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At the Other End of the Trap: Judge for a Day at Boothbay’s “Claw Down”
Amid the flurry of running a seasonal lobster shack this summer, 16 hour days stacked one after the other with phone calls and emails going unanswered and my children forgetting what I looked like, there was one phone call I did pick up. Though the background sounds that filled my days –gushing water in the live lobster tank, wisps of conversations from guests, the deep rumble from the diesel engines of lobster boats coming in –made carrying on a phone conversation a challenge, I got the gist of this call: Would I be willing to be a judge at the Boothbay Food and Music Festival’s “Claw Down” event.
I had heard of the “Claw Down” before. It was one of the many community efforts launched in 2012 – the year lobster prices plummeted and gas prices spiked and going out to haul became a financial liability for fishermen. Up and down Maine’s coast, communities came together to try and buoy the lobster industry. That first year, the Claw Down cooked up 200 pounds of lobster for the event and raised $30,000 for Boothbay’s Fishermen. On the phone, I wasn’t thinking of the event’s noble history; I was thinking of the luxury of actually sitting down and having lobster served to me while I took time to savor each taste. “Yes” I said before the gal on the other end of the line could get the question out.
The morning of the event, I met with the organizers and the two other judges. I was no food judge (in fact, I was a fill in for another judge who was not able to make it). My colleagues were Joe Ricchio, who was, among many other things, the food editor for Downeast Magazine; and Pam Laskey, owner of Maine Foodie Tours. The organizers had struggled with my title for the event; in the end, they’d settled on “Sternman, Luke’s Lobster, Tenants Harbor”
The organizer led us through the run of the day – we would be sequestered and lobster “bites” would be brought into us one by one. There were 11 participating chefs; 11 dishes to try. How, I wondered, do you judge something like this? I had two favorite ways to eat lobster: steamed right out of the shell with drawn butter, and in a chowder on a cold fall or winter day (specifically, Skip Connell’s lobster chowder recipe.)
Soon enough, the three of us were seated in the old town hall awaiting our first dish. “No fancy food terms,” I pleaded with Joe and Pam. The two of them, I had learned, were both former stand up comedians. This fact put me immediately at ease in my unfamiliar environs. I shared my general criteria with my colleagues, “I’m looking for a simple dish that lets the flavor of the lobster shine through.”
In came the dishes – we were not told the ingredients, what they were called or what their inspiration was. Just served each “bite”. It was as scrumptious and luxurious as I had imagined back in August – when the thought of having a second to just sit down seemed impossible.
During each serving we discussed the dish and graded it based on taste, presentation and creativity. The chefs, who impressed us on all three fronts, were allowed to use only 4oz of lobster meat per “bite” ensuring our dishes remained small – but the 11 “tastes” proved to be far more than a meal.
With my humorous and good-natured colleagues, we ate and laughed our way through our “work”. Towards the end of our tastings, I got what I had sought: a dish simply prepared with the taste of the lobster shining through. To my amazement, when we tallied our numbers at the end, my colleagues agreed; our overall winner was Dana Moos, Cookbook Author and Guest Chef for Stonewall Kitchen; whose “bite” was a lobster wonton. It was simply prepared with the lobster meat atop of a crisp wonton, a light sauce and garnish. Best presentation went to Stephen Richard of Fisherman’s Wharf.
Our “work” done, we were free to mingle with the guests, see the chefs’ tables and do some more “tasting”. After my 11 bites I was certain I couldn’t eat another morsel. But after a time, I found the tables and presentations so beautiful, I couldn’t resist a few more samples. As I walked the floor, nibbling on lobster, I hoped I’d get another call next summer.