Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Etiquette of eating Lobster with your hands

On Eating Lobster and Other Finger Food

Lobster is as local as any seafood for New Brunswick that you can get. I have been told of the glory days of Katy’s Cove in St. Andrews where lobster salad was served as a delectable lunch. Private cocktail parties for the local swells would boast lovely chunks of lobster tail in overflowing silver bowls with curried mayonnaise for dipping. Elegantly laid dinner tables with fine linens, silver flatware and crystal champagne flutes would herald a special feast of these feisty bottom-feeding crustaceans. On the other hand, there were the local hard working people and fishermen. To these folks, lobster was considered “poverty food”. A woman told me that, when she was a child, her lunch box would usually have a lobster sandwich in it. She would try to trade it to someone who had a peanut butter sandwich. Lobster was so plentiful that if you had nothing else to eat, you could go right down to the beach and pick some up. My, how times have changed!

When I was a young boy, I was lucky enough to have had lobster from time to time, especially in the summer months. As a family, my mother, father, sister and I would sit around a low Chinese rectangular table on generous cushions. We would each have a lobster, shell crackers, picks, seafood forks and a large wooden “graveyard” bowl for discarding the used shells. At an early age I learned how to pick a lobster, sucking the meat out of the small legs, getting the delectable knuckle meat out of the spiny claws, and of course saving the tail until the end – the real treat! Served with melted lemon butter, the whole affair was quite messy requiring extra paper napkins, but it was one of the most fun dinners I remember as a young boy. It was right up there with beef fondue, which was also a great treat. However, we got to eat the lobster for the most part with our hands, which made it all the more delicious, so I thought. Then one evening, I saw the dining room table beautifully set for ten people complete with silver candelabra, champagne flutes, etc. I asked my mother what they were having for dinner and she told me ‘lobster’. Wow, I thought, how is this going to work? Well, as luck would have it, one of the dinner guests was a very distinguished highly decorated Air Force General. He had survived a fiery crash and was left with very limited use of his hands. He asked me if I would come to the table with him to pick his lobster for him. I was so honored and thrilled, at the age of 12, to oblige. I even got a $5 tip from him, which in those days would buy me several toy cars. Anyway, during the process of picking his lobster for him, I watched the rest of the guests attack their lobsters, gobbling down the delectable morsels using seafood forks and a dinner fork and knife when it came to the prize tail. There were finger bowls brought out with dessert, which were really needed before dessert (and used, I might add). In the end, the graveyards were filled and whisked off to the kitchen.

In stark contrast, when I arrived in St. Andrews, one of the first dinners I had was a real lobster feast. There were a number of people I had never met before and as I watched them eat their lobsters, I could not believe when one of them reached into the graveyard and pulled the body of the lobster I had recently discarded as finished. Well, this body was opened up and an amazing amount of tender morsels were picked out. And don’t forget the red roe and green ‘tamale’. By the time they were finished, all of the bodies had been picked clean, save the lungs of the creature. I was amazed, and still am to this day, at how people up here really go to town on lobster – and it is eaten with their hands, which as I said before, makes it all the more delicious. And copious amount of paper towels – no finger bowls.

Which brings me to today’s etiquette question. What foods can you eat with your hands in a more formal dining situation? As a general rule, if you are out and there is no cutlery put out, such as a picnic of fried chicken or crabs, burgers, fries and hot dogs, then everything is fair game to be eaten with your hands. In some countries, forks and knives are never used. However, in most cases you will have cutlery. So what’s ok to eat with your fingers? Asparagus is one for sure. Although the most fastidious people will use a fork and knife, I love using my fingers. I had a friend who used to grow 1000 acres of asparagus for Jolly Green Giant. During the short season, we would go down to his farm and have a platter of asparagus one foot high in the middle of the dining room table. We had bowls of delicious lemony hollandaise sauce and we all delighted in dipping the freshly steamed spears into the sauce and then dropping them into our mouths. Other foods, in short, which are perfectly ok to eat with your fingers are Artichokes (impossible to eat otherwise), crisp bacon, shrimp cocktail, French fries (if served with a steak, use a fork), olives, pastries (breakfast), and raw veggies with dip. Otherwise, use cutlery as provided and you will not be in fear of making a faux pas.