If David Lynch is looking for his next project after "Twin Peaks," he need look no farther than quaint Maine for another bizarre episode.
Seems an alarming number of motorists in the Pine Tree State the past few years have taken to whiting out or altering the emblem of a bright red lobster that decorates Maine's license plates.
It should be noted this is not a culinary protest (though some extremists have gotten ugly about the double-clawed, 10-legged crustacean). Neither is this political, exactly, as in the case of the Maine man whose right to change the word "Vacationland" to "Radiationland" on the license plate was upheld in 1983 as freedom of expression by the state's Superior Court.
Instead, the Maine Lobster License Plate War, as it has been called going on four years now, has boiled down to one steamy cauldron of class strife. At least, that's the conclusion of a native Maine sociologist who analyzes the idiosyncrasies of his home state culture professionally -- and mostly from the comfortable distance of California.
"Really, it's an indicator of a larger thing that's going on there," says George H. Lewis, a University of the Pacific professor who was born in Houlton, Maine, and raised in Bar Harbor.
In his study, "The Maine Lobster as Regional Icon," published in the academic journal Food and Foodways, Lewis fished the deep waters of human motivation for explanations of the license-plate defacing. While Maine lobsters have drawn more butter than blood, Lewis did find adversity in how the lobster is viewed. "There's a lot of tension involved between people who move into small communities and want it to look like the calendars of Maine, and many longtime residents who don't look anything like the calendars," says Lewis. "This is about the whole movement of the young urban professionals from Boston and that area who have been in the rat race for five or 10 years now and want to move up to Maine and make a home there."
Whoa. How does the yuppiezation of coastal Maine, even if it torments the dickens out of staid Down-East citizens who are known to say such things as "ay-yup," evolve into mass license plate desecration? One clue: Dirigo. The state's motto is Latin for "I direct." Mainers are an independent folk. Bad enough that the central authority in the state forces them to hang an image of a dancing lobster on their car and truck bumpers; worse that the idea originated from a fourth-grade class of "gifted students" in Kennebunk -- one of the fashionable towns harboring affluent transplants and their offspring.
But the lobster stew goes deeper than that. Longtime residents of this poorest of the New England states have never been as enthralled by the lobster as naive outsiders figured them to be. Lewis found that early settlers didn't think of eating the creatures. Stories abound of Mainers disentangling them from fishing nets or gathering them off beaches after storms and plowing them under "by the ton" to fertilize rocky farmlands. More commonly, lobsters were provided as charitable fare for destitute widows and orphans -- or fed to pigs.
Improved canning methods after the Civil War changed all that. The wealthy of Boston, New York and Baltimore began to acquire a taste for the sweet meat and for the rustic scenery of Maine's coast, where they bought up property for summer homes, pricing both commodities beyond the means of most Mainers. Underlying resentment that grew for lobsters and lobster eaters (wealthy intruders, tourists, outsiders in general) was piqued by the license plates. As one inland Mainer told Lewis: "Lobsters, hell, they're big cockroaches ... You ain't gonna catch me eatin' one, even if I could afford the damn thing."
Not that these folks are hard-sell crabs, but lobster plates are seen as one more irksome addition to lobster lunacy that already consumes a state where tourists shop for lobster traps made into coffee tables, lobster T-shirts, lobster jewelry, lobster weather vanes, lobster toys, lobster salt-and-pepper shakers, "Lobster Lover on Board" bumper stickers. This may be the only state in the union where paintings of lobsters on black velvet outsell Elvis on black velvet.
Lewis's analysis: "A person of lower socioeconomic class, rural, longtime resident, and especially not living on the coast, is most likely to oppose the new plates. A person of middle-to-upper socioeconomic class, more recently arrived in Maine, urban-oriented, and a coastal resident, is more apt to see the lobster license plates as appropriate and to actually be pleased and proud to display them."
Author Carolyn Chute, who wrote "The Beans of Egypt, Maine," said this: "Personally, the decision to use the lobster on the plates is insulting. I mean, the lobster has no reality for most Mainers. If you wanted to show typical Maine food, you'd be more accurate with a potato. Or better still, how about macaroni and cheese?"
In a contest sponsored by the Maine Sunday Telegraph, in Portland, soon after the legislature ordered the lobster plates, the majority of the draw-your-own submissions depicted pine trees as the logical alternative to lobsters on the plates. Lighthouses ran second. Black flies might've worked if it's reality they want.
Meanwhile, opposition has spread. Although a Wilton woman was arrested two years ago for violating the state law prohibiting alteration of license plates, the state has sidestepped the potential constitutional commotion by instructing district attorneys not to prosecute protesters. In effect, state officials have tucked in their bibs and are waiting for the mess to go away.
But will it ever? For a contest recently held in Portland to redesign a rundown gas station, the winning architects submitted a blueprint that would erect four lobsters larger than automobiles on huge round canopies of above the station. The architects are from Philadelphia.