Story and photography by Darcy Rhyno
At New Glasgow Lobster Suppers in Prince Edward Island, history is literally written on the walls. From the outside, the tidy brick building is dressed in multi-coloured flower beds and identified with a huge sign over the entrance. Inside, a timeline made of words and photographs on the wall of the lounge tells the 61-year history of this storied place.
“Providing memories for generations of families since 1958,” reads one section of the timeline. Above it is a photo of the original building, a much smaller structure moved from a nearby racetrack where it served as a canteen. The New Glasgow and District Junior Farmers Organization purchased it then for $210 as a place to hold their weekly meetings.
When the group held its first fundraising dinner on June 24 the following summer, customers waited in their cars as someone threw together some temporary wooden steps. Once inside the building, with bare stud walls, they sat on benches and dined on plywood doors supported by saw horses.
The meal of a whole lobster, potato salad, homemade rolls and dessert cost $1.50.
Another piece of that history written on the wall in the lounge reads, “What started as a fundraiser has grown into an island tradition.”
Because of the growing popularity of the lobster supper, the group decided in 1970 to offer it seven days a week. Two years later, a dozen of the original farmers purchased the building and turned the suppers from a fundraiser into a business. Within another two years, the owners expanded seating capacity to 400. By 1979, they were serving up to 1,250 visitors a week. Within a few days of that record, they served more than 1,400 in a single day. In 2012, the Food Network came to town to shoot an episode of You Gotta Eat Here.
The day I arrive, the dining hall is buzzing with servers in white shirts and black aprons, waiting on tables filled with diners, tucking into everything from those original lobster suppers to steak, ham, chicken, scallops and haddock. There’s even a vegetarian, gluten free pasta dish on the menu.
The choice of lobster dinners varies according to appetite from a one-pound lobster to a colossal four pounds. The sights and aromas have roused my appetite as a waiter shows me to my table where he takes my order for a beer and the 1.5 pound lobster dinner. I’m barely settled when a heap of mussels is set before me.
I’ve made a good dent in the mussels by the time the main course arrives. The lobster is served with lemon and melted butter, the hard work already done—it’s split down the middle with the claws and knuckles already cracked. I dig in, alternating chunks of the sweet meat with forks-full of potato salad, garden salad and bites of buttered roll. By the time I’m finished ferreting out every last morsel from the shell, my hands and paper placemat (it illustrates with step-by-step instructions how to eat a whole lobster) are a sticky mess. With a mile-wide grin on my face, I order dessert.
An East Coast tradition
New Glasgow is just one of many lobster supper experiences available on the island and across Atlantic Canada. As here, traditional lobster suppers have brought people together in many towns and villages across the region to raise funds for community causes. Most were once run by churches, community halls, clubs and fire departments.
These days, only privately-owned restaurants serve traditional lobster suppers, like the one in nearby North Rustico at Fisherman’s Wharf, the one at the Cardigan Lobster and Seafood Restaurant on the east coast and at Lobster on the Wharf in downtown Charlottetown. Wherever they’re found, they are a fun, relaxed way for casually-dressed visitors to find an authentic local experience where the people are friendly and the food is simple, delicious and plentiful.
The same is true in the other three Atlantic Provinces where restaurants have taken over the tradition from churches and halls. Lobster supper restaurants in Baddeck on Cape Breton Island, at the Halls Harbour Lobster Pound on the Bay of Fundy, at the Pointe-du-Chêne Wharf near Shediac, New Brunswick and at Capt. Kat’s Lobster Shack in Barrington in southwest Nova Scotia all serve up versions of the traditional lobster supper with all the fixings.
It’s here in this corner of Nova Scotia that lobster suppers (along with lobster breakfasts, boils, lunches and even lobster eating contests) abound at the end of the fishing season during the first full weekend of June at the annual Shelburne County Lobster Festival. This event and all those lobster meals are in celebration of the safe return of the community’s lobster fishers, of a successful season and of the most important driver of the local economy.
More lobster is landed in this part of the province than anywhere in the world. Festivals in Pictou Nova Scotia, Shediac New Brunswick, Cow Head Newfoundland and province-wide on PEI celebrate their fisheries and communities with similar events and lots of lobster.
Nova Scotia’s best-known lobster supper at the Shore Club in Hubbards has served more than one million customers to date. Now in its 83rd year, a third-generation member of the Harnish family—the original builders and owners—still runs what has become an institution.
In addition to suppers through the week, every Saturday night in summer, supper is sold as part of a package that includes admission to the dance later than evening, making the Shore Club known as much for its old-time, swinging dances as it is for traditional lobster suppers.
Back at the New Glasgow Lobster Supper, I pass up their famous Mile High Lemon Meringue Pie for my favourite—blueberry pie made with local fruit. Washed down with a mug of tea, the pie has me thinking back to my childhood when the blueberries I picked with my family were baked into pies. As I clean my plate, I think how this whole meal is reminiscent of those at my own family table.
Lobster suppers aren’t for those looking for gourmet dining. This is East Coast home cooking scaled up to serve hundreds, if not thousands daily—but the atmosphere is still of a family dinner or a community event rather than a restaurant meal.
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Intro caption: Restaurants have taken over the lobster supper tradition from churches and halls.