It is 53 here this morning, and there is a light breeze. There is no question that Fall is in the air. Everyone walking the drive this morning is wearing sweatshirts, shorts, and gooseflesh. The dogs act like they’ve been drinking from the Fountain of Youth. There is a steady stream of sailboats passing the mouth of the bay, dangling their dinghys behind – a sure sign that they are picking up and migrating south. The other thing that has been migrating south are the Monarchs. They fly through here at this time every year. Some years are better than others – this one is pretty thin – but it’s always a magnificent vision. Not because there are huge flocks of Monarchs in the air – they don’t seem to travel in big flocks, but alone – but because there is something terribly inspiring, and a little sad, to see something as ultimately fragile as a butterfly heading out for a journey of thousands of miles. They don’t even fly straight, they really don’t even fly at all…they’re fluttering out on a journey thousands of miles long. Every time I see one of those frivolous orange and black creatures head drunkenly out over the ocean, I don’t know whether to smile, laugh, or cry.
The water is covered with billions of tiny ripples this morning because of the breeze, but it is still enough to hear, clearly, the sound of working boats plying their craft across the bay. There is a lobsterman out there right now, pulling up his traps, and probably harvesting my dinner as we speak. Every time I think about how hard my job can get, I just think of those lobstermen. And lobsterwomen. While I’m sitting here on my porch, happy in the knowledge that there’s a hot chocolate any time I need to warm up my fingers, those guys are out on the ocean – in all conditions – getting soaked to the skin and dealing with things that will eat each other if they don’t put a rubber-band on the claws. That’s what those bands are for – not so the cook won’t get pinched, but so the livestock doesn’t consume itself. Their job is difficult for other reasons, too. One of my favorite quotes about a boat is that it is a hole in the water, lined with money. They’re notoriously prickly to keep running. It’s as if the only transportation I had to work was a vintage Triumph motorcycle – got to get up extra early and make sure the wheels still work.
And then, there is the smell. I had heard that lobster bait is smelly, and I thought at the time, “Well, yes, all bait is pretty smelly.” Then, yesterday when I was out on the kayak, I heard what sounded to all purposes an eight-track recording of one of Elvis’s mid-career albums, being played loudly on the water, which meant we could all hear it for miles. I’m sure that the neighbors deeply appreciated that experience. It took me quite a while to catch up to the boat playing the rusty tunes, but long before I saw him, I knew him for a lobsterman, because I was hit with the Smell. Lobster bait is not smelly. It is Smelly. Possibly SMELLY. Imagine a five-gallon jar of anchovies and sardines. Now put the cap on and leave it outside in the full sun…for about three or four days. Now distill it until you have one pint (Imperial) of Essence of Rotted Sardines and Anchovies.
That is what lobster bait smells like.
Now, in addition to the deep gratitude I already felt to the lobstermen for providing my supper and doing an incredibly hard job, I am also grateful that they’re usually doing it somewhere far enough away that I can’t smell the boat.
We’re off to the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens this morning. These gardens never grow old for me. They have something different, and unique, and lovely to offer in every season. I saw them last at the end of July when the exuberance of the blooms was enough to put a sailor to the blush. Now I am anticipating a slightly more subdued experience, but the weather change will also let me cover more ground. There are, I recall, some short hikes of remarkable beauty along the balsam woods at the edges of the gardens. Nothing beats the aroma of balsam needles being crunched underfoot. It is such an intoxicating scent that around here, they bag it up in colorful sacks so that you can take it home with you. It works, too. A few years ago I had a draft-dodger for the back door that was a simple tube stuffed with these balsam needles – every time I moved it to open or close that door, I got a wave of this fragrance. And, like all smells, it has the power to transport me to a particular place and time…what better place and time than the coastal woods of Maine in the summer?
I’m looking forward to my last lobster for a year – because I expect it will be that long, or nearly that long, before I’m back where I can see the traps from my dining table…and a Girl’s Gotta Have Her Standards. I will pretend that this is my birthday dinner, because the meal I had at the place last night was mediocre in the extreme. The menu described the dish as a NY Strip (yes, I do eat something other than crustaceans and bubble gum ice cream) with onion jam and a grilled corn salad. Now, I love grilled corn salad when I make it at home, and this description conjured up just the sort of robustly flavorful dish I wanted last night. After eating no more than half of it, I wanted to send a note to the kitchen:
First, when you grill a steak, it is customary to salt and pepper it – at a minimum – before throwing it on the grill. It is preferable to apply other seasonings as well, something like thyme, or rosemary, or oregano, would have been a nice touch. But the salt, and especially the salt, is essential. It is what delivers a nice browned crusty effect on a piece of medium-rare meat. When you do not do this, the meat is tasteless and pallid, and looks like it might just as easily have come out of the microwave as off of a grill.
Second, “onion jam” implies an actual condiment, usually something prepared in advance. Typically, a quantity of onions have been caramelized, then seasoned thoroughly with interesting stuff, and then been let to sit while the flavors meld. A thin slice of onion, sauteed in an oily pan, and drooped over the steak, does not constitute an “onion jam.”
Third, “grilled corn salad” implies both the cooking of corn on a grill, and the notable presence of ingredients other than corn. Usually these other ingredients would be things like grilled bell peppers cut into chunky bits, grilled shallots, minced up, possibly a grilled pepper with some heat. For your edification, you cannot fake grilling corn by dumping a load of kernels into a pot on the stove and letting them sit there untouched until they blacken. There is a marked difference from both flavor and textural perspectives between “grilled” and “‘scorched”. “Scorched” is what you did, and it tastes nasty. It tastes so nasty, in fact, that the small palmful of scorched corn that was on my plate would be sufficient to ruin five gallons of meat stew. I know this because I did it myself, decades ago, when I was learning to cook.
Finally, it is desirable if everything on the plate is hot. It is not acceptable practice to dump a wad of mashers on a plate and let it sit there while you scorch the corn and turn the meat brown. Putting a hot piece of steak on a pile of room-temperature potatoes will not cause them to become warm.
In honesty, my husband loved his dish, so it looks like this cook was not totally incompetent, but that his/her skills are, at best, uneven. Nevertheless, the only part of my dinner that Satisfied was the super-hefty pour of Malbec and a very tasty wild Maine blueberry pie. Today, we eat at Bet’s fish fry, and tonight, I am take a Mulligan, and I’m for a dish of Glidden Point oysters (my second favorites in the world, after Wellfleets) and a grilled lobster with butter and fennel seeds. And maybe one of those blueberrry wheat ales from SeaDog. And maybe my final bubble gum ice cream for dessert. And tomorrow, it’s Out Oars For Home.