Lobsters Debut And Disappear in Germany

Now we read that an enterprising Swiss has opened a Down East restaurant in Germany's great Hanseatic city of Hamburg and is doing a tremendous business with Maine lobsters. I believe it, and am here to state that the most wonderful sound in the world is that of a German eating a Maine lobster. I've heard it.

Let me explain as a moderate linguist that the German tongue has two words for eating. One, essen, is familiar to Americans in our daily use of the word "delicatessen," which means fancy eats, as in dainty food. Humans essen. The other word is fressen, which animals do, and we would use fressen if we translated "to eat like a horse." If you see what I mean.

In 1966 the Maine lobster was introduced to the Federal Republic of Germany at the International Food Fair held in Munich. My wife of the moment -- or any moment -- and I were in Munich to pay respects to several cultural shrines, including the Oktoberfest, and we read about this fair and how our home state would have a booth.

The street we needed also served the Oktoberfest, so we had some 8,000 Bavarians on the road with us, each of them thinking we were going to the Oktoberfest, too. At the exhibit hall we found things confused, as there had been a power failure.

At our Maine booth, when we found it, two young men we know well were doing their utmost to keep a tank of Maine lobsters alive. The electric pump that kept the salt-water tank useful had failed, and for more than a weary hour the two had been agitating the water with paper cups until their arms were numb and the lobsters looked sluggish. Instead of greeting us as long-lost friends in a foreign place, they handed us their paper cups and sat down on the floor. A fresh hand on the bellows did the trick, and we brought the lobsters through to entertain the Munich throngs.

This exhibition was a tricky thing to arrange, and the German folk realized that and were giving it thought. Lobsters are perishable, but can be transported if given the right conditions and steady care. Long before the fair, our boys in the state capitol at Augusta had been in touch with the airlines, seeking an utter guarantee that live lobsters from Rockland, Maine, would be delivered live in Munich. This was guaranteed absolutely, so you know well what happened. The first crate went to Vienna instead of Munich. And so on.

The booth was pushing two Maine products: lobsters and frozen poultry. The poultry was symbolized by frozen capons, labeled as Cacklebirds, and if kept frozen made no difficulties. The lobsters, shipped live, were to be displayed in a tank of salt water, and from time to time the spectators could see one removed, made ready for the table, and then taste it hot as the attendants served samples on toothpicks. The whole thing was done well, with two Fruleins found by our embassy doing the lecturing. The supply of lobsters was replenished by daily flights, and all but the first crate came to Munich. The great fun for us was watching the German crowd respond to cooked lobster.

The lobsters in the glass tank were viewed, but at the moment were neither to essen or to fressen. So folks wandered away and looked at other foods in other booths, a world of choice. Then, as if a cloister gong had been struck, they all rushed back to see the magnificent Hummer lifted from the tank, claws waving and tail flapping, and one or the other Fruleins explaining the prepared information. Toothpicks to the fore, everybody was ready. The first lobster was toothpicked off the platter in minus 4 seconds.

I decided then, and am glad to have the corroboration of this report from Hamburg, that Germans like lobster. I appreciate, also, that since 1966 strides have been made in transportation, and it may now be feasible to run a Down East Swiss restaurant in Hamburg without paper cups. About the handsome Cacklebirds from Maine I had a different opinion. They did not generate the enthusiasm of the Bavarians.

WHEN the international food fair was ended, our boys from Maine had no lobsters left, but they had a number of Cacklebirds that were not about to fly home. I had them send one to our landlady at the Pension Olive, and when we came in she had it on a table and was staring at it in awe. "What do I do with it?" she asked.

We gathered, from this and that, that a roasted rooster is not all that common in Germany. We saw spitted small birds being barbecued at the Oktoberfest, but that was more like hot dogs at a baseball game. Picnic and holiday fare.

Our landlady couldn't grasp stuffing a bird that size and roasting it in the oven. We showed her how, and she greatly admired the meal when the Cacklebird was ready. "It's much too big," she said, thinking in top-of-the-stove terms. And we had scoured Munich seeking poultry seasoning.

Later that same year, we found a frozen Virginia turkey in a German store, and gave it to another landlady to try on our Thanksgiving or Dankfest. She had heard of Dankfest, but had never seen a turkey and was about to cut it up and fry it before we explained. (We could not find cranberries!)

Every year we hear renewed lamentation that our Maine lobster harvest is smaller, that too many fishermen are setting too many traps, and that if we don't do something soon it will be too late and the lobster fishery will be kaput. Personally, I feel we are not likely to essen or fressen the Maine lobster into extinction. If I'm right, we might as well send some happiness to Hamburg.

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