At the end of his 2004 article for Gourmet on the Maine Lobster Fest, “Consider the Lobster,” the brilliant and untimely late author David Foster Wallace issued a challenge for epicures. Is being extra aware and thoughtful about one’s food, its source and contexts, what makes a true gourmet, or merely an aesthetic pleasure in eating? Having bought, killed, and cooked my own lobsters for New Year’s Eve, it’s a question I can’t ignore. That’s because unlike Foster Wallace, I did it all myself– all of the gruesome, delicious business.
I don’t pretend that I’ll be able to answer his challenge here. Instead, I will merely share my experiences as I confronted the life and sustenance reality in my own New York kitchen.
Part One – The Purchase
King Bee Anthony Lobosco offered to take me along on his New Year’s Eve eve journey to Sunset Park Brooklyn to the best, cheapest seafood market he knows in New York City (S&P Seafood Inc, 5802 8th Ave. Brooklyn). Since this is the guy who once cleaned 100 pounds of squid on his first day in his high school job at a seafood store, I trusted him implicitly.
In the car I felt nervous, tinged with excitement. Maybe even bloodlust. This is after all a luxury and my first time enjoying it at home. Then there was the doubts. I spent the night before researching humane methods, but I wondered if I’ll actually be able to do it. Visions of Annie Hall’s lobsters running around the kitchen, clichéd as they are, came to mind.
When we got to the shop, among the profligate superabundance of sea creatures (live blue crabs, live shrimp, squid, clams, oysters, razorclams, whole fish) to put the Coney Island aquarium to shame, I saw the tanks filled with lobsters of various sizes. All were relatively affordable. Their price: $7.99 a pound, matches the Times’ lowest find from earlier in December at the Lobster Place ($7.95), and is cheaper than Fairway ($9.99) and Citarella ($12.99), so I was pleased.
Anthony got the guy to bring out a 1.5 pounder. He was not sufficiently lively, so we sent him back. You want your lobster to move its legs and flick its tail at you. That tells you it’s healthy and relatively fresh. Even alive, the meat starts to shrink in captivity, especially in the claws, due to being rubber-banded and unused. (Which is a good thing. In the wild this spider-relative is territorial and possibly cannibalistic, and its claws can break your finger. In fact, the only real predator the adult lobster has is: duh, duh, duh: man! Even age doesn’t seem to slow them down, and they can live for 100 years or more. Their record size is over three feet long and 45 pounds. But I digress. There are just too many fascinating facts about this sea-bug!)
After being placed in a simple paper bag and then in a plastic bag, we threw our catch into the cooler in the back of the car and headed home.
Usually, you want to cook live lobster as soon as possible. But I wanted to wait until the holiday eve. It turns out this wasn’t a real problem. Lobsters can live in your fridge for a day or two. For extra insurance, wrap them in wet newspaper and put them in the vegetable drawer.
Part Two – The Prep
I checked them the next morning. They were still moving, though sluggish. Insert anthropomorphic joke about mornings here.
Throughout the day I hesitated to open the fridge. When I did, I tried to do so with the minimum of time and agitation. The reason, I told myself, is to keep the temperature from rising too much and help prevent the lobster from premature expiration. The truth is that I felt bad bothering them, and if they’ve died already, of slow asphyxiation, I didn’t want to know about it until as late in the day as possible.
What I didn’t want to do was to play with them for sport.
When I finally pulled out the bin and removed the paper, I was cheered to see the top lobster spring to life.
Now here’s the problem with cooking live lobster: some people pretend they don’t feel pain. The scientific perspective is mixed. The truth is that they’re very different creatures from us vertebrates. First for our purposes, they lack a central nervous system, and instead have clusters of nerves throughout the body that control the various parts- in the head for the eyes and antennae, with a separate nerve cluster for the tail, legs, etc. From various sources I found, the best way to go is to chill them, slowing down their metabolism, then cut or boil, or both. You can do this in the freezer for 15 to 30 minutes, or (better) in iced salt water for 30 minutes. (Whatever way you do it, they won’t scream. In fact, that’s just a myth- the “scream” is actually the sound of air pockets between the shell and the interior being vaporized. In the article Foster Wallace cites this legend as a folk-apprehension of the whole process, which seems right.)
Why do we have to cook lobsters alive, anyway? The reason is simple: spoilage. Like their fellow crustaceans, such as shrimp and crabs, lobsters contain a large digestive/fat storage organ in their mid-section. This is called the “tomalley” in lobsters, and turns green when cooked. It’s a strong, fatty flavor, like a lobster-flavored liver. Once the creature dies the enzymes in it start eating away at the surrounding tissue, turning it to mush. For this reason shrimp is usually purchased without the head (actually the cephalothorax, or “head-torso,” but anyway) or fully cooked and frozen, as with crab and lobster tails.
So into the freezer they go.
Part Three – The Deed
There is before the lobster, and then there is after. I feel changed. Still shaken. A touch of adrenaline.
When I pulled the first one out of the freezer after 30 minutes I was happy to see that it was barely moving. Still, as I took it over to the cutting board and set it on its back I could see the feelers moving about languorously, in a stupor. Following the instructions here, I folded down the tail and then readied my knife over the lowest legs. Pushing forward and down into its belly let out a crunch and a moist oozing sound. I pushed the knife down, inching further up with each rocking motion. As I did so I watched the legs contract and then go limp. My girlfriend could take it up to this point. Then the twitching started. The feelers on the tail started moving in concert. The tail lifted slowly up and down. Even the arms made their attempt to move, maybe to right itself. But the water wasn’t ready yet! I couldn’t put the half-dead thing into a pot that wasn’t ready. So we waited, and watched its death throes. One minute my girlfriend asked if we could leave the room and come back. The next she was there, hovering, amazed. She couldn’t turn away, she said.
I had felt a rush of fear as the knife went in. A slow, animal fear and disgust crept in as I watched the thing move on the counter top. Why won’t the pot boil, damn it! I knew then that I’d never cook another lobster again, if I could even eat one.
When the water boiled at long last I placed the first one in, still moving somewhat, then went through the whole thing again with the other. There was no waiting this time and it went into the pot with great haste to let the boiling steam do its work. We stood still in shock. I tried to smile for the camera, and felt drained. When the lid clattered and danced we jumped. No fucking way that thing was moving inside there! No, it was just the steam.
1. In your largest pot, the one you cook a pound of pasta in, pour water an inch deep. Turn heat to high. Take a few handfuls of salt and throw it into the water until it is as salty as seawater. For extra flavor use real seawater and/or seaweed (kombu, perhaps).
2. When the water is boiling, place whole or pre-slaughtered lobster in the pot, tail tucked underneath if necessary. Top with any remaining lobster but do in batches if you don’t have room. Cook for 8 minutes for a one-pound lobster, then an additional 3 or 4 minutes per remaining pound. So for my two 1.6 pounders I cooked them 10 minutes.
3. Remove the now-bright red lobsters with tongs and let them sit for 5 minutes before serving. Eat with melted butter, lemon, or both. Save the broth as a stock if you wish.
4. Eating guidelines: almost everything inside the shell is edible, with the exception of the gills and possibly the vein in the tail. To start, twist off the claws, then crack with a nut-cracker (or a lobster cracker, same thing). To remove the tail grab it with one hand and twist off. Then slice vertically with a knife and bend the shell out until the meat pops off. Peel back the top layer of meat and pull out the vein, if there is one. These spots are where most of the meat is located, but there’s still good stuff in the knuckles, legs (suck them out), and the green tomalley delicacy inside (great with bread to sop up). The little forks are for sissies.
Part Four – The Meal and Aftermath
What changed my shock to glee was the smell as I opened the lid. It was the gift of cooked lobster smell. They were bright red now. They were food, and beautiful. I still didn’t know if I could eat them, though. But the distinctive aroma of the ocean mixed with sweetness helped that along. At the table, as I pulled off the arm (after making sure to place the creature on its back) I licked the juices from my fingers. Oh, it was good. So amazingly good. In fact, I doubt I’ve ever eaten meat of any kind that tasted so good.
This was mine. The lobster I had dispatched. It gave up its life for my nourishment. I had survived! I really felt like that. I won. The lobster lost. Now, if I had to contend with a 40 pounder it might have been different, you say. True. Small victory, but it still felt like one.
Was it actually the best lobster? Probably not. There were some funny colors inside mine that I’d never seen before, though my girlfriend’s looked normal.
As I stood up from the table, I actually said thanks. It wasn’t exactly right to say a prayer (traif and all), so that would have to suffice. Thanks, lobsters.
Now I can’t wait to do it again. Foster Wallace might group my reaction under his “Native American spirituality of the hunt” camp of lobster cookers who slice them before cooking. But just try it yourself. You’ll be thankful too, I bet. And well-fed.
original post 1/2/09 @14:58