What comes to mind when you think of lobster? A rare treat or special event meal? A delicacy? Would you believe some cultures still consider lobster “the cockroach of the sea?” There’s a scientific basis for that. Neither fish nor mammal, lobsters are arthropods, closely related to the lowly insect. Like the insect, lobsters belong to the invertebrate (lacking a backbone or spinal column) family.
Today you have to pay dearly for an excellent lobster meal, but that hasn’t always been the case. Lobsters were once so abundant that Native Peoples used them as fish bait and fertilizer. According to early Colonists in the Plymouth, Massachusetts area, lobsters sometimes washed up on the beaches in piles two feet high. It was hard to get gustatorily excited about something so common. It’s conceivable that lobsters of exaggerated proportions may not only have been frightening, but tough to eat considering they supposedly grew to forty pounds or more.
As such, in Colonial New England, they were considered poverty food and were served to servants, slaves, children and prisoners. Children bringing lobster sandwiches to school were considered the poor kids (similar to the children who came to school with tortilla sandwiches instead of white bread sandwiches when I was growing up).
Lobster was so ubiquitous that benevolent Colonial legislators in Massachusetts passed a law mandating that lobster could not be fed to prisoners more than twice a week. It just wasn’t considered humane to subject even the most scurrilous scofflaws and criminals to what has today become a precious crustacean commodity.
Archaeologists believe mankind (and not just prisoners) has been eating not only lobster, but other crustaceans such as crab and shrimp since prehistoric times. Deposits of shells and bones left by early hunter-gatherer civilizations near water indicate they took advantage of every conceivable food source.
Culinary evidence also confirms that lobsters were known to ancient Greeks and Romans. They were highly esteemed by the British (especially during the Victorian age) as but not by their Colonial brethren. It wasn’t until the 19th century that lobster enjoyed a resurgence of demand, a demand that continues today.
In the 1840s, commercial fisheries specializing in crustaceans began in Maine to much commercial success, giving rise to the popularity and fame of the Maine Lobster. Within a decade, lobster was being shipped around the world. The first lobster shipments reached Chicago in 1842 just as “lobster palaces,” or restaurants serving restaurants became popular in New York.
Diamond Jim Brady, perhaps the most famous gurgitator of his time often downed six or more lobsters in addition to other courses. This feat of copious consumption and others of similar notoriety prompted the owner of Brady’s favorite restaurant to describe him as “the best 25 customers I ever had.”
By 1885 the American lobster industry was providing 130 million pounds of lobster per year, much of it from Maine. In terms of economic impact, lobster’s contributions to the Maine economy continues to be immeasurable. According to the Maine Lobster Council, in 2006, more than 72 million pounds of lobster were caught off the Pine Tree state’s cold, clean waters whose rocky bottoms form the ideal habitat for lobsters. This generated almost $300 million in ex-vessel (dock value or the price set at dock for a day’s catch) and significantly more in restaurant and export revenues. Lobster harvesting provides a livelihood for more than 5,700 Maine residents.
Lobster is not only very good to eat, it’s very good for you, too. It contains Vitamins A, B and B6 and is a good source of calcium, zinc, iron and iodine. It has absolutely no saturated fat and is low in calories and cholesterol. By many accounts, it is a healthful dining option although when we visited Mabel’s Lobster Claw in Kennebunkport, Maine, we didn’t have healthy eating on our minds, nor did we consider the history of lobster harvesting in Maine.
There’s only one reason you visit Mabel’s Lobster Claw and that’s because it’s one of the very best restaurants in Maine for lobster. When the tide is high, you can hear the water from Mabel’s which is about a mile or so from the Bush family complex. George and Barbara Bush, who split their time between Houston and their summer residence in Kennebunkport, are frequent visitors to Mabel’s.
You might think a restaurant frequented by a dynastic presidential family would be upscale and stuffy, but it’s hardly that. In fact, Gourmet magazine described it as “About as formal as we like to get on the seafood trail is Mabel’s Lobster Claw, a lunchroom in Kennebunkport. Paper place mats explaining how to eat a lobster decorate tables in snug wooden booths.” Mabel’s occupies the bottom floor of what, save for the signage, could pass for a two-story home. A small patio facing the street is sheathed in zipped up plastic to prevent an infestation of mosquitos trolling for tasty humans. Knotty pine tables and wood-paneled walls (replete with autographed celebrity photographs) make this restaurant about as rustic as you can get.
The menu is as informal as the ambience–at least informal for Maine where dilapidated seafood shacks lacking any amenities are mentioned in the same reverential tone as four-star restaurants. One of the staples of those seafood shacks is the lobster roll, a luxurious and delicious treat Maine residents venerate with hushed tones (unless they’re arguing about where to find the best one).
In an article entitled “Sandwiches: Eating from Hand to Mouth,” Time magazine explained that “In an expanse of land as large and varied as the U.S., it is no surprise that there are many regional sandwich specialties.” The article singled out Mabel’s Lobster Claw for its lobster roll, which it described as “heaped with fresh chunks of briny lobster lightly bound with mayonnaise (celery is considered by most a heretical addition), it is usually made on hamburger or hot dog rolls, the latter being the vehicle at the Lobster Claw Restaurant (known locally as Mabel’s) in Kennebunkport, Maine.” As determined as we were to try Mabel’s rendition, other temptations won us over.
As at many New England Yankee cooking or seafood restaurants, our dining experience began with a plateful of breads–sweet cornbread muffins and blueberry muffins with a big and bold blueberry flavor. Both are perfect counterpoints to the pats of butter with which they are served. The blueberry muffins accentuate the fruitiness and natural sugars of the berry and are especially good.
Mabel’s clam chowder is some of the best we had during our 2009 visit to Maine. It is rich, creamy and served steaming hot. It’s also a fairly simple clam chowder highlighting the succulent clams, diced potatoes, onions and chopped green peppers. As with many of the wonderful clam chowders in New England, an occasional gritty bite isn’t uncommon, but I’m more wary of the authenticity of clam chowder without an occasional sandy sensation. By no means am I decrying the preparation of this chowder which we devoured lustfully. Rather I’m expressing an observation we made of much of the clam chowder we experienced in New England.
Gourmet magazine called the magnificent seafood platter known as shore dinner “that top-of-the-line Down East banquet” and proclaimed Mabel’s as a “good place to go” for this fantastic feast. The name shore dinner is derived from the maritime tradition of fishing all day then putting to shore to assemble dinner with the days catch. Fortunately, many Maine restaurants will take care of both the fishing part and the preparation, too.
At Mabel’s, shore dinner is comprised of a pound-and-a-half to two-pound (the optimum size for flavor) lobster atop a pile of steamers accompanied by hot, drawn butter and the broth in which the steamers were prepared. The waitstaff will explain that after extricating the clam from its shell, you should dip it into its broth to remove any gritty residue. The steamers are superb! These long-necked, soft-shelled clams have somewhat of a sinewy texture, but their flavor is deep and delicious. There’s no mistaking the fact that these briny beauties are fresh and have a taste like the ocean. The lobster is perfect–sweet, succulent and absolutely delicious. Best of all, a shore dinner at Mabel’s won’t break your bankroll.
When available, it’s nearly impossible for me to ever pass up native fried clams, one of nature’s most fabulous foods–an iconic food that is to New England what green chile is to New Mexico. Having consumed boatfuls of these lightly coated and deep-fried full-bellied gems from the cold coastal waters of New England, I’d consider moving to Maine were it not for those brutal winters. Mabel’s fried clams exemplify the best qualities of this pearlescent, shapeless mollusk. Each and every piece is to be cherished, savored slowly, forget the tartar sauce or lemon. The light crust gives way easily to the distinctively delicious fried clam flavor, a flavor that will titillate your tongue and make you wonder how anything could be that good.
If you have room, Mabel’s has several desserts under glass as if enshrined for being as good as they are. Gourmet magazine indicates “If fudge cake is available it can’t be ignored.” That’s excellent advice, but it doesn’t go far enough. Make sure that cake is topped with cold ice cream and warm, melting chocolate sauce. If you visited Mabel’s solely for this dessert, it would be worth the visit.
Mabel’s Lobster Claw Restaurant is worthy of all the accolades and praise it has earned through the years, but any review would be remiss without a mention of the wait staff, a sassy bunch with a repertoire of wise-cracks and jokes. They’re as friendly and attentive as possible, but their light levity adds a different dimension to dining at such an esteemed establishment.
Mabel’s Lobster Claw Restaurant
124 Ocean Avenue
LATEST VISIT: 24 September 2009
# OF VISITS: 1
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Shore Dinner, Fried Clams, Clam Chowder, Chocolate Cake