Maggie Shipstead just published her first novel, Seating Arrangements.
There haven't been very many. I started late. Until I was twenty-one, I thought I didn't like seafood. Then I got tipsy and ate a whole lobster, and my life changed.
That first lobster was consumed at a friend's house in Maine, on a rocky outcropping in a summer enclave populated by old-school WASPs, a breed I had little experience with since I'm from California. Not just California but Southern California, where wasps are insects and bow-ties are rare. This house in Maine was something new: full of damp-but-classically-elegant furniture, paintings of ships, rooms with names like "Maid's Room Two," and, that weekend, college kids celebrating the start of senior year. We sat down at a long, candlelit table, and the hostess lifted the lid off a Styrofoam crate, revealing a steaming mass grave of bright red lobsters.
I had no intention of eating one. I watched everyone else work carnivorously with specialized picks and crackers, splattering their plastic bibs with butter and mysterious lobster effluvia. Eventually curiosity and white wine got the better of me, and I asked my friend Miranda for a bite.
"Tastes like butter," I said.
She dropped a lobster on my plate. "Just eat it."
The group coached me through cracking the claws and twisting off the tail. I pushed the tail meat out with my thumb. I received the inevitable caution against eating the green stuff. Lobster tasted like butter, but it also tasted like the ocean, like this breezy, creaky house and the breezy company of these people, like New England at its most charming, like nostalgia, like a different kind of life than what I knew. I was hooked.
My second lobster was a disappointment, eaten slightly out of season in an almost-empty restaurant with a fishbowl of sticky peppermints by the door.
Number three was dinner on Nantucket with a then-boyfriend and his family, and I could have wept at the taste of butter and brine, the nearness of people I hoped would be around forever.
Lobsters four and five were FedExed from Maine to Iowa and survived an ice storm only to be devoured, in one swoop by me at my most gluttonous. I lay awake that night, certain I would die of a shellfish overdose.
The next year I spent the winter alone writing on Nantucket, living in increasingly deep and wind-blasted solitude. As spring finally broke open, two friends came to visit, and we celebrated the only way that made sense: with lobster.
Not long ago, my extended family gathered on the shore of Lake Michigan, at the house where my grandparents lived. The house had no paintings of ships, no bedrooms for the servants of past generations. Its central decorative statement was an armchair covered in powder-blue vinyl. By the lake, we boiled lobsters in a metal trash can, and, being Westerners and Mid-Westerners, added sauerkraut and grilled sausages. I showed my brother how to push the tail meat out with his thumb.
"How come you know so much about lobster?" he asked.
"All you need to know," I said, "is not to eat the green stuff."
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