My grandfather would have turned 80 this month. To honor his amazing, unique legacy, I am posting here an essay I wrote over a year ago, which describes just a small portion of our life with him, and yet speaks volumes about what kind of person he was. He is, and will always be, greatly missed.
The lovely thing about families, any family, is that we all have traditions, which, while we're in the thick of them, seem perfectly normal and are just what we do. But sometimes, through no fault of their own, traditions end. And then we are handed bittersweet hindsight, and in seeing them again through fresh, almost naive eyes, we begin to realize the wondrous, unique nature of things which had for so long simply felt commonplace.
In my family, that lost tradition is our annual Lobster Bake. Years ago, my grandfather - Putt-Putt, as he was known to the family - decided that it would be fun to invite family and friends over at the height of summer for a Maine lobster bake. Innocent enough, except that nothing was ever that simple (or small) for Putt-Putt. This was a man who, for most of his adult years, built fishing boats and spent his summers chasing and harpooning tuna fish in the Gulf of Maine. And in his spare time, he built cars, planes, and houses as hobbies! He was an extreme example of the stereotypical Mainer: hard-working, ingenious, independent, the ultimate do-it-yourselfer. Naturally, his Lobster Bake was of epic proportions.
Putt-Putt was a remarkably generous man, always ready to help out a friend and rarely asking for the favor to be returned. That practice changed in a significant way with the advent of the Bake. He had several lobsterman friends for whom he routinely designed and constructed boat parts - propellers, handliner reels for blue fin tuna fishing, stainless steel tie-off bits, and the like, and he even invented parts for which no suitable commercial version existed. (Like I said, he was ingenious.) In lieu of payment, he began asking that he be repaid in lobsters in the summer - "calling in my markers," he'd say. Consequently, he was able to call in a year's worth of favors at once, resulting in the biggest cache of lobsters I have ever seen at a private residence. For, you see, he needed dozens and dozens of the clawed crustaceans to feed all his guests. By issuing an open invitation to his 'close family and friends,' upwards of 50 people could be expected to show up each year! And of course, Putt-Putt wanted to make sure every person there could dine on two lobsters if they wished; thus, cooking 100 or more lobsters became de rigueur.
Always ready for a challenge, Putt-Putt devised a simple method for preparing his feast. Everything would be steamed in seaweed, as if his party was taking place on any one of the nearby rocky beaches, rather than in his own backyard. (Although 'yard' hardly seems apt to describe the three acres of in-town land his home and all its accessories sat on.) So Putt-Putt built a huge fire pit and topped it with a large steel box piled high with freshly-harvested seaweed, into which was layered lobsters, corn on the cob, potatoes, even eggs and hot dogs! The whole thing was doused with salt water and topped off with more seaweed, then left alone to work its magic.
When everything was deemed cooked, Putt-Putt used a forklift (which, being a Handy Sort of Guy, he just happened to own) to transport the bounty to the eating area. The seaweed would be steaming, the scent of salt and wood smoke was intoxicating, and the anticipation reached a child-like intensity as the culinary treasure chest was opened, with the bright red lobsters, yellow-green corn, and brown eggs and potatoes all peeking out as the layers were exposed. And all of this was done so matter-of-factly that, unbelievably, it really did seem normal, even as we acknowledged its Cornucopic abundance.
And then we would feast. There are few people who need to be convinced of a lobster's charms, but how many know that native corn tastes best cooked in a briny steam bath? Or that lobster juice mingled with sea water produces a baked potato that needs no butter, and certainly no sour cream? Oh, and the eggs and hot dogs I mentioned? Yes, even they taste better with a bit of the ocean in them. It was messy and informal, with pails of napkins and cups of drawn butter spaced along the tables in the grass, and lemonade and beer to wash it all down. There was probably a salad, and dessert too, but who can remember? Because if it wasn't cooked in seaweed over a roaring fire, it barely registered.
There hasn't been a Lobster Bake in several years. It wouldn't be the same without Putt-Putt; those Bakes were so intimately tied to him and who he was that they really aren't transferable. But the memories are vivid, ready for retelling. And as we reminisce we realize that, while lobsters may come and go, none can match the pleasure of those consumed at one of Putt-Putt's Lobster Bakes.