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Night of Lobster

Seventy-five years ago, the Pulitzer Prize–winning poet and essayist Robert P. Tristram Coffin penned a timeless tribute to one of Maine’s simplest pleasures. Its influence would reverberate through contemporary food writing.

From our July 2021 issue

In the summer of 1946, the small, urbane staff of Gourmet magazine — then just five years old, a publishing upstart — was hard at work in their penthouse offices on the 18th floor of New York City’s Plaza Hotel, prepping the September issue. Among the stories they were laying out was one by Robert P. Tristram Coffin, a regular contributor and a professor at Bowdoin College, in Maine, some 300 miles and a universe away. A decade before, he’d won a Pulitzer Prize for his poetry collection Strange Holiness. After studying at Princeton and at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, he’d returned to the Maine coast to live within 20 miles of the saltwater farm where he grew up. For Gourmet, he wrote romantic odes to wild berries, venison, clams, and other staples of his midcoast upbringing. And together with other early Gourmet contributors, like M.F.K. Fisher and Samuel Chamberlain, he helped the magazine establish a template for food writing that shaped the genre for decades to come.

“It is, I think, impossible for people raised in our food-obsessed culture to understand the contempt Americans had for food and cooking when I was growing up,” Gourmet’s final editor, Ruth Reichl, wrote in an essay in 2019. “Newspapers of the 1950s banished food to the ‘women’s pages,’ offering pleasant little recipes for ham cooked in Coca-Cola and tips for cleaning your kitchen.” The early Gourmet writers, by contrast, took food seriously as part of the culture. Their work merged writing about meals with writing about place and treated the act of eating with both anthropological curiosity and unabashed joy.

Five years ago, for a story about lobster rolls, I interviewed Reichl, a renowned food writer who helmed Gourmet from 1999 until the magazine folded in 2009. She was agog that I was unfamiliar with “Night of Lobster,” Gourmet’s Coffin story from that September 1946 issue. It was, she told me, “just a beautiful piece…one of the most spectacular pieces I’ve ever read on food.” A few years later, in the opening pages of her bestselling memoir, Save Me the Plums, Reichl described her adolescent discovery of the essay as a turning point, one that shaped her notions of what food writing could be.

Night of Lobster by Robert P. Tristram Coffin, as it appeared in Gourmet magazine's  September 1946 issue in
“Night of Lobster,” in Gourmet, September 1946

“As I began to read, the walls faded, the shop around me vanishing until I was sprawled on the sands of a small island off the coast of Maine,” she wrote. Coffin, she went on, had “such an extraordinary gift for words that I could hear the hiss of a giant kettle and feel the bonfire burning as the flames leapt into the night. The fine spicy fragrance of lobster was so real to me that I reached for one, imagined tossing it from hand to hand until the shell was cool enough to crack.”

“If I think of one word to describe Coffin, exuberant is the word,” says Gary Lawless, poet, publisher, and co-owner of Brunswick’s Gulf of Maine Books, who reissued two of Coffin’s out-of-print titles through his small press, Blackberry Books. “He’s really exuberant in all of his writing, full of energy and, a lot of times, full of joy too.”

Coffin was a staunch regionalist, and his poems and essays were, as one biography puts it, “committed to cheerful depiction of the good in the world.” That combination may have nudged his work out of fashion with some more world-weary later readers, and only a handful of his more than 40 books remain in print. But few writers have captured the personality and pleasures of the Pine Tree State with as much eloquence and charm.

“He’s a real poet of people and place,” Lawless says. “He’s not overly intellectualizing everything. He’s just telling you good stories, in a certain kind of format — which, if you’re made uncomfortable by rhyming or structured poetry, you might not read that much of. But I like to be in that world. It reminds me of my grandparents’ world, here in Maine.”

As the summer lobster season hits its stride, we are pleased to revisit that world in Coffin’s seminal, 75-year-old essay, reprinted here with the permission of the Robert P. Tristram Coffin estate. — BRIAN KEVIN

It is a pleasant thing to spend a night with a Maine lobstering man. It is especially pleasant when the man is deep in lobsters. I spent a night with one just this fall. It was a night I shall always remember.

A friend of mine and I went along together. This friend is a most particular one. He hails from Oregon and the other coast. But that is nothing against him. With his attainment of maturity, he has adopted Maine as his proper place. He is one of the thousands of artists who have recently done so. Artists are wise people. They know which side their bread is buttered on. This friend of mine makes the loveliest handmade books this side of the 14th century. Just to make sure the whole of his creation is good, he writes the prose and poetry that go into his hand-tooled covers. He is one of the best poets alive now.

This man is also an Old Blue of Oxford. In case you do not know what an Old Blue is, I can say he is just a half step down from one of the major gods on Olympus. He is one who wears the dark blue of Oxford University for having represented the University against Cambridge in an athletic contest. This friend made his Blue in that peculiarly American and Indian game from up Wisconsin way, part mere massacre, part pure brain, part sword-dance, and good part poetry, which is played at its most spectacular best in England — lacrosse. The man has an international standing in this sport.

This lobsterman is probably my friend’s sole rival in that ancient art of storytelling . . . one of the few survivors of that race of oral storymakers who used to live along the Maine coast.

This friend is also, in odd moments, an excavator of English abbeys and human nature, friend of British prime ministers and artists. He is also an authority on most medieval arts and crafts, on the great medieval church, on carving and stained glass — which he can make in the medieval manner — on tennis and an excellent player at it, on Herrick, and on Maine quahogs. He also happens to be one of the best storytellers living. But he wasn’t telling stories this evening. He was eating lobsters, with this lobstering man I speak of and with me.

This lobsterman is probably my friend’s sole rival in that ancient art of storytelling. He is one of the few survivors of that race of oral storymakers who used to live along the Maine coast. I believe he is one of the best of the race. He is, like most Maine coast men and my friend, the Old Blue poet, a decidedly all-round man. Besides catching lobsters, he paints in oils and watercolors, does wood carving with his jackknife. His dolphins and mermaids, both single-tailed and double, his full-rigged ships, anchors and rope, carved on pine sea chests, have made him well known and taken his name over New England. A master storyteller he is. But this evening he wasn’t telling stories either. He was after lobsters. He was purely and simply a fisher and an eater of them. So he kept quiet, like my friend, the poet. They both kept quiet.

The fisherman, I noticed, brought along a huge tomato can he had put a bail in, when he came down to his dory. What was that for? Oh, he guessed we might have use for it. We got in and pushed off.

We rowed down the long bay I used to row as a boy on my saltwater farm — or rather, the lobsterman rowed. He was fishing his string of traps tonight by oar power. It was 4 miles he rowed, steady as a clock, quiet. I wanted to spell him on the oars. The poet wanted to. We had both pulled a fair oar on our college crew at Oxford. But this lobstering man would not let us. This was our vacation. We should rest. The man rowed as he breathed, without effort. He had just finished an eight-hour shift at the Bath Iron Works, making destroyers for the American Navy. This was his way of resting.

the night sky over Acadia
Photograph by Chris Bennett

The herons were taking their stations for the night, indistinct on the mud flats. It gloomed and darkened. The mighty 200-foot cliffs of the shore faded into the few bright stars. Other stars came out, blurry with September softness, over the jagged spruce skyline along each side of us. I could see nothing at last but the glow of my friend’s and the lobsterman’s cigarettes. The tide, as it rose, made dim and sweet sounds around us. We moved gently on through whispers like eternity. The oars creaked in the tholepins. The oar sounds and the tide’s sounds went beautifully together. A fresh little night breeze came up from nowhere and lapped us round. The fragrance of the balsams on the shore mingled in with the smell of the sea. We floated gently on.

All at once, the lobstering man backed water hard and shipped his oars. He put out his hand into pitch-black night, took in a lobster buoy, stood up in the boat without tipping it in the slightest bit out of plumb, and started pulling. It was his first trap. He could have found it with his eyes closed in all that vast bay. Maybe his eyes were closed. I could not see. The trap came in over the side. Things fluttered and clapped in it like wet wings. The man put in his hand among unseen scissors of claws. He started taking things out. A crab. A crab. A crab. They splashed over the side and sank in the water.
A pause. “He’s too small.” It was a lobster, but it was a “short.” Overboard it went. Another followed it. Another. It was dark. No warden could have seen if we had taken a lobster of illegal length.

“A ‘count!’”

A lobster hit the dory’s bottom and flapped in a fury. More crabs went over. Another “count” lobster came skidding against my shoe. Another. Three good ones. Still another. And another. This was remarkable. Five good lobsters in one trap! Seemed like a record. The trap was baited up in the dark, slid over the gunwale, was gone.

The rower put out his oars and went on to the next buoy. It was like clockwork. He found it, pulled, and the ritual of falling lobsters began again. Four “counters” this time. The lobsterman rowed on and picked up the next trap just where it should be. More good ones. Clockwork it was. The sound of the oars in the tholepins made it more that way.

The sky was stars all over it now, and it had lifted up millions of miles high, the way the September skies do when it gets late. It had got lighter. I could see things dim on the bay now, but no buoys. But the rower could see them, coming up on them backwards too. He could see them through the back of his head. Or feel them. The way bats feel door-casings when they fly in the dark, by radar. See them or feel them — it was all the same to the lobstering man. He came up on them back-to, and he never missed one or fumbled for one. That was the kind of lobsterman he was. If he ever goes blind, this lobstering man can go right on fishing. It won’t hamper him in the least.

The man got every one of his string of 32 traps, without turning his head in the night. He must have been using a good “ripe” bait too. The boat’s bottom was alive with lobsters. They were up to our ankles.

Photograph by Frederick Bloy

The fisherman rowed to the dim shore. It looked all like an entire mountain to me, high on the stars, but we slid gracefully into a deep little cove hardly wider than our boat. We grounded on a beach where I should have said there was nothing but ledges. The lobsterman took out the killick and went up with it and put it down on the turf he knew would be there. We were anchored. The man disappeared into the woods for just a moment. He was back almost before he was gone; he had an armful of bone-dry spruce brush, he threw it down, touched a match to it. A vast blaze like a section of the Milky Way shot up against the night that was already sprinkled with stars. The poet and I had to back away from the light and heat. The bronze face of the lobstering man loomed smiling in the firelight. The brush crackled, and all three of our shadows danced up high upon the wall of silent woods above us.

The man of lobsters went down to the boat, took out the tomato-can pail, dipped some of the bay in it, and crowded it full of lobsters. He came back and set the pail on his fire, with a green fir bole he had picked up Lord knows where strung through the bail and resting, each end of it, on two jutting rocks that seemed just to have happened to be there, one on each side of the fire he had laid in the dark. The man lit his pipe up and settled back on his calves. We all lit up. It was quiet. Our fire made the only sound there was in the night. But soon the pail of lobsters began to sing low too.

The fire burned down to red coals. Suddenly, the lobsters boiled over. Hiss! The gush of water put out part of the embers. The lobsterman shoved more brush on from somewhere with his toe. The flames leaped up again. The lobsters started to boil over again. But this time, the man raised the fir bole a bit, pail and all, stopped the boil, put the fir bole back on the two rocks. The pail boiled over fiercely for the third time. This time the lobsterman let it boil. Then he poured the lobsters out bright red in the glow of what coals were left. He kicked on a whole new heap of brush. The fire danced up, sprinkling the night with wild stars. It was light as day. Our shadows wavered enormous on the high wall of night.

We took the hot lobsters, tossed them from hand to hand to keep them from scalding us, and broke them in two. We ate the hot green tomalley right out of the back shells. We broke off the large claws, put the broken end to our mouths, tipped back our heads, worked the jaws of the claws like scissors, and let the scalding hot juice spurt down our throats. I did not have to show the Old Blue of Oxford how to do it. He knew how. He had eaten Maine lobsters before. His Oxonian chin dripped just as much in the firelight as the lobsterman’s and mine did.

We fractured the thick claws in our teeth and got the sweet red meat out whole. We put the flanged tailpieces between our two palms, clasped our hands as if at prayer, cracked inward, cracked outward, laid the flanges wide, broken open clean as a whistle, lifted out a column of meat as large as a tholepin, stripped off the top strip, and took out the dark thread of the colon. Then we shoved the whole delectable business into our mouths. Tears came into our eyes from the heat and the taste of the lobsters. But we chewed and swallowed through our tears. We knew just how to eat the crustaceans. We were old hands at eating them, all three of us. We regaled ourselves on meat as hot as a spruce bonfire and sweet as a boy’s first love.

Photograph by Greta Rybus

My Oregonian-Oxonian friend is a poet, I say. He knows a poem when he sees one. He knows a poem when he is sitting in the middle of one. He knew he was right smack in the midst of a fine poem this night with the lobsterman. He hoed in. He got a lobster ahead of me. He got half a lobster ahead of the lobsterman. And that, let me tell you, is lobster-eating!

Before we knew it, we had run out of lobsters. The fisherman went back to the boat for another pailful. He breezed up our fire, and he set the new lobsters on. They boiled over in about 10 minutes’ time. The fragrance of the hot lobsters spiced up the whole night. Qwoks went over duskily like ghosts and cried at the sight of our fire and at being kept from their feeding grounds and the small fish crowding the edge of the rising tide where we were sitting. We ate some more lobster claws, rested, and talked. We didn’t talk much. We were too happy to find much to say. But we felt a lot. We dozed off, watched the stars, ate another claw, thought long, long thoughts. We dozed off singly, then together. We woke together, stirred the fire, and basked in happiness again. We heard small waves lapping somewhere. The tide was getting well up.

Suddenly, our boat loomed huge right beside us, on a level with our firelight. There was a hiss. The edge of high tide was licking our embers. But it did not put them out. It just kissed the outer coals. Our lobsterman had known to an inch where this particular September high tide would come up when he kicked up his fire.

We lost all track of time. The spell of the lobsters was upon us deep. We thought and dozed, dozed and thought. We threw on more fragrant spruce brush. The night was turning colder. The fire licked our faces and made them feel good. Little waves lapped about our toes. Our boat leaned on us and on our fire. All three of us got to feeling how this night and the stars of this night and we were brothers. We got to feeling as the ancient Indians, the Abenaki, must have felt in this same little cove here on some night like this a thousand years ago, and for thousands of years together in this cove, as they ate their lobsters over their sprucewood coals just the way we had eaten the same Maine lobsters now. The three of us merged with the tide and the soft sounds of life it made around us along the shore.

The morning star was burning big on the horizon when we pushed off our boat. The lobstering man rowed us home through the cool and widening dawn.

It was a night like a night of marriage. I shall remember it all my days. I hope I shall remember it, too, beyond even those.

Robert P. Tristram Coffin won the 1936 Pulitzer Prize for his poetry collection Strange Holiness. He died in 1955. “Night of Lobster” is reprinted with permission of the Robert P. Tristram Coffin estate. Opener image photographed by Greta Rybus.

April 2024, Down East Magazine

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