For an eight year old I was tiny. Walking in the front door of the Palm, at the time a venerable New York institution, I was immediately struck by the tight space and the casual atmosphere. The dusty wooden floor, dim lighting and cacophonous conversations immediately transported me to another world. I leaned into my aunt’s coat for protection as servers brusquely marched by with platters of food and trays of beverages while my uncle negotiated for a table. We followed the host down a narrow aisle to a table set for three in the downstairs seating area. I settled into my chair, taking in the various strange cartoons on the walls and the myriad display of glamorous and important looking patrons seated at the other tables.
I had waited a long time to go to the Palm. It was a family favorite, the restaurant that the adults went to with out of town guests and to celebrate special occasions. Growing up I was regaled with tales of raucous evenings spent over enormous lobsters and thick steaks. It was promised to me that one day, when I was old enough, I’d be allowed to experience it for myself. It was decided that I would go there for my eighth birthday. This was the beginning of a tradition that lasted well into my teenage years. In those days the Palm was still an icon of the New York restaurant scene. It was known for its clubby atmosphere, caricatured walls, and the generous coating of sawdust on the floors. The noise levels were tremendous and the waiters were older, crusty, career men, with no time for chit-chat and no patience for pretension. The owners had recently opened a second location, the Palm Too, across the street to handle the overflow. Unlike the original, the Palm Too took reservations. This was supposed to make it easier for people to get in. In spite of their reservation policy, or perhaps because of it, it was clearly preferable to eat in the original location.
At the table, martinis were the order of the day, preferably dry and straight up, made with vodka and olives. In those days bottled water meant Perrier, wine lists were mostly French, and Heineken was considered a fancy beer, That particular evening a Shirley Temple was my libation of choice. It’s layered effect and cherry garnish always made me feel elegant and grown up in ways that plain Coca Cola never could. I felt stylish and sophisticated as I slowly sipped my drink, absently listening to my Aunt and Uncle discussing their dinner choices as I contemplated the room.
I already knew that there were no menus at the Palm. This made it easy to pick out the tourists, as they were only ones to ask for them. Those who belonged were aware of this quirk and casually discussed their selections with the waiters. In my case there was no need for discussion. I couldn’t wait to order my very first lobster, a specialty of the house. The Palm was known for extra large lobsters ranging in size from three pounds to six or seven pounds each. At that time it was much easier to get large lobsters than it is now. Some people would argue that the big ones are tougher and less delicious than the smaller specimens. Those people would be wrong. Properly cooked, large lobsters are delectable and much less work for far more meat than the little ones. They are dramatic in presentation and in my opinion, much more fun to eat. As my Aunt and Uncle discussed our choices with the waiter, the man looked skeptical at my choice. The smallest lobster that evening was three pounds and he felt strongly that it would be far too much for such a small child. I bounced slightly in my seat in an agony of apprehension. Was I going to miss out on my lobster? It was with a sigh of relief that I heard my Aunt gently but firmly disagree with him and insist that I be given the smallest lobster they had. The waiter huffed a bit at her tenacity and then grumpily withdrew.
It wasn’t long before my shrimp cocktail arrived. The fat, chilled shrimp with their tangy, spicy sauce were a special treat. I loved squeezing on the lemon and delicately dipping each bite in just the right amount of cocktail sauce. I tasted my Uncle’s tomato salad, which seemed more beautiful than flavorful. My Aunt offered me a taste of her salad with blue cheese dressing. There were cool, crisp leaves of lettuce, creamy, salty dressing, and sharp onions. I was instantly converted. Blue cheese dressing was my new favorite flavor.
There is a certain amount of pomp and circumstance that goes along with eating lobster. After the first course was cleared the waiter arrived with crackers, shellfish forks, lemon halves tied in yellow, porous wrapping with a little green bow, and small wooden bowls to catch the empty shells. He presented my aunt and me with white bibs emblazoned with large red lobsters, solemnly tying them on behind our necks. After he left we arranged our equipment and my Uncle explained how to use the crackers and forks.
Next the cottage fries and onion rings were brought to the table on a large platter. The onions were crisp and light, with a deep golden brown coating. They seemed to melt in my mouth leaving behind a sweet onion flavor. The cottage fries were a revelation. They looked like super thick potato chips and somehow managed to be crunchy, chewy and tender all at once. Each salty bite had me reaching for another. My Uncle warned me not to eat too many. My lobster was coming and it was going to be a big one.
Fortunately our entrees soon appeared. To my eyes the lobsters were utterly beautiful, enormous, bright red crustaceans. The edges of the shells were slightly singed from the broiler, with snowy white interiors, huge dangerous looking claws, small side legs, long tails which were split down the middle with three little flaps fanned out at their ends, and various nooks and crannies to play with. My eyes were like saucers as I admired the exotic looking creature. Then I picked up my tools and dove right in.
I began with the claws. The cartilage in the smaller piece and at the tip near the pincers was soft, silky and very salty. I quickly moved to the plump portion that makes up the majority of the claw. The meat was finely textured and juicy, shredding easily beneath my fingers. It tasted of the essence of the ocean, sweet and briny with a little chew to it. I was encouraged to dip the white flesh into the small bowl of melted butter that had arrived with the platter. I tried it once and then scoffed at its needless embellishment. I firmly placed the ramekin of butter to the side and got back to business. It was serious work tearing the beast apart and nudging out each succulent bite. The tail had a completely different texture from the claws. It was meatier and less salty. Once removed from the shell it required a fork and knife to cut it into manageable pieces. For quite some time I was focused on the challenge of taking apart my lobster. Watching the meat pull gently free of its hiding place was indescribable. Every bite tasted sweeter for the effort that had gone into extracting it. The table was an oasis of quiet as we all enjoyed our dinners. The only part of the beast that I didn’t appreciate was the innards. My Aunt easily ignored hers and I followed suit, leaving them untouched in the shell. I ate as much of the succulent lobster meat as I could, savoring every bite. Once I was done, my uncle happily consumed what was left, having cannily ordered a steak for his own entree.
After clearing away the carnage, the waiter offered us dessert. At that age I was famous for always keeping a separate compartment in my stomach for sweets. That night was no exception and I carefully pondered my choices. I finally settled upon the fresh strawberries with whipped cream, since I knew that I could count on my Aunt to order the chocolate cake and to give me a taste. When my berries arrived they were garnished with real whipped cream. It was like eating clouds. Every delicately sweetened bite was impossibly thick and still light against my tongue. It was nothing like the stuff from an aerosol can that garnished my hot chocolate at home. It being winter, the strawberries were a bit tough and flavorless. I still happily scarfed them down as a vehicle for the whipped cream. The memory of the chocolate cake escapes me, happily eclipsed by the sweet cream.
The story of my first lobster has grown into legend, told and retold at the various family tables, usually at summer gatherings where we indulge in the delectable crustaceans. Personally I still prefer to eat my lobster unadorned, in order to focus on it's inherent sweet flavor, redolent of sharp, salty ocean breezes. These days I know that lobster is at its best when shared with people who love it as much as I do. As we excavate the shells and crack the claws, the camaraderie of the experience always evokes images of days gone by and tales of lobsters consumed.