My grandma was a mermaid, at least that’s how I always thought of her. A New Englander raised on the shores of York Harbor, Maine, before moving to New York in her 20s. She spent her 81 years on this Earth at the beach—lounging in the sand with her feet in the water. Her skin always smelled like that hot summer-skin smell: sun-dried sea salt and baby oil.
She loved lobster.
I’ve always been a food person; I come from a food family—every vacation and holiday is wrapped with delicious memories of themed feasts and food adventures. I had my first lobster when I was merely 5 years old—or rather my first two lobsters. One and a quarter pounders; Grandma always said the smaller the lobster, the sweeter the flesh. A notion that has since been tried and tested, year after year, and remains true in my book.
It was at The Weathervane, a kitschy nautical-themed restaurant in Kittery, Maine, just outside of her hometown, where she went back nearly every summer to visit family and to have her annual lobster or two. Summer 1995, my family all went up to Maine together. I sat next to her in a booster seat, legs dangling and fingers tapping, anxiously awaiting my first taste of the sea. When the lobsters arrived, they were in a red plastic basket, lined with paper, adorned with two matching bright red shells, a shiny metal cracker, a wedge of lemon and a saucer of clarified butter. The waitress placed the platter in front of me, with obvious amusement spread across her face at the thought of my little hands digging in. Grandma guided me through each crack of the claw, helping whenever needed. She showed me how to separate the succulent white flesh from the crimson tail, uncover the hidden strands of meat in the back fins and revealed the delightfully salty rush of chomping on the legs. To this day, I can dismantle a lobster flawlessly, and savor every bite.
I love lobster.
Years later, I sat with my grandma at another kitschy nautical-themed restaurant, this time in the Bronx, New York.
A typical late summer evening, the air heavy and warm. My parents, Grandma, Papa and my brother Chris had just dropped my uncle and his family off at JFK Airport, heading home to Sydney, Australia, after a month-long visit with my grandparents. We made our way back home, the car a little lighter and the air a little heavier with the melancholy of our extended family leaving. It had been a hard summer for Grandma, spending the better part of it couch-bound due to a broken hip; she didn’t make it up to Maine this summer. On a whim, we decided lobster was the answer to our end-of-summer blues.
Bounding over the old weathered bridge that connects the mainland to City Island, The Lobster House with its brightly colored roof and neon lobster sign caught our attention. We turned left on City Island Avenue and eagerly headed toward our last lobster of the season. Little did I know this would be the last lobster I would share with Grandma.
The mood of the night shifted as we entered the nautical eatery— there’s no room for sadness in food—taking us back to many summers spent eating lobsters by the sea. We settled into a booth, ordered our twin lobsters and dug in. Breaking the lobsters apart artfully and meticulously, as always, not letting an ounce go to waste. Starting with the claws, then on to the tail, the tomalley (the green fatty offal, bursting with concentrated oceanic flavor, her most favorite bite) and the roe, if you’re so lucky. That night we were.
After our feast, we made a pit stop at our summertime family favorite, Lickety Split, an old-school ice cream parlor just a few blocks down the road from where we had dinner. We ate our ice cream cones and watched the glimmering Long Island Sound dance in the moonlight, at peace with the summer coming to an end.
Four months after our City Island dinner, my grandma passed away. The night we shared our last lobster is a memory that surfaces every summer as I dig into a lobster in her honor at The Lobster House, and break it apart piece by piece, just as she showed me.