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Lobster Legacy

(by Alice Lowe)

My mother was brought up in an Orthodox Jewish household. When she left her mother’s kosher kitchen, she rejected its dietary decrees like a hot knish and, by marrying my agnostic gentile father, abandoned the religious boundaries of her childhood. She indulged hungrily in what had been the forbidden fare: pork and shellfish. As I child, I would watch her sigh contentedly as she gnawed around a chop or rib bone, grabbing with mock greed when I proffered the remains from my own plate. But lobster was her favorite.

The former Torrey Pines Inn in La Jolla used to have weekly all-you-can-eat, shipped-in-fresh Maine lobster buffets. Our family splurged twice a year—on my parents’ anniversary in February and my mother’s birthday in September. At those long-anticipated Friday feasts, Mom ignored the soups and salads, the shrimp dangling from iced bowls of cocktail sauce, the kettles of steamed clams, the carving table with its array of roast meats. She headed straight for the radiant mounds of scarlet shells, the platters piled high with broiled lobsters. She’d put two on her plate with a fluted ramekin of drawn butter and head back to our table. I liked to tie the disposable bib, provided at each place setting, around her neck in exaggerated slow motion until she started to squirm, swatting at my hand.

“Hurry up,” she’d say. “Stop teasing me.”

She’d dip the first piece in butter, bring it to her mouth… and stop… motionless, eyes closed, to revel in the essence of its rich, sweet succulence before biting in. With the tools at hand and the precision of a surgeon, she would extract every tiny morsel of flesh out of the cavity and claws. When she finished, she’d go back for two more. And maybe more again. She wasn’t trying to set records; she just ate until she was satiated and, as she never failed to remind us, had gotten her money’s worth. I still see her sitting back in the afterglow with a post-prandial cigarette, a contented smile on her face, and a greasy smear of butter on her chin.

My father used to go surf fishing. He enjoyed the unhurried pace, gazing out to sea for hours on end or exchanging small talk with the other fishermen as they waited for the infrequent tugs on their extended poles. I was an early fish aficionada, thrilled with whatever catch he brought home, but my mother only tolerated it.

After one of his outings, Dad told us that a fishing buddy knew a guy who knew a guy who sold local lobsters for a couple of bucks each. These “shorts,” below legal size, were supposed to be tossed back to grow to maturity, but many became victims of a brisk black-market trade. My parents overcame their scrupulous honesty when offered cheap illicit lobster. Dad brought home a dozen at a time to boil and broil and serve with lemon and Tabasco-infused butter. We’d get four apiece—they were small—but sometimes I gave one to my mother just for her warm gush of gratitude.

“Oh, you sweetheart,” she’d say.

Recessive traits are known to skip a generation or more—like red hair and twins. I didn’t inherit my mother’s lust for lobster, but it’s in my genes. As my mother’s daughter and my daughter’s mother, I’m the designated carrier, transmitting the passion, the burning yearning, from one to the other.

(with Jenn)

My daughter always got to choose her birthday dinner—a family tradition many of us grew up with and perpetuated with our own children. My favorite as a child was batter-fried shrimp. Jenn was a picky eater, so her early choices were familiar kid food: tacos and pizza, burgers and fries. Neither of us recalls why, for her eleventh or twelfth birthday, we went