It was a colossal lobster, accompanied by a baked potato, a cold local drink and a slice of blueberry pie.
And it was under $20.
No, this isn’t an advertisement from the 1980s or sentimental ruminations as a child, but a meal I had in Maine 12 years ago this summer.
I still couldn’t believe it. Oh, I’d heard the tales from my wife and brother-in-law who hail from that state about how inexpensive lobster was, how it was sold in McDonald’s and how everyone loved a lobster roll, but, still to actually be savoring one at that price while overlooking the Atlantic Ocean? Hard to believe.
Maine is just one of many regions — and, yes, within that state, sub regions — where the food is as unique as the people who live there.
I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to many states — most before I was 20 due to my very indulging grandparents (or as we fondly call them MeMaw and PopPop) on my mother’s side. Along the way then, and with later road trips with my friends and father, I was fortunate enough to sample a bit of local flavor here and there along the way.
Here are four things I’ve learned:
1. BBQ MY WAY: I still prefer North Carolina barbecue. Georgia and Alabama have good ‘cue and some of the finest I’ve ever had has come courtesy of friends who live here, but, my favorite is from North Carolina. I am sure that part of the reason is the vinegar-based sauce which gives it a tang. I haven’t been overly impressed with Kansas City-style or Memphis style barbecue. No offense, just waiting for the magic moment for the dish to live up to the hype. I do enjoy beef-based Texas barbecue. Of course, South Carolina barbecue is an eye-opener to the weird world of culinary customs. As a young man, I lived in the Palmetto state for a forgetful few years and I will never forget the first time my family ordered South Carolina barbecue, which is defined by its mustard based sauce. We opened the box of take out and a collective silence descended across the room as we all stared in shock at this yellow concoction. I might have had it once or twice since at events where it was the main course — no reason to be rude — but otherwise, I run the other way.
2. CRAW FISH BOIL: My friend George and his wife, Kaye, hold a craw fish boil just about every spring. It is a delightful event where George uses a recipe handed down from his wife’s family — longtime New Orleans natives — and boils craw fish, corn, potatoes, onions, sausage, mushrooms and other secret ingredients in a huge cauldron for an hour or so. During that time, one can fellowship, sip on a libation or enjoy a snack. After the boil is finished, it is ceremoniously dumped onto a long table covered in newspapers. All the guests gather around and dig in eating with their hands. I do not only appreciate the unique and delectable experience, but the fact that the act decimates any real or perceived snobbery. As I remarked, it is hard to put up airs when you’re eating with your hands. Just make sure if you ever attend a craw fish boil not to confuse it with the South Carolina born Low Country Boil (which is very good).
3. BET ON THE BISON: I have developed a taste for bison. The only issue is the price. But, I do splurge for special occasions. Cooking the protein-laden beef at home can always be a bit dicey though. Several years ago, I made a batch of bison burgers to commemorate Georgia playing Colorado. The bison burgers looked prime and smelled great. I lay a solid piece of cheese on them, grilled them for another minute and then was ready to eat. The problem was they weren’t cooked. I had not taken the time to read the instructions on bison grilling versus traditional beef burgers. In other words, leave the cooking of regional cuisine to the pros.
4. DON’T CALL IT A SANDWICH: Okay, my knowledge of northeast fare is not very strong. I am not proudly ignorant or bereft of traveling experience (I spent a week studying at Columbia University in NYC as a teenager and have visited Washington D.C. three times), I just can’t seem to get a handle on it. For examples, the sandwich. Which is also called a hoagie, grinder, hero, submarine and various other names. I do know that I’ve never met a sandwich I didn’t like, though.
There is something enticing about traveling in the summer and stopping to sample the local cuisine wherever you go. I especially find the podcast ‘Gravy’ by the Southern Foodways Alliance a wonderful introduction to this region’s food and cultural history. But, if you can’t get out west or up north, you can always satisfy your taste buds without leaving Cobb.