The Maine Lobster Festival
By David Krell
There is something about Maine; like one large country club with no fees and no sense of exclusion.
Now add lobster at $3 a pound, the state’s landscape being 90% forest, cute small-town shopping owned by your best friend’s grandmother and you have something close to what Maine is all about.
Part of what makes Maine so special is its sense of trust in its locals and visitors. People do not leave their doors unlocked, but it’s the rational step above that- and you can feel it while you’re there.
Hitchhiking and inviting yourself to a strangers dinner party may seem inappropriate, but the people of Maine, or “Mainers” as they are referred to, make visitors feel as if it is ok to ask.
Initially, this was only part of the reason we had entered the infamous Maine Lobster Festival Cooking Competition.
But after Sandi, our innkeeper, allowed us to cook in her kitchen, use almost of her cooking equipment and then went out of her way to invite local tastemakers to try our recipe, it will be the reason we return next year.
Did I mention she cooked mussels and garlic bread on our final night departure? Well, she did. Welcome to Rockland, ME.
Granted it was five in the morning, and we had slept in the car all night, but the thickness of the low-lying clouds were palpable even from the depths of our backseat abode.
Within eyesight of the marina was the Lobster Festival’s ferris wheel, a giant lobster cooker and the main stage- all abandoned, quiet and completely open for anyone to walk up to.
This would soon change, as we were told it would, but there was no one who would have assumed that from our vantage point.
Photo: Ripples Inn at the Harbor, Maine
But let’s start from the beginning...
We were also the only contestants from outside the state of Maine, so we had an especially difficult task.
Such tasks included creating a table setting, theme, specialty drink and of course, the recipe itself, which, “must include seafood from Maine waters.”
We therefore decided to catch the lobster ourselves on the morning of the competition so that they were as fresh as possible.
Captain Jack, our lobster fisherman, is not only Rockland's only lobster fisherman who invites visitors aboard his boat, but he is a great storyteller. Not the kind of storyteller who exaggerates or inserts a few white lies for dramatic effect, but rather, who actually shares his experiences and is honest about the results.
For example, when he heard we were the only competitors from outside the state of Maine, he responded with a grant of good luck, but with pessimistic undertones which basically said, “you have no chance, this is a local event which gives it’s locals a sense of pride in their state.”
Even though we spent most of our time with Captain Jack, who is originally from Wales, and Sandi, who is from NYC, you could tell that although they’re not a typical “Mainer,” they have been influenced by the state’s relaxed demeanor.
Like a conductor you assume is waving their baton around for a reason that is beyond your own comprehension- you just trust he or she knows better. And yes, there were TV cameras and press everywhere as well.
Every couple minutes, the competitors would have to smile for the camera, describe what they were making at any given moment, and even answer questions from the crowd.
And yes, there was a crowd. Of course it increased as we came closer to finishing our recipes and thus passing out samples, but there was certainly a buzz happening not just in our tent, but throughout the festival grounds.
In fact, this festival-wide interest in the cooking competition is what made it so wonderful and exciting in the first place.
The judges were: Michelle Ragussis, chef at the Pearl in Rockland, who was recently a finalist on “Food Network Star,” Cmdr. Neil Koprowski of the USS San Antonio, who was born at the festival itself, and Signe Gardiner, festival parade marshall and 1949 festival sea goddess.
This was a tough group of judges, not because their palette was complex or their food dislikes plentiful, but because all three judges were, as Captain Jack and eventually Sandi implied, “locals with a great sense of pride in their state.”
Not only that, but besides Michelle, the two other judges were not foodies by any means, and we created a foodie dish. For example, when asked his favorite food, Cmdr. Koprowski mentioned Surf & Turf. At that moment, I knew we had no chance.
Well, we came in 4th. Supposedly a good thing considering we were the only outsiders involved in the competition.
But truthfully, it didn’t matter, for we were part of something special.
Allowed in to a close knit community where no one outside of Maine had ever been involved, and we value that opportunity immensely- even if we did feel our recipe was far better than our 4th place medal displayed. But it was still an experience we hope to be a part of for as long as we can create recipes worthy of the competition.