As a New Yorker who spends a lot of time in Maine, I’ve stopped eating lobster in city restaurants, even on an expense account. It’s tasteless. A $42 price tag and plating by an acclaimed chef can’t trick my taste buds anymore.
But my partner and I still wanted to celebrate New Year’s Eve in the city with a lobster dinner. It was an easy decision to cook at home. However, where would we get the lobster? We decided to repeat our 2009 lobster taste test, comparing Maine lobster shipped from Mount Desert Island vs. bought locally.
This year it would be a blind taste test.
First, I ordered two lobsters from Beal’s Lobster Pier, a year-round working fish and lobster wharf in Southwest Harbor, Maine. Lobsters are “right off the boat” and shipped nationwide, year-round. Although the lobsters were only $8.50 per pound, the shipping drove the bill up to a hefty $91.75.
Then, I went to Fairway on the Upper West Side of Manhattan – a market widely acclaimed for its fresh produce and rapid turnover - and bought the same size lobster for $9.99 per pound.
For cooking we followed the advice of Brooke Dojny in her beautifully illustrated book Cooking Up Maine. After putting the lobsters in the freezer for 15 minutes to numb them, we set them into a large enamel canning pot to steam for about 17 minutes.
As they steamed, I began to wonder: Would I really be able to taste a difference? They were both Maine lobsters and “live,” after all. Maybe the knowledge of “which was which” had influenced my perception in the past, just as price can.
Beal’s used blue bands to restrain the claws of their lobsters; Fairway, red – so there would be no mistakes as to origin in our evaluation. Eyes tightly shut, I tasted sample one slowly. But as soon as I bit into sample two – the taste briny and sweet, the texture less chewy – I immediately said, “That’s Maine.”
Would my partner agree? I’d have to defer. After all, he’d commenced craving these crustaceans almost fifty years ago at Lundy’s, the much-missed venerable seafood institution in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. His decision was also firm and made the taste test unanimous.
Lobster shipped directly from Maine was markedly better.
Why? I called the Lobster Council of Maine and spoke with their Executive Director Dane Somers, “Everyone thinks that if it’s alive, you can’t get any fresher than that. But there is a subtle difference. It’s like fresh-cut flowers. One-day-old flowers are not as fresh as those cut this morning.” He continued, “There is no substitute for the ocean in which Maine lobsters live. Tank water simply cannot replicate this pristine environment.” I hadn’t really thought about it, but if lobsters are in transit or in the tank for two or three days, they have not been fed and are obviously under stress.
We all know about grass-fed beef and free-range chicken, but I’d never considered what lobsters eat and the degree to which that affects their flavor. Somers explained to me, “The waters around where you ordered your lobsters are rich with sea life — and a perfect feeding ground for lobsters. They eat clams, oysters, and love scallops when they find them. You are what you eat – and that’s why that part of Maine near Southwest Harbor produces some of the best-tasting lobster anywhere.”
Yes, the lobster shipped directly from Maine was substantially better, but was it worth the steep increment? The lobster itself was $32 for two of them, but the packaging and shipping added sixty dollars. Ouch!
I think it’s fair to compare the higher price of “fresh from the boat” lobster to that of better-tasting organic food. My personal rationale for this luxury is that I also like supporting the local Maine economy, and especially the fishermen. For others, it may only make sense to ship directly from Maine when there’s a large enough order, say, for a dinner party, to amortize the shipping cost.
New Year’s Day we celebrated with a lunch of the third lobster, lightly tossing the chunks of lobster meat with mayonnaise and a little lemon and piling them on a toasted Brioche roll. We had some delicious cold asparagus – from Fairway! – and drank the rest of the champagne from New Year’s Eve. We watched a couple re-runs of The Honeymooners, silently acknowledging Jackie Gleason for summarizing how we felt about the lobster, our health, and happiness:
Lynn Fantom publishes OUR ACADIA, which helps visitors make the most of their vacations to Acadia National Park and Mount Desert Island. She provides tips about guides, excursions, restaurants, and lodging. You’ll also find insights about the best time to visit and 22 great things to do with kids in Acadia National Park.