A Gift from the Sea

Summers on the Maine coast provide one writer with the delicious tokens of a special friendship

By Isabel Gillies

Published on May 27, 2014

I'm not a person who likes secrets, but I do have one.

On the island in Maine's Penobscot Bay where my parents own a house and I have spent summers since I was a child, the morning fog burns slowly off the milky gray sea. Kids run down the dock in bright red-and-blue life preservers on their way to sailing class, and some other parent invariably asks, “What did you have for dinner last night?”

On an island that has no restaurants, people cook, and they pride themselves on the meals they make for their families. My answer varies. If I've grilled pork tenderloin or made pesto for spaghetti, I recount every detail. But if we had crab, steamers, or lobster, I find a way to change the subject. “Did you happen to see the moon last night?” I ask.

You see, I am friends with a lobsterman. Because we are friends, which feels lucky anyway, I get access to the most amazing fish. It's like having a backstage pass—a culinary jackpot that feels almost undeserved.

A decade ago, during my first marriage, my then-husband and I took a break from our steep Manhattan rent and lived on the island from late May through Christmas while he worked on his dissertation. My parents' primary residence was a New York apartment as well, but they had winterized part of their Maine summer house in anticipation of their retirement, and they invited us to stay there.

All I had ever known was summertime. People leave their doors open, welcome a neighbor over to pick herbs from the garden. But during that autumn, I grew attuned to a different rhythm on the island. In early October, when the wind turned to the northwest, the sea changed from a patchy blue-jean color to a brighter, deeper indigo. Once all the boat traffic of the summer community eased up, the sea otters, seals, and bald eagles came out in the open to frolic and fish.

In the evenings, I took a rug hooking class at the Baptist church. The New England islander gals and I would titter as we made the joke, over and over again, about how we were going down to “hook” at the church. “Here we are, a bunch of hook-ahs!”

It's a small community even in the summer, but once the vacationers depart, the numbers drop by more than half. And although people try to mind their own business, everyone knows almost everything: who's got a new puppy, whose teenager is being naughty.

It was one afternoon around Halloween, when I was buying a meatball sub to split with my one-year-old, Hugh, at the only market on the island when I made an unlikely friend. I'll call him Mike. I don't know why we started talking at the register or what the conversation was about. The kid? The change of the leaves? Our interaction was not long or involved, but I got him and he got me. Had we grown up as neighbors, he might have taught me how to hunt fish-bait worms, and I might have shared my Marlboro Lights with him and listened to mix tapes of Duran Duran on the dock. But we didn't know each other as teenagers, and we didn't live next door. Since that first chat, we haven't seen each other much. We hardly know a thing about each other, but I know he is my friend as much as I know there is salt in the sea.

The man is a giant; his hands are the size of frying pans. He was probably a looker as a teenager. Weather and time have taken some toll, but not much. He has a wide lopsided smile and shiny intelligent eyes. But for this city girl, the most exciting thing about him is that he is a lobsterman with a 32-foot wooden-hulled boat named after his daughter. Traps, pots, lines, bait—the real deal. He is in the brotherhood, part of an enduring group of capable men (and some women) who go out on the erratic ocean alone. Skeptical of strangers, lobstermen are keepers of secrets, working in the howling wind and hot sun, the icy snows, and bewildering fog. When I was growing up, the lore was that they had the right to shoot anyone who messed with their traps.

Eventually, my first marriage ended and I remarried. I returned to living in New York City and spending summers in Maine. I would buy seafood from Mike, but over time our relationship evolved. He became my teacher. We had talked now and again about his job, what he saw out there, how the business was. At some point I said, “I'll take anything you find!” Or something like that, so he started leaving me surprises—challenges, really.

When we order something from Mike, he leaves it in a plastic basket cleated at the end of our dock, closing the lid as a signal that something has been delivered. One July day the basket was shut, though I hadn't ordered anything. I pulled on the prickly fiberglass rope and hauled it up, water streaming through the holes on its sides like a colander. A massive cod was flopping around inside. I shouted to the kids, “Look at this thing!” My three kids, who were eight, nine, and ten, stood with me, bent over, gaping at a fish bigger, glossier, and more thrashingly alive than anything we had seen in an ice bed at a fishmonger's counter. “How are ya gonna kill it, Mama?” asked Thomas, the eight-year-old.

Although we live steps from the sea, we are gardening people; we do not fish. I had no idea what to do with this creature, so I called the Island Market to beg the owner to clean and fillet the cod for me. No luck—too busy in high-season. I googled “fish butchering” on my laptop in the kitchen, but the graphic videos I found were more intimidating than helpful. Leaving the kids watching videos of Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo, I walked back down to the dock and pathetically scanned the waters in hopes that I could wave down Mike's boat.

It was an improbable notion. Fishermen are notoriously tight-lipped about their whereabouts. I certainly didn't know where he was. I would have to handle this myself. Like a lot of well-meaning New Yorkers, I've always talked the big talk about farm-to-table food. Now, with a cod taking its last breaths on my dock, I had to put my money where my mouth was. I got the biggest knife I could find from the house. The kids watched from nearby as I knelt and looked into the creature's eye, putting my hand on its cool, taut skin. “I don't think I can do it,” I said, my voice quavering. “Just do it quickly,” Hugh, now nine, said.

And I did. Taking deep breaths and telling myself not to be such a wimp, I cut off the fish's head. It was not a clean blow; bone and gills do not give way easily to a home cook's dull blade. I could feel the quivering life inside the fish, even though it would soon be gone. With the point of the knife, I drew a line down its belly so the guts could fall out. I felt nauseated.
Is this how you do it, friend? I thought. What was he thinking, leaving me with such a job? Still, I cooked the fish, pan-searing it with fresh rosemary and thyme from the garden. Mike probably didn't think I knew how to clean a fish, but he was giving me the opportunity to learn—one I may not have had otherwise.

Not all of his deliveries are as daunting. Sometimes late at night we return from a dinner at a neighbor's house, and there is a wooden basket of clams in the kitchen sink. I laugh out loud knowing I'll have to make a chowder the next day or host an impromptu steamer night, when we'll eat them from bowls and drink lots of beer. In my fantasy of him, Mike is encouraging me to gather people to feast on what he's found, with no expectation of an invitation.

Once, digging in the freezer for ice cream, I discovered two bags of December Maine shrimp. Oh, dude! How the heck do I cook these? I wondered. The next day, it would be my duty to get to work, reading cookbooks, browsing food blogs—researching the tiny orange-pink shell-less gems so that I didn't ruin them.

We don't talk money. Every once in a while I write him a check that I hope is well in excess of what he has given me—if you can put a price on it. I worry about him during the winter, when the lobster-hungry summer folks like me have gone home. In recent years, warmer waters have caused lobster populations to explode, and prices have plummeted. Mike has told me they are as cheap as hot dogs. I would write him a check for a million dollars if I could.

Some late afternoons when we've returned home, I open the fridge to start the supper I planned, and on the shelf is a pound of crab so fresh it would be a crime to freeze it. He's already boiled and picked it from the shell by hand. So, a change of plan: What is in the garden or freezer that could possibly complement something that, alone, tastes god-sent?

My mother came up with the only recipe I know that honors such beautifully hand-picked crab. She warmed it in thick cream and served it over rice with peas on the side—no salt needed, just a grind of black pepper, and maybe butter. Now, any time a visitor arrives, we make it as a welcome dinner; the family calls it First Night Crab. It's very simple, but it's what I'd want for my last meal. It tastes like Maine and the sea and summer's lazy days. And, secretly, for me, it tastes like friendship.

Isabel Gillies' most recent article for SAVEUR was "Table for One" (May 2014).

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