When I was a child, landlocked in Pennsylvania, there were no lobsters as there are now, alive and scuttling like aliens, in every Safeway. There was only lobster tail, and this was restaurant food. But it was the Sinatra of the menu, the Chairman of the Board, the priciest thing you could order. And in those days before Surf 'n' Turf, it stood alone as Surf itself, the king. Of course, there was no one we knew to tell us that this creature was light-years from the sparkle and brine of the sea, that it had spent more time in the deep freeze than the deep, and that it bore only passing family resemblance to its cousin from up north.
I encountered my first living lobster as a teenage waitress on Cape Cod. That summer I was initiated into the luscious succulence of the Real Thing, and learned how much time I'd wasted on the tasteless fake. I left that September with butter under my chin and lobsters in my future.
Fortunately, the man I married shares my love of the Cape, so every summer, despite the obvious charms of the Chesapeake, we pile into the car and drive up to Wellfleet. There we spend a week in a sea captain's huge old house with another married couple and their kids. One thing on our decidely uncrowded itinerary never changes: Lobster Night, always the last night of our stay, the better to prime our desire.
To be sure, there are fried clam lunches at Poit's Drive-In and chowder at Moby Dick's. Every evening we amble over to the farm stand and fish market. We might pick up tomatoes, fresh lettuce, a couple of plums, some fish for our evening meal. But we always peek into the dull metal tubs where the lobsters live, refreshed by a trail of aeration, until someone snatches them to their doom. We four adults pitch in enough cash to make what looks like a Vegas wad -- no chicken lobsters for us -- and buy ourselves a huge one each, freshly steamed, plus several lemons and a box of butter. This is our dinner.
There were five children in our little household this past year, aged 4 to 12, and one English au pair with an allergy to shellfish. None of these people can stand the sight of a lobster. This is just as well. They eat spaghetti on the porch, reading, laughing, playing jacks. The house has pocket doors, so we roll them out and close ourselves off in the dining room, set out plates and paper towels, gently unwrap the package and lay the scarlet things on the table.
Steam rises off of them like passion. We each select a partner and begin. There is little conversation; for this, you see, is an orgy. First, of course, is foreplay. I slowly detach the antennae, and put them to the side. I snap off each leg, and those in half again. These thin strips of meat are a tease, really, but sweet. I detach the claws and set them to cool. The knuckles I plunge with my thumb for pieces the size of popcorn. I am judicious with the butter. I only dip each piece very, very slightly, then tap off the excess. Claws next: I crack and pry in half each scalding shell. The meat is part spongy, part stringy mitt. Though my child is right outside, cradling his lacrosse stick, searching for worms, I am transformed. My fingers are greasy, my lips shiny and smiling, I am a voluptuary, a concubine, intoxicated, I am ripe for the climax -- the tail.
Forked and peeled delicately from its mermaid shell, this I cut into mouthfuls, one . . . two . . . three . . . four -- but the door has opened! Here stand the children, and the nanny. We four sit in a lubricated stupor. There is a silent semi-beat. Then the children poke fingers at their mouths, they fake a retch, a gag, and shriek. The nanny's eyes are the size of fried eggs. They swoon at the sight of us. The shells! The antennae! The gluttony! The mess! Their laughter brings us to. The door slams shut, and the children are out after fireflies.
My husband and friends and I look up at one another, across the table, a tundra of wreckage and mess. Where is the vacuum cleaner? The house will stink for a week. But what do we care? We are leaving tomorrow.
I just hope the cleaning lady shows. I just hope the children don't grow up and suffer recovered memory. I just hope God isn't a lobster.