Friday, December 7, 2007

Food and place, volume 8 (Maine)

I say Maine, you say lobster.

This is just too obvious and easy, but there is not even a close second for the signature dish of the state of Maine. It’s like one of those annual board meetings where the slate of officers has already been decided in the back room. Nominations are open, quickly closed (“There being no nominations from the floor…”), and the vote taken.

The best essay ever written on lobsters as food was "Consider the Lobster" by David Foster Wallace. It was first published in Gourmet magazine, reappeared in the anthology "The Best American Essays of 2005," and is the title piece in Wallace’s collection “Consider the Lobster and Other Essays.”

It is a stunning, penetrating, funny, disturbing account. Its centerpiece is a visit to the annual Maine Lobster Festival, but that is just a pretext for an examination of our complex relationship with food, particularly food that is cooked live, often before our very eyes.

A most enjoyable and pretty authentic dining experience is stopping along the Maine coast in just about any little town and getting a boiled lobster served on a paper plate, sitting at a picnic table overlooking the shore. Big slabs of bread or toast, lots of drawn butter, no pretense, sun, and salt air. Best in the summer, because in the fall the traffic is so bad it's the Chicago Loop with pretty leaves.

One summer when I was little, my grandmother rented an apartment to a Russian chef and his wife. They worked in a restaurant in the nearby resort town of Onset, Mass. On his day off, he came over to the main house and prepared a wonderful dinner of stuffed lobster tail. Afterward, the grownups took drinks in the sun room and the chef played the piano while his wife belly-danced. We kids watched in awe. So I’m stuck with this odd lifelong association between lobster and belly dancing.

Next stop: Kansas City or Buffalo.

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