I was 10 when I came to understand what the fuss over lobster was all about. Perched on the corner of a bench at a seaside hotel in Portland, Maine, I could hear the waves crashing against the coast as my mother set a berry-red lobster before me. She cracked the shell deftly, breaking down the lobster with an effortless air that comes only from a lifetime of practice.
I plucked a ball-shaped piece of knuckle from the plate and took a bite, the meat so tender I barely needed to chew. The sweetness of the lobster, nabbed directly from the deeply cold and salty Maine waters mere hours before, was inherent and powerful. The warm, drawn butter was a gilded lily to me. I had simply never tasted anything so naturally perfect.
Just as Kentuckians are spoiled with an overabundance of bourbon, lobster is an everyday luxury for Maine residents. My grandparents both were born and raised in and around Portland, with lobster a regular fixture of my mother’s life growing up. We have returned to Maine many times over the years, always placing bets on how many lobsters we will consume over a week’s visit. Dinners in are vastly preferred, my mother taking the massive lobster pot—a staple in any Maine kitchen—down to the shore and ladling a few cups of ocean water into it. “It adds flavor,” she told me the first time I witnessed this, a bit horrified at the notion of eating something cooked in sea water. To this day, when it comes time to cook the lobsters, the kitchen is always packed, the act of dunking a live shellfish into a pot of boiling water still eliciting a bit of shock and awe in all of us.
When we weren’t in Maine, lobster was forever a faraway wish, a subject for daydreams and nostalgia, something to look forward to the next time we made the trek to Cape Elizabeth. A few milestone birthdays were highlighted by the arrival of a shipment of live lobsters from Maine, a worthwhile but costly form of celebration. When I moved to Louisville, I began to hear whispers of a local lobster source. The talk was so vague it had the trappings of an underground operation. Come to find out, this source for lobsters right in the middle of Kentucky is anything but clandestine.
Based in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia, Clearwater Seafoods specializes in harvesting wild shellfish, with lobster its primary catch. What began as a two-man production has grown to be one of the largest shellfish operations in North America, with locations throughout Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and, perhaps unexpectedly, Kentucky. Thanks to the UPS Worldport in Louisville, Kentucky serves as a hub for lobster and other shellfish to be distributed throughout mainland North America.
Louisville’s Clearwater location, on Produce Road among a series of sprawling packaging plants, boasts up to 65,000 pounds of lobster resting in frigid salt water, having only recently been plucked from the equally cold and saline waters of the Canadian Atlantic. On a recent visit, I walked the perimeter of its mock ocean environment, where crate upon crate of lobster are immersed in a house-made soup of salt water. If you’ve dined on lobster in or around the state, chances are it first made a stop at Clearwater Seafoods. As unlikely as it may seem, most fresh lobster sold in the Midwest and Southeast has made a pit stop in a decidedly landlocked state before ending up on our plates.
For those living in and around Louisville, obtaining fresh lobster is shockingly simple and considerably affordable. Individual consumers, not just those purchasing for restaurants, are welcome to drop by Clearwater’s offices to pick up the practically just-off-the-boat lobsters. Those living outside of Louisville may order lobsters via Clearwater’s retail website with the knowledge that their chosen crustaceans will arrive at their doorstep alive and well, mere hours separating them from their ice-water home.
I return home from Clearwater Seafoods with six lobsters in hand, ready to put to use the tips and tricks I had picked up from my mother and grandmother. I had selected 1 pound lobsters, the ideal size when serving one lobster per person. When it comes to lobsters, I was always taught that bigger is not necessarily better. The mammoth lobsters we often see proudly displayed in restaurants can have tougher meat due to their sheer size. There are certainly differing opinions on this; however, I am yet to be disappointed by my just-over-a-pound selections.
As our lobster dinner is not until the following evening, I make space for the lobsters in the bottom drawer of my refrigerator. Lobsters will happily hang out for 24 hours in the refrigerator, if they are left in the bags in which they arrive and kept as cold as possible. The following evening, I fill my largest pot with water and bring it to a boil. I add a generous handful of sea salt, flavoring the water in hopes of evoking the subtle saltiness of the ocean. It is not quite the seasoned ocean water my mother mixes into her pot, but a valuable step in the right direction.
As lobsters cook lightning fast and are ready to eat immediately, I always make sure every other element of the meal is fully prepared prior to removing the lobsters from the refrigerator. The act of cooking lobsters is understandably daunting. That they are still alive is a matter those up for the task simply must put out of mind. As children, my siblings and I would watch with wide-eyed fascination when my mother and grandmother would plunge wriggly lobsters into the pot. Both moved with such assurance and grace, my mother cooing that the lobster’s death was instant, that we needn’t worry for a moment.
I try to evoke the calm and confident nature of my mother and grandmother when it is my turn at the pot, grasping each lobster by the back, holding firmly to the top half of the shell as I use scissors to cut away the rubber bands surrounding its claws. As soon as the rubber bands are off, headfirst into the boiling water goes the lobster. It is important to move quickly during this process, to avoid overcooking the first few lobsters in the pot; the risk of losing your cool also is high if you move too slowly. Once all the lobsters are in the pot, wait for the water to return to a boil. As soon as it does, put the lid on the pot and cook the lobsters for five minutes. Using tongs, remove each lobster from the water, allowing the shells to drain over the pot before moving them to the serving dish.
There is a certain thrill that comes with dining on lobster, a thrill only amplified when they are served whole. As I place our heaping platter before my guests, a hint of pride begins to blush across my cheeks. This is their first time indulging in a whole lobster feast. I am the one teaching them to separate the tails from the bodies over a bucket as to not drown their plates in water; I am the one showing them how to skim the white foam off the top of melted butter, concocting the perfect clarified dip for our sweet lobster. I am the one passing on my family’s tradition, sharing a bit of my New England heritage with those residing in my old Kentucky home.