In the Hot Seat

A couple of years ago, Peter Smith had a very bad day in the middle of one of his favorite times of the year — the Maine Lobster Festival in Rockland.

Smith, the longtime volunteer head lobster cook at the festival, spends long hours toiling on the waterfront during the first week of August making sure that thousands of pounds of lobsters daily make it safely into the huge lobster cooker and onto the plates of hungry, plastic-bibbed visitors. It gets hot in front of the lobster cooker, which some festival staff have dubbed the world’s largest, and so over the years Smith has fashioned a uniform of sorts of shorts, short rubber boots, a t-shirt, rubber gloves and rubber sleeves that go all the way up to his armpits. It’s an outfit that’s designed to be both practical and protective.

On that fateful Saturday, though, he was hustling to get lobsters into and out of the propane-powered cooker when he made a mistake and dumped a “whole mess” of boiling water into his boots. The pain was excruciating.

“I just sat down and peeled my boot off,” he said, adding that he had a three-inch third degree burn on his leg. Smith, now 61, resisted the urge to unleash the kind of language you use when you want to let off a little steam, so to speak.

“It’s a zoo, and I probably had an audience of almost 100 people out there … I bit my lip. These people don’t deserve that,” he remembers thinking. “I just toughed it out.”

Tough is a good word for it. Despite Smith’s injury, the lobsters still needed to be cooked and he kept right on cooking them. He waited until the next day to seek medical attention from the triage team stationed on the U.S. Coast Guard Academy’s three-masted training ship Eagle.

“I had five people waiting on me,” he marveled.

While it must be said that Smith’s level of self-sacrifice is not typical, his dogged git-er-done mentality is no stranger to the festival, which is run exclusively by volunteers.

“I enjoy the thought of doing something for my community to give back to it,” said Smith, who began volunteering as a teenager in 1972. He’s been promoted to head of all grounds at this summer’s festival. “That’s pretty much it.”

And the festival, celebrating its 70th year this summer, is a big deal for his community. When the Maine Lobster Festival comes to town, the Rockland waterfront is transformed from a picturesque and sometimes sleepy place to a bustling, jostling carnival scene. Tens of thousands of people come every summer from far and near to listen to music from nationally known acts, admire the contestants in the Sea Goddess Pageant, enjoy the rides, take in the arts and crafts and much more.

But mostly, they come for the lobsters. The state’s beloved crustacean is the driving force at the festival, and it isn’t much of a stretch to say that the humongous lobster cooker that was installed nearly 10 years ago is the beating heart of the event. The cooker can steam 750 pounds of lobsters at a time, and is capable of cooking more than 20,000 pounds of lobsters over the five day festival.

“There’s a lot of logistics involved,” Chuck Kruger, a member of the board of directors of the festival, said. “We’ve developed a pretty good system.”

Integral to that system is the trap to table nature of the massive lobster feed, which writer David Foster Wallace pointed out in his 2004 essay for Gourmet magazine, “Consider the Lobster.”

“Part of the overall spectacle of the Maine Lobster Festival is that you can see actual lobstermen’s vessels docking at the wharves along the northeast grounds and unloading freshly caught product, which is transferred by hand or cart 100 yards to the great clear tanks stacked up around the Festival’s cooker,” Wallace wrote.

Once they arrive at the cooker, they enter Smith’s domain. Over the five days of the festival, between 65 and 85 people altogether donate their time to make sure the lobsters get cooked and delivered to the eating tent. On Saturday, usually the busiest time for the lobster cookers, the crew hits high speed, unloading crate after crate of lobsters into a mesh basket and placing the basket in the cooker. When they’re done, they pull them out and unload the lobsters into an insulated tub.

“We’re just a machine for about two hours,” Smith said. “We’re just rolling, dropping lobsters in, pulling lobsters out, loading up the cart and sending them on.”

The crustaceans are steamed because, well, it’s the best way to cook them, he said.

“If you steam something, it’s more tasty. You aren’t robbing all the goodness out into the water,” he said. “Basic steamed lobster with butter. Classic. That’s the best way to eat it.”

The 70th annual Maine Lobster Festival will be held on the Rockland waterfront from Wednesday, Aug. 2 to Sunday, Aug. 6, 2017.

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