciousness but simply an activity without which summer would be incomplete. Even today, dining on lobster serves to subconsciously mark the progress of summer in the minds of many Islanders, as evidenced in comments of the type "It's July? And we haven't even had a feed of lobsters yet!"
But upon reflection, I do recognize that lobster suppers are indeed special. While these days, they are recognized by visitors as a dining event not to be missed, originally, lobster suppers were experiences enjoyed as much by Islanders as those "from away." My great aunt and uncle were two of the twelve founding members who parlayed a Junior Farmers fundraiser in 1958 into the first "lobster supper" establishment on PEI, located in the scenic village of New Glasgow along the banks of the Clyde River. My great, great, great grandfather James Dickieson had set out on the Alexander
from Scotland to help establish the village in 1820, so it only seems appropriate that one of his descendents would help to put New Glasgow on the culinary map as well. Why these Junior Farmers chose lobster instead of turkey, ham or beef, I do not know, but perhaps it should not be all too surprising that the interests of a group of farmers would become inextricably linked to seafood. Though not seafaring men, Island farmers were already well-acquainted with lobster, for only a century earlier, they had been bringing the succulent crustaceans not to diners' tables but to their fields as fertilizer, along with the calcium-rich mussel mud of Malpeque Bay. Mussels have more recently followed lobster on the path from fertilizer to gastronomic delicacy and now are offered as appetizers at most lobster suppers on the Island.
When I relate this conversation about the special
characteristics of a PEI lobster supper to my wife who originates from the New England states, she admonishes me with the words "Come on, now! Where, other than PEI, would you hear someone say they were going to have a feed
of lobsters! A feed!
" I had to mull that one over for a moment, for there was never a summer without at least one trip to a lobster supper supplemented by several "feeds" at home. While I appreciate the refined aura of dining on lobster in an upscale restaurant, there is nothing like the gulping down of several lobsters at a sitting at home -- and as much a summertime ritual as a clambake on the beach!
A feed of lobsters at home is a relaxed event with its own syncopated rhythm, the conversational repartee of the family gathered around the dining table punctuated by the sounds of claws being cracked, legs being sucked for that very last morsel of tender sweet flesh, and the clanging into a large metal bowl of empty shells that would soon be destined for the compost. Enjoying a feed of lobsters at home is a time-intensive experience, providing ample opportunities for conversation and getting caught up with the latest news. These feeds of lobster also served to distinguish levels of maturity as well, with the young ones going straight for the claws and tail, leaving their elders to linger in the extraction of delectable treats found within the seemingly endless supply of lobster "bodies."Lobster as social lubricant?
As much as a feed of lobster at home involves family, the lobster supper invokes community. In a region where year-round employment opportunities have always been few, the lobster supper has been over the years a coveted source of summer employment for many local kids (myself included) to help defray university expenses. Roles have been distributed along traditional lines - my first full-time summer job was as a lobster cook; my sister's, a waitress. There were other tasks to be accomplished as well. Older, more experienced guys were "cutters" who, with seven swift strokes of a sharp knife, could in two or three seconds deftly transform a cooked lobster into a presentation masterpiece as beautiful as it was easy for customers to devour.
Homemade cakes, salads, pies and rolls were baked by women from the community who enjoyed trading gossip as they busily peeled potatoes -- another famed PEI food -- for their delectable potato salad. "She's seeing who
now? That good for nothing so and so
?" I'm not about to divulge any secrets, but let's just say that the conversation among the food preparation staff makes one question not one iota the authenticity of a character such as the inscrutable Mrs. Rachel Lynde of Anne of Green Gables fame. Like the feed of lobsters at home, the lobster supper is a social experience, with the setting framing the activity for food preparers as well as diners and creating a place where community members can congregate and remain connected as they carry out their daily activities, serving a function much like the corner store and local post office once did.
So, my recommendation to visitors of Prince Edward Island? By all means, go ahead and experience a lobster supper. They are as varied as they are ubiquitous, ranging from the gastronomic intensity of Fisherman's Wharf in North Rustico with its 60 foot all-you-can-eat salad bar, to the New Glasgow Lobster Suppers with its historical legacy and choice of dining “family style” or in the more formal atmosphere of its licensed dining room also overlooking the beautiful River Clyde, to the more relaxed experience offered by such smaller establishments as St. Ann's in Hope River. Whatever type of lobster dining experience you desire, you will surely find a lobster supper that will satisfy. But don't forget to cook a feed of lobster at home for yourself. There is no summertime experience that better defines "family" on PEI.
Find more information about dining on the north shore of Prince Edward Island, including lobster suppers, cooking your own lobster, and other casual and fine dining possibilities.
About the Author: The author operates Seascape Chalet, a luxury pei cottage rental on the north shore of Prince Edward Island, Canada offering panoramic waterfront views of New London Bay and sand dunes only minutes from Cavendish beach, premier golf courses, and top family attractions. Tranquility deep in the heart of the PEI north shore -- Seascape Chalet is the best of all worlds!
Copyright © 2006 Philip MacLellan. This article may be freely distributed if this box remains attached.