I felt sweat roll down my back as I gripped the live, belly-up lobster in my rubber-gloved hand, waiting for it to show a sign of life. Only live lobsters can be cooked, and this guy — or girl, I couldn’t tell yet — was about to be steamed alive.
The lobster flit its tail with more force than I expected; it felt aggressive, like the marine crustacean could tell it was being held captive and wanted to escape.
It thrashed again, and I accidentally dropped it back into the container on top of dozens of other live lobsters. It hit with a crack. I apologized out loud, instinctively, for thinking I might have caused the lobster pain. Abruptly and a little embarrassed, I remembered its imminent death and it gave me a pit in my stomach.
It’s no secret that the Maine Lobster Festival is where droves of lobsters go to die in industrial-sized steamers. It’s just that, this year, I helped facilitate a portion of those deaths.
To spotlight the vital but often little-noticed seasonal work that revs up the midcoast in summertime, my colleague Nick McCrea and I are taking turns at trying our hands at mucky, sweaty or simply odd jobs for a day.
Stacked on top of one another as they attempt to scuttle and claw for freedom, tens of thousands of lobsters are steamed alive en masse in large metal vats custom made for the event, which celebrated its 70th anniversary this year.
My job as a lobster cooker — and cooker is generous, since I did little cooking and more handling and transporting — was vile.
And the hotter the temperature is outside, the more grotesque the task becomes.
In early August, on the second day of the festival when the temperature climbed above 80, the hot, wet smell of cooked lobsters kept getting in my mouth as I transferred hundreds of red, hard-shelled bodies to a carrying container.
That container was then wheeled across the festival grounds, past corndog and fried oreo vendors, to what’s simply called the Main Eating Tent, where people stand in lines, waiting to rip apart the freshly dead crustaceans and eat their insides.
David Foster Wallace, who depicted the festival in a 2003 essay called, “Consider the Lobster,” described the scene as “something like a Roman circus or a medieval torture fest.”
He wasn’t incorrect.
I worked the cooker with four young Coast Guardsmen and two veteran lobster cookers named Garold Demmons and Vernard Mossman.
Between the two of them, Garold, 63, and Vernard, 57, have manned the lobster cooker at the summer festival for about 80 years.
The process is methodical and involves three key steps: the first, picking up the lobsters and turning them on their backs to see if their limbs or antennae move; then, transferring them to metal open-top cages that, little do they know, will be their final resting place; and lastly, once they’ve been cooked, relocating the carcasses to a carrying container where food tent volunteers pluck them out like beers from a cooler to put on customers’ plates.
The lobster cooker includes eight vats, which can each steam up to 200 pounds at a time. That means that in about 20 minutes, the apparatus can produce 1,600 pounds of cooked lobster.
During last year’s festival, nearly 20,000 pounds of lobster were cooked and eaten. On the first day of the festival this year, Garold and Vernard cooked 2,640 pounds. When people asked, the duo said they were hoping to cook at least 30,000 by the festival’s end, but Garold later whispered to me that he was shooting for 40,000.
Never in my life have I directly contributed to the death of so many living things at once. What’s weird is how normal it seems, not only to the cookers, but to festival goers — most of whom travel from away with cameras around their necks, rabid for all things lobster, which includes, for many, being enthusiastic voyeurs to the aquatic arthropod kill-off.
Wearing our red shirts that labeled us “Lobster Cookers,” the Coast Guard boys and I replenished the steam tank cages with live lobsters and then took turns wheeling the freshly dead to the eating tent. Garold and Vernard, when they weren’t overseeing the cooking, gabbed with guests.
The pace had been slow so far — it was around 3 p.m., too late for lunch and too early for dinner. During these lulls, Garold and Vernard liked to put on a show, of sorts.
One of Garold’s favorite parts of the job is interacting with the people who approach the cookers, which are under an open brick awning, to ask questions or pose with live lobsters for pictures.
“This is the thresher claw and this is the pincher,” Garold explained to a group of guests that had amassed as he held one of the lobsters he had brought out for show.
“That thresher claw can take your finger completely off,” he said.
“Feel there,” Garold said, directing a woman from Ohio and her husband to touch the underbelly of a male lobster.
“Feel how hard that is?” he asked. He then explained how female lobsters had markedly softer bellies than males.
Personally I couldn’t tell a difference and wondered if Garold was pulling everyone’s leg when he also said that female lobsters “always have wider hips” than males.
A man’s voice suddenly came over the walkie talkie Vernard was wearing on his hip requesting “a double,” which meant two 100-pound containers of lobsters.
The boys and I arranged ourselves evenly on either side of a chain-link conveyor belt that led to the back of a refrigerated truck — a holding cell for the lobsters.
We conducted our routine of checking to make sure each lobster was alive before transporting it to the metal cage bound for the steamer. Then we dragged that cage down the conveyor belt where, using an electric pulley system, two hooks attached to the cage and lifted it down into the steam tank.
The temperature was cranked to 750 degrees and a timer was set for 13 minutes.
When I first moved to Maine, I was privy to the gruesome myth that lobsters scream while they’re being cooked. And while this isn’t true — although there is a whistling sound, I’m told, that happens when the saltwater that’s stored between lobster’s meat and their shells evaporates — I still could’ve sworn I heard some sound.
Near minute 8 or so of the steaming, discolored foam with bits of lobster detritus starts to bubble up, pulsing and spilling over the sides of the rectangular vats.
The timer dinged and the Vernard removed the cover, letting out a steady plume of steam.
We pulled the hot lobsters, one by one, out of their cage and into the traveling container. It was a grisly scene — many of the lobster’s eye holes were empty, which made me imagine them getting so hot that they exploded out of their heads. Disembodied limbs and white, gelatinous residue — which I later found out is the lobster’s equivalent of blood — was spread across many of the bodies, which looked bloated.
I kept getting hot whiffs of the cooked meat as I reached further into the cage, and it was nauseating.
We were told by Garold to hustle because there was a high demand at the eating tent. It was my turn to drag the container on wheels, and I did so with a 25-year-old Coast Guardsman named Steven Harvey.
People pointed at us as we wheeled through the festival grounds, surmising that we were carrying precious cargo.
A line of people were waiting patiently at the food tent and, as we approached, some pulled out their cameras and took pictures of us.
“Here they are, nice and hot,” a burly volunteer said as we turned the cart around and began unlatching the top.
A woman in line clapped. Others in line said, “Ohhhhh!” Two little boys jumped forward to peek inside.
“A lot of unfortunate little crustaceans there,” a man with a New York accent said.
Maybe it was because I’d personally just killed this batch and felt attached, or because I’d written an article the day before about a PETA protest outside the festival where I was told lobsters, like cats and dogs, have feelings and experience pain, too, but I was disgusted.
“Barbarians!” I wanted to shout. “Vultures!”
But I didn’t say anything.