Lobster Tale

Jasper Geeraerts’ “Still Life with Lobster”

Jasper Geeraerts’ “Still Life with Lobster”

Here is a tale of three lobstermen. One of them couldn’t fully reveal his stories until he was in his late 90s, another made a career out of catching a commodity he would never eat, and the third went on a “fishing expedition” from Hartford to Manhattan. All three men contributed to what, in an odd way, has turned 2012 into the Year of the Lobster.

But first, a little scene setting, or more precisely a portrait of persistent dreariness. The news from the local docks has been grim for a long time—lobster harvests in Long Island Sound over the last many seasons have disappointed, causing great struggle for those who make their livings setting the traps.

For a variety of reasons, the lobsters you’ve been cooking are more likely to have crossed state lines than been pulled up by Connecticut crews. The water has become too warm to support a healthy lobster population and, in the view of the DEEP, overfishing has taken a heavy toll. And yet there is, perhaps, something of a change afoot.

The first evidence is largely symbolic, and it comes from an unlikely source. James Arruda Henry, or Captain Henry as he was known, is 99 and living in a nursing home in southeastern Connecticut.

To be sure, Henry was a significant figure in the lobster industry —helping, for example, to establish the still-enduring Blessing of the Fleet, an annual Stonington event since the 1950s that honors all fishermen, and sets a tone of optimism for the year to come. The captain was, as his granddaughter Marlisa Smith says, a master of the waters: “He could navigate by day or night in the thick of fog with or without the use of technology.”

He is also quick witted and, in conversation, a storyteller. He spun tales for his family, but he also kept a dark secret. When he stressed the value of education to his children and grandchildren, he was speaking from experience, or lack thereof. He had become a community pillar and a successful business owner though, “I couldn’t read nothing,” he says. Not even a menu.

It wasn’t until he was into his 90s when he decided that it’s never too late to admit shortcomings and to learn. He not only became literate but the author of an autobiography, In a Fisherman’s Language. Now in its second printing, this small book of brief essays has become a phenomenon mostly because of the literacy triumph of its creator. But it also supports Captain Henry’s reputation as a natural storyteller.  

It’s a yarn straight out of Huck Finn, including an oppressive and alcoholic father who makes the boy do the work—even in hazardous weather—then steals the profits from him. It was a childhood that James Arruda Henry overcame, obviously, but one that needed to be revealed. His book has brought attention not only to him, and the ability of determined people to overcome difficulties, but it also honors an iconic Connecticut industry.

Captain Henry knew every fisherman, of course, including the Maderia family, which still runs one of the 50 or so small lobstering outfits in a state that used to have at least 500.

Richie Maderia, at 55, represents a new commercial hope. He remembers well his introduction to lobstering at age 8 when his father, who preceded him in the business, took him out for the first time. He remembers, too, that at age 9 he learned a big lesson—don’t take anything in lobstering for granted.

Out aboard the Lindy with his father and grandfather, he nearly became a casualty when a U.S. submarine rammed and sank the boat. The fishing crew was rescued, but for young Richie Maderia the episode remains a teaching point on the hazards of the work.

Today he captains Lindy Inc., and his business involves three of his four sons. He recalls the heady days of the 1990s when lobstering was lucrative in Connecticut. Back then, the total state harvest could be more than 3,000,000 pounds a year. By 2011, the take had dwindled to 142,000 pounds (which means the total gross income collectively was less than $600,000).

But when I talked to Maderia in early July he was in a festive mood, as if lobster had become, once again, manna in the Biblical desert. He estimated his June haul alone to have been 20,000 pounds. “We don’t know where they’re coming from,” he said. “All I can say is thank God.” (The DEEP and other authorities are not convinced, however, that the bumper crop will last, and have pushed for tighter conservation measures—a strategy that most lobstermen, including Maderia, reject.)

I asked Maderia how he likes to prepare his own lobsters. He said he doesn’t. Nor do any of his boys. “I tried lobsters and I couldn’t acquire a taste,” he said. “My wife eats ’em, though.”

I presume that Maderia and Captain Henry would not include in their official circle of lobsterman someone who never harvested a live lobster. Even so, Eric Zafran recently pursued a huge catch.

As curator of European art at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Zafran is constantly looking for ways to augment the museum’s permanent collection. “We always wanted an elaborate Dutch still life,” he tells me. So in February, he went poking around Manhattan for one such specimen.

He came across an oil that interested him—a painting completed some time before 1650 (it couldn’t be determined exactly when) by a Flemish artist named Jasper Geeraerts about whom little is known except that he died young and did brilliant work. At the bright red heart of this still life is a ready-to-eat lobster.

The crustacean, as Zafran knew, was indeed a rare Dutch treat—something from the north seas served only to the elite. This was true throughout Europe. (Samuel Pepys’ diary made a big deal of a lobster dinner.)

As a Boston native, Zafran knows New England lobster lore well. So there were at least two reasons to pursue the work—it is excellent art and it relates to our region’s culture. But the piece was about to be shipped off to Holland for sale at an art fair. Seizing the moment, Zafran had the painting sent to Hartford instead so that he could show what he had found and begin the process of purchase approval.

Over time, of course, the Atheneum, as America’s oldest public art museum, has bought many works by high-profile artists (Caravaggio, for example) but this wouldn’t be one of them. It would merely be worth the cost (which Zafran says the museum won’t reveal, but Geeraerts’ works of this quality have sold at auction for as much as $160,000).

The purchasing committee of the board approved, and the painting was displayed in a first-floor gallery in the spring. I saw the work in June, and was stunned by it. The lobster is such an imposing feature that at first I barely noticed the partially peeled lemon rind or the tipped silver chalice that reflects the artist’s image.

The arrival of the Geeraerts at this time is more than a happy accident. In this era of, perhaps, a lobster rebirth, this beautiful work, its last brush strokes applied so long ago, seems to have been painted for us.

Lobster Tale

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