Lobster virginity lost during Maine meal

I hadn't cracked a lobster in my life. Now, after my visit to Maine, I know that lobsters are cannibals, have a very slim survival rate (only one tenth of one percent make it to adulthood), and one in 30 million is born iridescent blue. Albinos are even more rare.

I learned most of this from Melissa Terry, a graduate of the Maine Maritime Academy, and owner and operator of Belfast Bay Cruises in the pretty coastal village of Belfast, Maine.

Terry has spent much of her life on the ocean. She's hauled oil on the Hudson River in New York City and pulled heavy loads of cement up and down the rocky Maine coast. Now, as captain of the former lobstering vessel Good Return, she spends three seasons with one hand looped around the wheel, bringing up to 47 curious cruisers out daily to pull traps and learn about life as a lobsterman-or woman, as the case may be.

In Maine, where the lobster season stretches from about mid-May to mid-October, it's impossible to visit without coming face to face with dinner dressed in a soft or-locally preferred-hard shell. Known as "shedders", the soft-shell lobsters have yet to adorn themselves in the hard jackets characteristic of lobster harvested from late July to the end of the season.

Hoping to teach both Mainers and people "from away" exactly how that succulent shellfish ends up on a plate, Terry monitors five traps from spring to autumn. How does she know where to drop them? She watches the old-timers. "[They've] passed on over generations how to read the bottom, and that's the key," she says. On my morning cruise with Terry, her lessons range from lobster behaviour to the current state of the industry to the architecture of the trap. Lobsters, Terry explains, climb into one half of the trap, dubbed the kitchen, and get stuck in the other half, nicknamed the parlour. Her assistant hauls seaweed-clogged traps into the boat so we can see the creatures scuttling around inside. After an hour out, Terry drops us back on the docks with a broader understanding of our much-anticipated dinner and the people who catch it.

While Terry gives a glimpse into lobster biology and the business as it stands today, Stephen O'Connell offers a more historical view on the next day's afternoon sail. His Friendship Sloop-built near Friendship, Maine-is a 104-year-old boat called Amity, one of about 20 of its kind still in existence. It's a fishing vessel built when lobster fishermen spent their days under sail, and it was the utility vessel of the coast. O'Connell found her in 2002 and put in months of hard labour and love, restoring her to her former glory.

Around the turn of the century, he explains, fishermen would pull about 50 traps in the morning and spend their afternoons fishing for bait. Now, at the height of the season, there are so many traps that their identifying buoys fill the harbour. "You can almost walk across the bay [on them]," he says.

With six passengers instead of traps filling his cockpit, O'Connell motors from the Belfast docks into Penobscot Bay's wide water before raising the sails. We hope for a good clip of wind, which he says is more prevalent in the late morning when the sea breeze blows in. Our sail is calm; the bay ripples like a pane of old-fashioned glass. Settled in and sipping coffee, I soak up the bright summer sun. But by the time we head back after an hour to Belfast's docks, crowded with sail boats, schooners, and lobstering boats, my stomach is rumbling and I'm ready to stop talking about lobster and start eating it.

That evening, my pals and I head to the Lobster Pound, a restaurant in the village of Lincoln?ville Beach, a few kilometres south of Belfast. Set against the ocean, the Lobster Pound is an old-fashioned cottagelike building that bustles with local and tourist business. Owned and operated by the McLaughlin family for three generations, the place specializes in lobster, selling not only eats but lobster-themed novelties like pyjamas, slippers, and lollipops.

We settle ourselves at a table and I get busy studying the lobster-eating instructions on the place mat. When our waitress arrives, I order a hefty two-pounder and ask for a bottle of Lincolnville's own Andrew's English Ale, for courage, in preparation for my first attempt.

But before we eat, there's more to learn about lobsters as we take a tour of the kitchen. On the ocean side of the building, we find huge saltwater tanks full of unlucky occupants bought from four local fishermen. "We do hundreds and hundreds of lobsters a day," explains Stuart Young, one of the restaurant's cooks. Hundreds a day translates into 85,000 pounds a season. Lobsters, Young explains, are either right- or left-handed, and the female has more of an oval-shaped tail, handy for curling toward her body and around her eggs.

When we get back to our table, each setting is adorned with a bright red version of the black bodies we've just been eyeing. They're resting peacefully beside powdery white dinner rolls and sweaty bottles of beer.

Luckily, I've got an East Coaster sitting beside me. My friend Michelle has eaten so many lobsters over the years that she's lost count, and expresses shock when I admit I've never done this before. Generously, she offers to help me lose my "lobster virginity" and feeds me encouragement while I follow her lead.

"Good job," she says, as I twist the claw clear of its arm and crack it. When my fork finds the succulent meat, she cheers.

That night, I fell in love with lobster. As iconic to the area as sea captains and ocean clippers, the traditional Maine dinner has come a long way from its early reputation as food for prisoners and the poor. As I read my informative place mat through glossy pools of butter, I learned that lobster is actually good for you, chock-full of calcium and phosphorus. As an inlander "from away", it was a bonus to a meal that I had previously viewed as nothing more than an indulgence. Now I know better. -

ACCESS: Belfast is about a two-hour drive north of Maine's state capital, Portland. In the past few years, the communities in this mid-coast region have spruced themselves up and added funky cafés and art galleries.

The region retains its historical charm, however, and dozens of former sea captains' homes and heritage buildings operate as B&Bs. I stayed on the outskirts of Belfast at the Londonderry Inn, which was built in 1803. Rates start at US$100 (www.lon donderry-inn.com/; 1-877-529-9566). In nearby Searsport, the Homeport Inn is an 1861 sea captain's mansion stuffed with enough antiques to make wandering its labyrinthine halls feel like visiting an eccentric aunt's house. Rates start at $75 (www .homeportbnb.com/; 1-800-742-5814).

The Belfast Bay Cruises lobstering tour (www.belfastbaycruises.com/; 207-338-1063) costs $22, and Amity cruises (www.friendshipsloopamity .com/; 207-323-1443) start at $20; both leave from the town docks in Belfast.

For more information on the area, visit www.waldocountymaine .com/ or www.belfastmaine.org/, or call 1-800-335-2370.