Saturday, February 10, 2018

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: "The Strangest Lobster Dinner"

edited and published a Minneapolis newspaper in the
1970s and 80s, I occasionally combined my role as
a ficrion writer, restaurant critic and political
journalist as I did in the fictional parody below. It 
turned out be one of the most popular newspaper
pieces I wrote. I published it in 1977 --- so younger
readers might not recognize some of the details in it
(a very high-end meal in those days cost about $25.00)
but in spite of the four decades that have passed since
then, I think it still resonates, and I hope my readers
still find it amusing.]

It wasn’t too long ago that a lobster dinner with all the
trimmings cost less than five dollars. Remember? And do
you remember how the waiter would tie a paper bib
around your neck for glamorous hygiene --- after all, this
was lobster and not spaghetti!

Then, somehow, everything got out of hand. Or out of
pocket, actually. Six,seven, eight, nine, ten dollars and
beyond. Finally, there was no price. Only asterisks on the
menu. When you looked at the bottom of the menu for the
explanation of the asterisks, it always referred you to your
waiter/waitress for today’s prices.

Today’s prices! Need I say more?

It has been eleven years since I ordered a lobster dinner.
Recently, I reached a kind of breaking point on this.
Everyone has a limit. On my budget, it has been necessary
to do without. But last week, I couldn’t hold out any longer.

I went to one of the city’s best restaurants to break my
voluntary lobster fast. The oak-panel walls and crimson
tablecloths only heightened my anticipation. (All day at
work, I thought I smelled melted butter. Melted butter!)

My dinner companion ordered a conventional prime rib
dinner. (If I was going to wreck my budget, she was going
to do her part.) The waiter nodded his head; he got this
order routinely. The he turned to me. “And what will you
have this evening, “ he asked with a gratuitous smile.

“What is the price of the Maine lobster today? I asked

The waiter smiled again. “Many persons ask this out of
curiosity,” he said.

“I’m not being curious,” I told him. “I intend to order a

His smile evaporated. It seemed that he now looked at me
paternally. “We have a very large menu, sir, with many
entrees I’m sure you’ll be glad you ordered. Take my
advice. Forget the lobster. If it’s seafood you want, try the
pompano en papilotte. It’s excellent.”

“No,” I said, “I don’t think I want pompano tonight. I’ll
have the lobster.”

“Well, perhaps the rack of lamb or the tenderloin tips?”


“You insist, then?”

“I insist.”

“Very well,” the waiter said with a look of great resigned

The he did something very odd. He leaned over and picked
up my spoon. He began tapping the spoon very loudly
against my water glass. It was a very large dining room,
and filled to capacity tht night, so it took several loud taps
before the whole dining room became silent. Everyone was
looking at our waiter.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said solemnly, “the party at
this table has ordered the Maine lobster. The bidding is
now open.”

Immediately, the room became agitated with shouts of
“Fifteen!” “Twenty-two fifty!” “Thirty!” and so on until
after about four minutes of spirited bidding, our waiter
closed the auction at $96.75. At this point, everyone else
resumed their dinners, and the waiter turned to me.

It is our custom to charge our guests one dollar below
the highest bid for the lobster. Your dinner this evening
will be $95.75, and will include your entree, the house
salad, potato, dinner rolls and beverage. Dessert and
tax is not included.

I was so stunned by all this that I didn’t saya word. It
was too late, anyway, because the waiter was gone.

As he placed my salad in front of me a few minutes
later, I attempted to regain control of the situation.

“You know,” I said to him, “I have no intention of
paying a hundred dollars for my dinner.”

“With all due respects, sir,”  he replied, “you insisted
on having the lobster after my fair warning. Your order,
while verbal, is quite binding, I assure you. The
restaurant’s attorney have checked this quite
thoroughly. But I can tell you if there is a legitimate
hardship in your case, you might apply for our Fruit of
the Sea Fellowship.”

“Fellowship? In a restaurant? You must be kidding.”

“Not at all. Just fill out this form in duplicate while I
get your dinner rolls. The maitre d’ will meet with our
comptroller and the sous chef to review your
application. Our policy is to approve or reject a
fellowship application before serving the lobster.”

He put the application form and a ball point pen in
front of me. In addition to questions about my gross
earnings for the past five years, location of any body
scars or tattoos, and whether or not I voted for Ed
Muskie for president in 1972 (do I detect a fish bias
here?), it asked if my state fishing license had ever
been suspended or revoked. With misgivings about
the treatment of my civil rights in this matter, but
now too hungry to care, I quickly filled out the form
and gave it to the waiter who dashed off to the kitchen.

When he returned, he was beaming --- but it was now
with a noblesse oblige smile. “We are always pleased to
make our lobster available to persons such as yourself
who can’t afford it,” he said. “The maitre d’ has asked
me to inform you that your fellowship has been
approved. He was regarding me with a look one
reserves for one’s lessers.

It wan’t long before my lobster dinner arrived. The
waiter presented it with considerable flourish. It looked

Today the tail, tomorrow the claws, I thought to myself
as I plunged my seafood fork into the succulent white
lobster flesh.

A terrible noise occurred as I did this, and raised the
first forkful of lobster to pass through my lips. A harsh
voice yelled out, “Don’t eat that lobster, mister!”

I looked up and abut a dozen men, dressed in work
clothes and carrying signs, approached our table.

This can’t be happening, I thought to myself. My dinner
companion broke into tears.

On reaching our table, the first protestor grabbed my
lobster, and threw it agains the oak-panel wall.

“That poor man’s fellowship,” said an elderly matron,
sitting at a table next to ours.

I stood up and looked at out waiter who had retreated
about twenty feet away to a safe distance.

“I want a New York strip sirloin, medium rare, with
hash brown potatoes,” I screamed at him at the top
of my voice.

All at once, the room became silent. The protestors
noiselessly made their way out of the restaurant. The
other diners went back to their meals. A busboy picked
my lobster off the floor and took it away.

After I sat down, the maitre d’ came over to our table
and told me that, under the circumstances, dessert
would be on the house.

Copyright (c) 1977, 2018 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

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