“We’ll have lobster sandwiches for lunch,” said Mrs. Wall, on my first visit to Prince Edward Island.
I had become friends at university in Halifax with Shirley, Mrs. Wall’s eldest daughter, and she took me home to her family for a visit. Mr. Wall was a lobster fisherman. Mrs. Wall serving lobster was the same as my mother grilling cheese sandwiches for some hungry kids.
The lobster had been cooked and the meat taken out of the crustacean shells in season, then frozen in cleaned-out, re-used milk bags. The thawed lobster got cut into bite-size chunks, mixed with a bit of mayonnaise, I seem to remember, and then spread on bread.
The look on my face after my first bite — delight and wonder at the delicate, lovely sea-tinged flavour — made the younger sisters in the family laugh. “You like lobster!” said one. “Well, you better marry a rich man or a lobster fisherman.”
I had become a mussels fan while living in Halifax but lobster dinners were not part of a student budget and I wasn’t going to spend that much money on something I might not like. After my lobster lunch sandwich introduction, I discovered a delicious lobster bisque at one of the restaurants in Brewery Square, Halifax, that became my special, affordable treat on a trip downtown.
Lobsters, at one time, were considered utter sea garbage. They’d wash up on piles along North America’s Atlantic coast. Later they’d get tangled in fishing nets designed to catch valuable fish and were ground up to use as field fertilizer. The story is often told in Prince Edward Island that men in jail rioted in the 19th century because they were being fed lobster: it was considered practically inedible and something only the most desperate and poor would consume.
Lobster clawed its way back from that ignominy to become a food often considered a delicacy, whether frozen, canned, or cooked whole.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada says that lobster is Canada’s highest-value seafood export, with more than $2 billion in lobster products sold in 2016.
Canada “currently supplies more than half of the world’s supply of hard-shelled Atlantic Lobster,” the Canadian Lobster Council tells us. “The very nature of the harvest, where seasonal and regional fisheries dictate a fluctuating supply, means that there are times of the year when the product is harder to source than others. Typically, the lobster season in Atlantic Canada peaks twice year, once in the spring (April-June) and another in December.”
Lobster prices fluctuate with supply and, in those peak periods when lobster is more abundant, it can show up in the most surprising of places.
That giant of fast food, McDonalds, for many years has served lobster on a bread roll as a seasonal summer treat in the Atlantic region of Canada and the U.S. although has announced that, in 2017, there will be no McLobster because lobster’s price has increased dramatically this season. In a CBC story reporting this news, a P.E.I. restaurant says it has to bump up its lobster roll price by $2 to $11.99 to cover the new lobster cost. I found one company that will deliver live lobsters to anywhere in Canada and is charging just under $20 per crustacean, plus shipping, although the prices swing with the marketplace.
The “live” part is important: if you’re going to eat lobster from the shell, it has to be cooked while still alive or else the meat may be unfit to eat; thinking about this may prompt some to embrace vegetarianism, pronto.
Once in awhile, especially when visiting the Maritimes, I do enjoy a full wrestle-with-it lobster dinner, albeit at a place that helps you out by doing some of the shell cracking-and-cutting in the kitchen before serving the meal. I have not (yet) had the opportunity, or nerve, to cook live lobster at home. Perhaps Mrs. Wall, or one of her daughters, will someday teach me how it’s done.
Main photo: A lobster dinner in Louisbourg, Nova Scotia; photo by Chris Moorehead.