Although I’ve lived along Canada’s east coast for several years, I’ll always be a CFA (that’s a come-from-away, for any non-Maritimers out there). The tiny differences show up once in a while, like when I mispronounced “scallops” during my first week in Halifax—I had an editor kindly but firmly tell me that SCAWL-ops were the food, whereas SCAAHL-ops were decor.
Clearly, some Maritime traditions didn’t come so easily. But I’ve always remembered (and one year, even marked it down on my calendar) that the week between Christmas and New Year’s provided the best opportunities for tucking into a lobster.
On Christmas morning, you put fried lobster in your scrambled eggs. There’s seafood chowder on Boxing Day and a classic steamed lobster with garlic butter on New Year’s Eve. And New Year’s Day features lobster rolls.
Everyone I asked had a different recipe for each occasion, and a different family tradition. No one is quite sure why it started, though it’s probably a combination of the lobster fishing season that starts in late November and an adaptation of the Italian-American Feast of Seven Fishes.
However it began, there’s one other east coast rule I’ve learned since moving to Nova Scotia: don’t bother with the grocery store. Instead, look next to the supermarket, in the parking lot of the home improvement store. Is there a pickup truck parked on the edges, pulling a small trailer? Can you see a homemade—and possibly misspelled—sign bobbing up from the grass? You just found your lobster hookup.
In Halifax, Gary and Bonnie Nickerson of Gary’s Fresh Seafoods operate five days a week from their truck, reliably parked off a main road in the Bayer’s Lake shopping district. They’ve been at the spot for more than four years, slinging lobster pulled fresh from the water the day before. They tell me that sales tend to peak over the holidays, with customers coming to see them year after year for fresh lobster, mussels, salmon, haddock, and salt cod.
David MacDonald is one of those customers. He’s been buying his lobster directly from Gary for years. “I find this is probably closer to the fisherman,” he says. “And he’s a small entrepreneur. So I’d rather support them than the large chains. I just find his product is very good.”
Buying from someone you know and trust is a priority for a lot of Nova Scotians, especially this year. In the fall, Mi’kmaq lobster fishermen faced violent attacks from commercial fishermen, who challenged their right to set traps in St. Mary’s Bay. In response, some local restaurants pulled lobster from their menus, hoping to send a message of support to the Mi’kmaq. Since then, an Indigenous coalition partnered with a seafood brand in British Columbia to purchase Clearwater Seafoods, the biggest seafood producer in North America. Still, in order to avoid supporting the violent attacks, many lobster lovers are making sure to visit sellers they know and trust.
Sylvie Theriault always visits the same sellers in her neighborhood, who park their van outside of a deli. Last year, she says she waited in the lineup outside for nearly half an hour, and she’s ready for an even longer wait this year. “It could be crazier. Because, you’re not going anywhere, and people are staying home…. So they might want to do an extra treat this year.”
Plus, there’s the old wives tale that Theriault has heard, about how eating fish on New Year’s Eve is supposed to bring you wealth and luck in the year to come. She says she’s not sure she believes it, but she’s going to get her lobster this year anyway, just to be safe.
Along the south shore of Nova Scotia, where much of the lobster fishing takes place, Sarah Atkinson and her husband Andre run Your Lobster Pot, a fishing and ordering service that sends lobster out across Canada. They specialize in mid-size orders, shipping out between 10 and 100 pounds of lobster at a time. Atkinson says December is always their busiest month, and this year she’s seen more orders than usual.
“People in Calgary for instance, emailing me saying, ‘We normally come home for Christmas. We’re not gonna be able to this year, but could we get lobster shipped out to remind us of home?’” Atkinson says her customers tend to stay in touch once the lobster arrives. “They’ll email me pictures or text me pictures, just to show me how it went.”
Most of the orders Atkinson fills are to ex-Maritimers, people who moved away but are craving a taste of home for the holidays. For Atkinson, that means creamed lobster on Christmas Eve. The rich dish involves poaching lobster in butter, simmering it with heavy cream, and then eating it over toast.
Personally, I’m leaning toward making a lobster mac and cheese this year. Or maybe I’ll stick with the iconic steamed lobster. Either way, I’ll be buying my lobster the way real Nova Scotians get theirs: from the friendly guy in a thick sweater slinging fish around the back of a truck.