It is pleasantly reassuring to those of us who have resisted the necessity of silverware well into adulthood to be confronted with a dinner that so cries out to be eaten using fingers. And for the sublimated surgeon, there is the high-risk procedure of cracking the shell, extracting the vital substance, treating it with melted butter and applying it directly to the tongue.
The lobster dinner is one of the few meals at which the diner can do almost anything without being concerned about violating etiquette. Elbows on the table, for example, are perfectly permissible if it becomes necessary to gain more leverage with the nutcracker (elbows in the melted butter, however, is still considered improper under any circumstances).
In fact, the only potential chagrin the diner faces comes after the meal, when he arrives for the dedication of the pop-culture wing of the local art museum wearing a piece of cloth inscribed “AHOY MATEY!”over his dinner jacket.
Before all this occurs, though, people watch the day crack open over pile-studded Fort Point Channel. They wander slowly toward the docks, preparing to go out and roust the raw materials of their elegant lobster dinner.
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When Frank Sampuco and his two sons board the Maureen to go to work, it is sufficiently early in the day that someone is sleeping in the doorway of a nearby fruit company, and it is also sufficiently late in the night that the newspaper blanket employed there has been breezed away at least as far down as the classified. A small wrist watch, hanging from an old crucifix above the Maureen’s wheel, reads 5:55.
“I don’t ever get a day off unless it’s really foggy or rainy,”Sampuco says. “It’s a seasonal thing for six months. You’ve got to make a year’s pay in that time.”
For over 70 years, the Sampucos have depended for their livelihood upon the regular movement of lobsters in and out of the waters of Boston Harbor and Quincy Bay. Frank’s father fished until he was 83; Frank has been at it for close to 40 years; his two sons each began young and now help on weekends and during summer vacations.
The lobster season extends roughly from June 15 into December. “I usually go out during early June,”Sampuco says. “The job starts then. Once you get your traps out, you have to maintain them. And I usually stop about December 16.”
The Maureen, its diesel engine giving it the incongruous sound of a downtown bus, rocks into the Harbor toward the first of Sampuco’s traps. This early in the year, no one is expecting too much. Before he left the dock, Sampuco had already spent $125. Five barrels of bait flounder cost him $50. He pays his sons $30 a day each during fishing season, and his fuel (which once used to cost him only $2 a trip) came to $15. At the current price, he’ll need 60 pounds of lobsters just to cover the cost of shoving off.
“He’s got to make it or we don’t,”says Sampuco’s son Andrew. “Like last week, we worked seven days and only got paid for two. That’s the way it is this time of year.”