Our image of the first Thanksgiving is a fanciful one created in grammar schools across the nation. We imagine pilgrims sharing turkey, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie with the Wampanoag tribe in Plymouth, Mass., in 1621.
In fact, there was no turkey on the table although there was water fowl, lobsters and clams, and five deer brought by the Indians. There were no cranberries, no sweet potatoes and no pumpkin pie, although there was some kind of squash.
Nonetheless, Americans still like to assemble the traditional foods that reflect our flawed notion of a historically correct menu and preserve the continuity of our culinary culture. So we have turkey, and corn bread, and pumpkin pie and sweet potatoes.
Except in New England, few families serve up lobster on Thanksgiving, yet lobster should be one of the most traditional of Thanksgiving foods because it more than likely appeared at the first Thanksgiving.
Although our family doesn’t have lobster every Thanksgiving, a lobster stew is an ideal part of a traditional Thanksgiving menu. Besides, it’s nice to serve it first, perhaps long before you sit down for dinner, and that way you keep the hungry hordes at bay with a delicious and traditional dish.
A historic stew
First, be aware that lobster stew is a two-day affair. That’s actually ideal for Thanksgiving because you can make it Wednesday night and then just reheat it Thursday. Lobster stew was once considered poor people’s food in Maine. Horror writer and Maine native Stephen King, whose family was poor when he was a child, describes how his mother kept lobster stew on the stove and would hide it out of embarrassment when company came.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning Maine poet Robert P.T. Coffin advised that lobster stew should be half lobster and half liquid. Sometimes you will find white wine or sherry in lobster stew, which is the first type of lobster stew recipe I’m familiar with. The recipe in “Accomplished Cook” (published in London in 1685) by Robert May uses claret. The lobster stock called for is made from the shells of the lobster you used to get the meat. Boil the shells in water to cover for two hours.
Makes 4 to 5 regular soup servings or 8 appetizer-type servings
- In a stockpot, bring an inch of water a boil over high heat, then add the live lobster, partially covered and cook on high for 12 minutes. Remove the lobsters and, when they are cool enough to handle, crack them and remove all the meat from the arms, claws, body, legs and fan tail. Chop into pieces not larger than ¾ -inch. Set aside along with any tomalley and coral you find in the lobster.
- Place the shells in a large pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil over high heat and boil for 1 hour. Remove and discard the lobster shells and strain the broth, setting aside 1 cup.
- In a large pot, melt 5 tablespoons butter over high heat then cook the lobster, stirring, until bubbling vigorously, about 2 minutes. Add the milk and cream slowly. Add the reserved 1 cup of lobster broth. Add the sherry and season with salt and pepper. Cook on high heat until tiny bubbles appear on the edges. Turn the heat off. Let cool and place in the refrigerator overnight.
- Bring water to a boil over high heat in the lower portion of a double-boiler. Pour the lobster stew into the top part of a double-boiler and heat, stirring occasionally, over medium-high heat until very hot but not bubbling, 10 to 15 minutes. Add the remaining tablespoon of butter and, once it has melted, serve with crackers.
Zester Daily contributor Clifford A. Wright won the James Beard / KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year Award and the James Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food in 2000 for “A Mediterranean Feast.” His latest book is “Hot & Cheesy” (Wiley) about cooking with cheese.
Photo: Lobster stew. Credit: Clifford A. Wright