Maine tourists or natives on a quest for lobster can find it in countless restaurants, grilled or baked, boiled or sautéed, whipped up into fancy gourmet dishes, or served humbly in the shell, alone on a plate. But we wondered: How do the people who catch those lobsters prefer to prepare and eat them? We headed to the Tenants Harbor Fisherman’s Co-op to find out.
That’s where we found Stephany Miller in the kitchen, gussying up the grills and burners at the lobster shack on the co-op’s wharf. Luke’s Lobster will open in a few weeks, and Miller is getting the place ready for what she hopes will be an onslaught of hungry tourists.
Through the screen doors, you can hear the low rumble of lobster boat engines in the harbor. It’s a picture-perfect afternoon, and many of the fishermen who supply Luke’s with lobster are still out on the water checking their traps. Miller’s son is one of them. Her father and grandfather were also lobstermen.
Miller, as it turned out, would rather cook lobsters than catch them. She’s been doing that now for three decades. On this day, there’s a crew from a New York magazine on the way to film Miller steaming up some lobster and she’s doing a test run.
Josh and Scarlett Miller - Steamed Lobster
As the shadows grow longer, lobstermen and their families begin gathering on the wharf to sample Miller’s feast. Among them are Josh and Scarlett Miller. You might notice a pattern here: Nearly everyone connected with the Tenants Harbor Fisherman’s Co-op is a member of the Miller family. Josh’s father is one of four Miller brothers – all fishermen - who now own the wharf, which has been in the family since the 1970’s.
Josh has been lobstering “since my mother and father put my brother and me in a skiff and rowed us around the harbor when we were very little. I’ve had my own boat since I was 10 or 11.”
His daughter Scarlett is now 11 and says she too loves being out on the water. “I really like lobstering – I want to do it as long as I can,” she says. “But I do have some other dream jobs.” Like being a chef, she says, or a marine biologist.
Father and daughter agree on their favorite way to eat lobster: steamed - just the way Miller is cooking it up.
Jed Miller - Lobster Stew
Josh’s cousin Jed also lobsters for a living. “My father, when I was six, he gave us our own leaky skiff that we had to bail out every five seconds,” he recalls. When he was 12, Jed bought his own skiff and hauled lobster by hand. Jed says he got his first “real, big boat” when he was 22.
Jed still likes lobstering, though he says it’s harder to make a good living at it these days. Everyone along the supply chain takes some of the profit, he says, leaving little for those harvesting the crustaceans.
“I don’t blame people for wanting to make money off of it,” Jed says. “But we need our money too. We’re the ones who are doing the hard work.”
For today, the hard work of catching those lobsters is done, and he’s ready to eat some. His favorite way? You guessed it – steamed. But he does have a second-favorite lobster dish - lobster stew. Warning: This recipe is scaled for a Miller-sized gathering - you might want to size it down.
Robert Morris – Lobster Spaghetti Pie (Casserole)
Robert Morris is a rarity at the Tenants Harbor Fisherman’s Co-op – he’s not a Miller. But Morris was born and raised in Tenants Harbor. So was his father. And his grandfather. He took up lobstering when he was a teenager and, nearly 50 years later, he’s still at it.
Over those five decades, he’s seen a lot of changes in the lobster industry. “I think we’ve gone from bad times to good times. Now I think we’re going back towards leaner times,” he says.
One reason is the comeback of lobster predators, such as groundfish, he says. “And I believe that global warming has something to do with it. I think it’s a pretty complex problem, really.”
Despite that, and having to get up at 3:30 in the morning, pack a lunch and leave the house before the sun comes up, he loves lobstering, and the independent lifestyle it allows. “You set your own hours and if you don’t get up some morning, you don’t feel like going, I guess you don’t have go,” he says. “That’s the best part of it.”
Eating lobster, he says, is another great part of it – steamed, of course. But a close second, he says, is a dish his wife Denise cooks up with lobsters he brings home - lobster spaghetti pie (or casserole, as Denise calls it). Be sure to use a really deep 9-inch x 13-inch pan, or a larger one - this recipe makes a big casserole.
John Tripp - Lobster Newburg
As the feast gets underway, John Tripp steers his red and white lobster boat through the harbor and docks it – parallel parks it, really – at the wharf. Tripp isn’t a Miller either. But he’s married to one – Mallary - who’s waiting at the dock with the couple’s two young kids.
John and his sister, Krista Tripp, both lobster for a living. Their father and grandfather did too. John’s two-year-old daughter jumps eagerly aboard the boat, excited to see the lobsters and a big halibut her father has hauled in. One day, maybe she’ll be skippering her own lobster boat.
John’s been out on the water since 4 a.m. That was 12 hours ago, and he’s brought in a decent haul. Though he likes his lobster best steamed, he says he has another favorite dish. “I like lobster Newburg pretty good too,” he says. “My mom makes lobster Newburg. It was one of my grandmother’s recipes.” And to be authentic, he says, the dish must be served with toast points.
Peter Miller - Lobster Salad
Peter Miller is one of the founders of this lobstering dynasty. He and his three brothers – Tad, Dan and Hale – own the Tenants Harbor wharf. He’s Josh Miller’s dad, and Scarlett Miller’s granddad. Chef Stephany Miller is his niece, and Jed Miller is his nephew.
Peter has been lobstering for “40-plus years, full-time,” he says. “I started when I was a kid - when I was five or six years old - and started on my own when I was 10.” He’s done some groundfishing and shrimping “when there was a shrimp season.” He even tried a brief stint as a salesman. But that didn’t last long he says. Lobstering soon lured him back.
“It’s pretty good money for a short season in Maine,” he says. “You get the romantic idea it’s always going to be like that. Then you discover maybe it isn’t. Sometimes, it’s nice to have a check in the wintertime if you’re not fishing.” But he says he loves being his own boss. “And it helps if you have a rich wife. Just kidding.”
Peter often brings some of his catch home to cook. The way he likes it best is – you guessed it – steamed. But he likes that steamed lobster better when it’s picked out of the shell, chilled and mixed into a salad, dressed with nothing but good quality balsamic vinegar – no oil.
Preparing the lobster salad, he says, is a joint effort.
“My wife has a big garden in the summertime, so our favorite way – my favorite way – is I bring lobsters in at the end of the day – 2, 3, 4 - cook them up, pick them out. And she comes home from work, goes out and gets whatever there is for greens – spinach, lettuce, green peppers, cherry tomatoes - whatever is fresh.”
Then they toss in other Maine-grown ingredients in season - wild blueberries in late summer, for instance. In the winter, he says, they’ll settle for store-bought ingredients if that’s all they can find. His advice: Choose the ingredients you like best, just make sure they’re as fresh and grown as close to home as possible.
In the dimming evening light, chef Stephany Miller lugs a gigantic pot out onto the wharf. She tips it over a bed of shiny, dark seaweed spread on a picnic table, and out tumbles a pile of bright red lobsters, cobs of yellow corn, boiled potatoes and steamed clams. Miller sets out pots of melted butter. Finally, it’s time to eat.
Originally published July 4, 2018