Around the world, it is generally accepted that New England has the best lobsters on the planet.
Here is some evidence of this premise: A few years ago, I lived part-time in China, traveling as a groupie to my ex Jing, a concert violinist from Xiamen, the seafood mecca in the south. from China. About the only time I’ve heard the word “Boston” spoken in Xiamen was when they referred to a dish, found only in the fanciest restaurants, called “Boston Lobster”.
Suffice it to say, any Bostonian would have been shocked and appalled by this dish. A small portion of chewy, frozen tail meat – which was supposed to come from a lobster at one point – would usually be buttered, cooked to oblivion, drizzled with some kind of mayonnaise or smothered in melted cheese, topped with Russian caviar and sold for around $100 a plate.
To be fair, Jing and other Chinese who visited me in America were equally shocked and appalled by most of the fish preparations here. In China, it is expected that in any “seafood restaurant” you can choose your live fish fresh from the tank, where it swims; then it is cooked and served whole.
We don’t do much here except with lobster. New England lobster from the tank is world-class luxury. As expensive as that candy might be in our neighborhood, you can rest assured that you’ll pay three or five times as much for an inferior version of the same candy in Europe or Asia, or even Florida.
Even if it’s alive, it won’t be as fresh as ours and (heaven forbid) it might not even have claws, the sweetest part of lobster meat.
What people who haven’t spent time in New England don’t know is that the better the lobster, the more we just eat it. When the lobster comes out fresh from the aquarium, as it should, there is no other way but to steam it and scoop out all of its meat by hand, dipping every precious morsel of meat into a nice pool of melted salted butter.
Don a plastic bib, you grab your etched stainless steel nutcracker and your long, thin lobster meat pick, and get to work. It’s the most rewarding job in the world.
When I went to college in the Boston area, there was one “lobster night” a year in my dorm. Each student, upon entering the cafeteria, received two numbered raffle-style tickets, each valid for a lobster of approximately one pound. The forces of the market economy quickly took over. Any kid in the Midwest or South who was completely disgusted by these giant, bright red, bottom-feeding sea roaches had no use for their tickets. So they sold their tickets to local kids who could eat three or four one-pound lobsters, no problem, in exchange for small wads of cash, concessions of dorm responsibility, or future consideration.
I knew a guy named David Hammer, class of ’97, who allegedly devoured eight lobsters in one night in the cafeteria. What he gave in return, to this day, no one knows.
So where in our region can you find the best fresh whole lobster, straight from the tank and steamed to order? The answers are three.
If you want to eat in, one option in the area stands out from the rest: Schermerhorn’s of Holyoke, a seafood restaurant and fish market so retro it makes its customers – who are on average older than Joe – look like Biden – in the spring chickens. Schermerhorn’s has been supplying lobsters since 1912 and their prices (though nothing is cheap these days) are very reasonable. When last checked they had a $39 special for two 1-1/4 lbs. By 2022 standards, this is an absolute steal.
If I had to choose one word to describe the ambiance of the Schermerhorn, it would be “unpretentious”. You walk to the counter and order. You say what you want. Neither New York Vocabulary nor Queen’s English will be helpful in this situation. Don’t ask what they recommend, because every staff member and regular customer knows that everything on the menu here is damn good.
Then you sit down at a no-frills booth and wait for your order to come out. Don’t expect a curated wine list, pewter seafood knives, Reidel stemware, or romantic mood lighting. This place is by, by and for people. You can and should enjoy a cheap local beer with your double or triple lobster feast.
You can and should compliment the hard working staff and say hello to the Holyoke family at the next table who have been coming here for 50 years. There are also a few outdoor tables, welcome in the summer, though your view is of some parked cars and others speeding along the highway.
Not to be overlooked are Schermerhorn’s daily specials (eg, buy two, get one free) on fish and chips, fried prawns and other seafood specialties. Everything is good here. Beyond the excellent fried seafood, rich and creamy New England chowder and New England-style steamers (steamed clams) are on the menu.
At the adjacent fish market, you can get a wide variety of fresh fish and shellfish, live lobsters still struggling, shrimp cocktail, and (perhaps most excitingly) delicious ready-made snow crab legs. to eat. So you can take the Schermerhorn experience home with you, that is, if your gurgling stomach can wait.
If you’ve read my column over the past few months, you’ve no doubt understood that I particularly like it when incredible delicacies come from the most unlikely places.
Live lobster is both an incredibly delicious and highly unlikely food. On the catering side, it’s an expensive logistical nightmare to manage, unless you’re doing huge volume and have massively skilled and well-trained staff backed by a robust supply chain, which is almost impossible these days. It’s one of the main reasons you’ll rarely find a whole lobster in a Hampshire county restaurant, even though we’re a few miles from the heart of the live lobster world.
To save the day, step into our two beloved local supermarkets, Stop & Shop (which went “Great” at one point when I was a kid) and Springfield’s own Big Y (which started out huge). These two places (together with my parents’ able work) have fed me for longer than any restaurant.
The American supermarket is a marvel to behold, a unique achievement in the history of the world. I still remember my dad wheeling me around the Stop & Shop in a cart, one of my legs dangling through each square hole in the cart’s grate as he explained to me every little detail of the vast array of wonderful offerings along each aisle.
What I didn’t realize until much later in life is how lucky we are that our local supermarkets have tanks of live lobsters that they’ll steam to perfection and serve ready to take home and eat. At the Stop & Shop (Northampton and Hadley branches), for less than $20 a pound (perhaps half of what you’ll pay at any restaurant in Massachusetts), they’ll pull one of their lobsters out of their tank and will cook it for you, whatever your size.
I recommend a 1-1/4 pound for a light appetite, or a 1-3/4 pound if you’re serving me or my dad. The whole process takes 10-15 minutes. You can buy sides like corn on the cob, coleslaw, and potato salad while you wait, or you can call ahead and they’ll cook your lobsters before you even arrive.
To further enhance local life, there is a similar and equally impressive live lobster program at Northampton’s Big Y, further up Route 9 towards Hatfield. Anyone on the fish market staff at either of these supermarkets, mostly in their late teens or early twenties, can cook a lobster better than any human being in California. The Big Y also offers a great freshly made lobster roll for the low price of $15.
Take home some steamed lobsters from Stop & Shop or Big Y, crack open a bottle of sparkling or creamy Chardonnay and melt a huge chunk of Kerrygold Irish butter in ramekins – if you just spent $100 on lobsters for the family, you can rock the $2 splurge on Land o’ Lakes. Sprinkle a little salt in the melted butter.
Tear open the paper bags containing the lobsters (not in your face: watch out for the hot steam!), peel off the bright yellow rubber bands from the clips and toss the shellfish onto plates. Ceramic or paper will do. Then put on your bibs and spend the rest of your New England summer evening eating better than any oligarch anywhere on Earth.
Robin Goldstein is the author of “The Menu: A Restaurant Guide to Northampton, Amherst and the Five Colleges Area”. He sits remotely on the faculty of agricultural economics at the University of California, Davis. He can be contacted at [email protected]