YOU don't have to spend very long in New England before you hear stories of how abundant lobster used to be - way back in olden times. How lobsters as big as tricycles, would wash up on the beach after a storm. Or that early settlers (poor things) had to dine on eight-pound lobsters. They just couldn't afford chicken. My favorite story is by way of Delia Houghton, an elderly maiden lady way down in Roque Bluffs, Maine.
Miss Houghton would tell how her grandfather, Elisha Schoppee, ``used to go out at low tide with his wooden wheelbarrow and pick up all the lobsters he could find. He'd dump them over the fields for fertilizer,'' she'd say.
These days, Maine lobsters have become jet-setters, flying off and showing up, albeit briefly, at the finest dining tables here and overseas.
Still, Maine lobster is best and freshest and most fun - guess where? If you're in the area, why not take a day or two to track down some Homarus americanus in their own home town?
Seventy-five miles north on Route 95 from Boston, and halfway over the Piscataqua River Bridge, is the Maine state line. Below is Warren's, a most popular, and certainly the closest, place over the border to crush a claw or two.
Even before you get there, however, you'll spot your first lobsters. They're all over the highway, doing 55 m.p.h., racing north towards the border. Maine issued car number plates emblazoned with red lobsters last summer.
Not everyone approves. ``Don't like 'em,'' one fellow commented, ``The lobsters are too small. They look like bugs. ... They should have made the whole plate in the shape of a lobster or something.''
Never mind. It's the live ones I was tracking down.
A few local folks at Roberts and Daughters Country Store in Kittery highly recommended Chauncey Creek, just up the road at nearby Kittery Point. ``Ron's the owner. He's over there,'' said a carpenter pointing to a man with a red beard wearing an electric-orange ski cap brighter than a lighthouse, and louder than a fog horn.
Ron Spinney was busy inspecting newly painted picnic tables with attached benches. They shone like a rainbow with fresh coats of red, blue, yellow, green, and gray.
But no pot of gold here. No pot of lobster either. ``We're openin' Saturday,'' he said.
Warren's was open, said Ron, but recommended Weathervane ``just a few miles down the road.
``Food's good and fresh. Everything's served on paper products. Nothin' fancy,'' he added.
Ron was right on all counts. Weathervane, on busy Route 1, offered a double boiled lobster dinner for $12.95. This price includes baked or French fried potatoes, rolls, salad, plastic bib, and a sweeping view of the Kittery Trading Post outlet shopping-center across the street.
It's an informal, family-type place. A little too much family this day.
Four-year-old Nicole was celebrating her birthday at the next table. Perhaps celebrating isn't quite the word: Her older brother - by about nine-months - was having a great time chasing our birthday girl with an empty claw shell from their grandmother's lobster.
Another party-boy had discovered that plastic spoons are the perfect catapult for firing cold fried clams at great distances. One clam flew from the birthday table, and landed on a lady's pink sweater at the next table. That did it. Things quieted down after the party group were rounded up and hustled out.
Weathervane is simple, unpretentious, and the food is honest and good and reasonable. I'd recommend it any day except May 4 - Nicole's birthday.
If you want lobsters ``to go,'' Weathervane runs the Red Rock Lobster Pound next door. Karen Hodgdon was behind the counter. She'd been selling lobsters for a year. ``A year this past April Fool's Day. That tells ya somethin','' she said, adjusting her cap.
Her father and brother are lobstermen. ``Lobster? Ya, I like it. But I wouldn't kill for it.''
That seemed reasonable.
``We had this man from Texas. He couldn't believe lobsters. He had me pull out the biggest one and had his picture taken with it.''
On up at York Harbor the lobster hunter find Bill Foster's Downeast Clambake, run by Paul Murphy. ``Lobster in the not-so-rough,'' the sign says.
Paul is all fun and all Irish, right up to his green Notre Dame cap. This is the big-time. Here, in a large screened-in porch, Paul and his jovial staff serve up to 280 lobster-lovers at a sitting (actually, two or three sittings a day, during the high season). ``We get a lot of seniors bused in,'' said Paul, as he prepared for the first group.
``But we're different - clambakewise,'' Paul actually said. ``We have entertainment and music. We kid around. I'll give a lady a little lobster squeeze. And we do a lot of teasing, like if someone orders steak instead of lobster. It's a party when you come here.''
Just call an hour or two ahead Wednesday through Sunday, and you'll get a seat at Paul's clambake. Lobster, clams, mussels, corn-on-the-cob, fish chowder, onions, potato, and watermelon. Steak or chicken if you prefer. Coffee, tea, lobster-squeeze and chicken pinch, no charge.
For a place right on the water, Paul recommends Barnacle Billy's on Perkins Cove in Ogunquit or Hancock's Ogunquit Lobster Pound.
Hancock's is a beautiful spot right on Route 1. You may sit outside under a stand of sweet-scented pines, or inside the large knotty-pine, cedar-log lodge. Here you can pick out your own lobster from the pool. They'll weigh it and cook it while you decide where to sit.
You can also get lobster stew or a lobster roll. And even a peanut butter and jam sandwich for a buck and a quarter. Save room for the homemade deep-dish blueberry pie `a la mode. It's baked right here on the premises.
While you're doing your lobster research, grab a cruise on a lobster boat from Perkins Cove. Finestkind runs lobstering trips daily, except Sunday, every half hour from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Trips last 50 minutes and cost $5.50. You'll see a few traps pulled and get an explanation of what lobstering is all about.
If you're planning a weekend on the lobster trail, be sure to stop at the Maine Aquarium in Saco and meet ``Boomer'' and friends.
Boomer is a 26-pound lobster with a crusher claw the size of a catcher's mitt. Mary Cerullo, executive director of the aquarium, puts his age somewhere between 50 and 75 years. He's big, ``but nothing like the five- and six-footers that washed up in New York Harbor in colonial days,'' said Ms. Cerullo.
Even more exotic are the calicos, reds, and cobalt-blue lobsters that share the tanks.
On the way back home, the lobster traps at Noel's Antiques in Wells caught my eye. Rita Ross Noel handed me her card, a classic example of Yankee brevity. ``We buy. We sell,'' it read.
``These are new,'' said Rita without apology. ``Thirty-six dollars. Sure you can pay less for used ones. But they smell. I sure wouldn't want a smelly one in my living room,'' she sniffed. ``Would you?
``They make nice coffee tables. Here's a picture someone sent me,'' she said, handing me a Polaroid snap of a lobster trap with a jack-o-lantern on it. ``Now look, isn't that nice?'' she said, tacking it back on the bulletin board.
If you go
Two lobster-related events of interest are: The Maine Lobster Festival, Rockland, Knox Co. at the Public Landing, last weekend in July. The Winter Harbor Lobster Festival. Second Saturday in August.
A free copy of ``The Maine Book'' is available by calling (207) 729-6671.