Lobster Songs

June 10, 2010 § 2 Comments

by Larkin Vonalt

JC, this one’s for you.

On Saturday morning, I got up early and went out. I drove 12 miles to an upscale grocery in the suburbs, stood in a long line, chatted with people, bought three lobsters, stood in another long line to have them cooked, brought them home (12 more miles), took one to pieces, used it to make a lobster omelet for my husband who took three bites and said “I don’t care for this.”

That’s the story. My husband objects to this story. He says that he ate “half” the omelet and that’s more than three bites. It’s more than three bites if you’re two years old. We’re talking two eggs and about a third of a cup of a lobster. How many bites can there be?  Anyway, I finished eating it for him and he thinks that’s adequate compensation.

It was a great dilemma for me whether or not to buy the lobster in the first place. We’re in the midst of a serious family crisis involving our grown-up daughter. We need every dollar, so who am I to go frittering away the stuff on things so inessential as lobsters? And yet, they were only $10. That’s three times what they would be on the Island.  But this is land-locked Ohio, where the only lobsters usually available are those miserable creatures stacked in grocery store tanks.

I sort of remembered that when we were newly wed in Montana that my husband humored me with a special Lobster dinner date at the Grand hotel the next town over. Larry the owner had gotten a bushel of lobsters shipped in from Boston and of course they cost the earth. They’d been cooked too long and were tough. Then there was all that business with plastic bibs and drawn butter and linen tablecloths and some kind of terrible white wine.

I know that there are other songs the lobster sings, and thinking that those might elicit more enthusiasm from my spouse, I head down the garden path to the car.

The parking lot of the upscale grocery is very full. Christmastime full. Last year they were out of lobsters in two hours. Inside, the line runs past the machine where they make the fresh mozzarella, along the deli case promising an English Ploughman’s lunch, past the island of organic strawberries ($6 a quart) up to the bakery cases full of petit fours and tiramisu. I find my place at the end, behind a man in a gray t-shirt. He isn’t particularly hairy, but from behind his shape makes me think of a silverback gorilla.

The line is long, but it’s moving quickly. A man comes by with a pad and a pencil. Is there anything I’d like from the deli while I’m waiting? I’d love a stack of pancakes, but that doesn’t seem likely so I just smile and shake my head. “No thanks.”

A foreign woman comes along with a bottle of white wine (“on sale today for just eleven dollars”) offering samples. I can see in the line ahead of me that plenty of people have taken her up on it.

“Not at nine in the morning, thanks just the same.”

“Well,” the woman says. “It’s nearly nine-thirty.”

We’ve rounded the corner, and I can see the mound of lobsters up ahead, stacked up on a fixture like so many little brown grapefruit. I see the drill: tell the man how many you want, he puts them in a bag and you take the bag to the cashier, and if you like you can stop outside and have them cooked. I’m glad I don’t have to look them in their little eyes (on stalks, yet) and choose. You, and you, and you. Your luck ran out today, lobsters. Really, though, their luck ran out some time ago.

In front of the pile of lobsters is a conventionally handsome young man.  He could be a day trader or a hedge fund manager, but he is dressed very improbably in a polo shirt and a pair of melon-colored foul weather bibs. The press release from the grocery had promised that there’d be someone from the lobster boat on hand, but this is one super clean lobsterman.

“Three,” I tell the other man, the one packaging the lobsters, and I look away, down the wine aisle, as he chooses. He hands me the bag (white, with a red lobster on the side) and smiles. I take it and make a beeline for the cashier. When the bag rustles in my hand, I feel slightly ill. That’s ridiculous, I know. Look at all the people standing in line to pay for their white bag of arthropods. Over in that line a mother and her daughter, who looks about eight, are delighting over the antics of their little rustlers. I mean, what is the matter with me? It’s not like we’re leading veal calves up to the checkout.

A nice woman about my age, which means not as young as we used to be, opens up her check stand and motions me over.

“There are three,” I say, and I can hear the apology in my own voice. “I wish I could just get a ticket or something in here and pick up the cooked ones outside,” I confess. “I can’t stand feeling them moving around in the bag.”

“I know,” the woman commiserates. “I can’t either.”

Outside, there’s another line of people waiting to get their lobsters cooked.  Though this line is shorter, it’s slower, the cooking and cooling of lobsters being a bit more complex than just packing them in a bag.  I am sandwiched between a couple who moved here from New Jersey and a woman who grew up in Wiscasset, Maine and is now talking to her mother on the cell phone.  It seems the lobster guy knows the man who runs the local lobster pound. (That’s lobster-wholesaling operation, by the way, not where they take stray crustaceans.)

“Brendan Ready,” the woman is saying into her phone. “Yes, he says he knows Albert.”

At the front of the line, under a white tent, lobsters are being poured from bag to kettle and fished from the kettle into a trunk full of crushed ice and water. There’s a kind of festival atmosphere, and if you saw a photograph of the scene you might think it was taken on the coast somewhere. Standing there though leaves no doubt that we are smack dab in the middle of Ohio.

Brendan Ready is mingling with the crowd, answering questions like “How long do I cook them at home?” (Fifteen minutes.) And “How do I keep them alive until it’s time to cook them” (Put them in a crisper under damp newspaper.) And “Do you ever get sick of lobster?”  He laughs.

“No, I never get sick of it. I could eat lobster for breakfast, lunch and dinner.”  Later I will look up the “Catch a Piece of Maine” phrase that’s emblazoned on his polo shirt. It turns out to be a company in Portland that seems to have made a very successful business selling the idea of a sustainable fisheries model through direct marketing and online sales. Website photos of the company’s other lobster boat captains include those of men who look like they do go down to the sea in ships.

Mr. and Mrs. New Jersey are discussing with Miss Wiscasset the different eating habits of people when confronted with a lobster on a plate. Miss W. is shocked at the people who don’t eat every last bit.

“Well, not the brain of course,” she says, referring to a collection of ganglia that amounts to about the same as a grasshopper’s brain. We all take great relief that a brain that size is not contemplating the meaning of life as it’s tossed into a pot of boiling water.

“I can’t believe some people who just eat the tail and the claws and throw the rest out,” she continues. “There’s meat in the legs, and the tomalley is a great delicacy.” Mr. and Mrs. Jersey don’t look quite convinced.

“Well, sometimes there’s just so much lobster that you don’t have time to mess with much beyond the claws and the tail,” I say. They all look at me as if they hadn’t noticed that I’d been standing there next to them for the last fifteen minutes. “I grew up on Prince Edward Island. We ate a lot of lobster.”

We are at the head of the line now and Mr. and Mrs. New Jersey hand over their two lobsters in a bag, and someone puts two other cooked lobsters in a bag and off they go. Before I know it, I have three cooked lobsters in a bag in my hand and I am headed for the car. The three I carried from inside the store, feeling their every rustle in my viscera, those have just been dispatched to lobster heaven, and in fifteen more minutes, when I am nearly home, they will be sent home with someone else.

There was a lot of lobster for us on the Island. My stepfather was a doctor there, and at times one lobsterman or another would turn up with a bushel of lobsters fresh from the pot.  I remember one afternoon the lobsters arrived very much alive. A large pot was set to boil on the old stove and my stepsister and I tossed them in a few at a time. Though the claws were pegged with wooden plugs, the lobsters were still lively and could easily twist from your hand.

“I’d like to be, under the sea in an octopus’ garden, in the shade . . .” I sang, tossing the flailing lobster in headfirst. Splash! Children, if not cruel, are certainly callous.

Those little wooden pegs, as it turns out, were the sole industry of the tiny Acadian town of West Pubnico, Nova Scotia, where they were hand-whittled. It was an invention that revolutionized the lobster industry, and in the 1930s West Pubnico rightfully declared itself “The Lobster Plug Capital of the World.”

Unfortunately the pegs broke through the membrane of the lobster flesh and allowed for bacteria to collect there, a potential source of contamination. By the mid-eighties, 500 million wooden plugs later, the last of the pegs are gone, replaced with rubber bands.

The bands, like the pegs before them, make the lobsters not only easier to handle, but keeping them from killing and eating each other.

“Oh,” you say with dawning awareness. In fact that’s one of the reasons lobsters are not farmed like oysters and shrimp and salmon. The other is that it takes five to seven years for a lobster to reach market size and that’s a long time to be feeding something that keeps trying to eat the rest of your inventory.

Lobsters are sorted and banded on the boat, using a tool that looks something like needle nosed pliers to stretch the strong bands over the claws. This is a point where the little beasts can lose their claws, making them culls. Claws get caught, break off, and lobsters will sometimes shoot off their own claws. (There should be a joke I could make here, especially since a claw-less lobster is called a “pistol,” but it just won’t come.)

The Commercial Fisheries News has advice to minimize claw loss due to banding: “Hold the lobster in one hand by the base of the carapace while banding with the other hand. If the lobster is too large to hold in one hand, place the lobster on a surface and hold securely. Both of these options give the lobster a sense of security, for it is not dangling in mid-air.”

Lobster traps (also called “lobster pots” which leads to all manner of semantic confusion) are baited with flesh: herring, hotdogs, chicken necks, mackerel. A 1997 study in Prince Edward Island found that lobsters caught with mackerel were weak and lethargic. Perhaps it’s their version of a turkey dinner.

After the second world war, a company called LobLure (not to be confused with contemporary lobster scent bait of the same name) experimented with a wide spectrum of artificial bait ranging from women’s sanitary pads soaked in herring oil, bricks marinated in kerosene and, inexplicably, white coffee mugs.

The bait bag is tied to the sill in the kitchen, that’s the first chamber of a lobster trap, the one before the parlor. Some traps have more than one parlor. Wooden traps are still in use, though wire mesh has become popular. All of them are to have a door large enough to let the immature lobster recognize the error of his ways and show himself out.

When the traps are pulled, “shorts” and berried hens are thrown back, the others are sorted and banded; or if you’re lucky and they’re cooking on the Miss Jeanne M., are thrown straight into the pot.

An average “hen” lobster will produce 8000 eggs or “berries” at a time. It takes ten months for the “berries” to hatch into baby lobsters, or “crickets” as they’re sometimes called, and the colder the water the longer it takes. For every 50,000 eggs it is estimated that only two will survive to market size. All the lobstermen throw back the hens with eggs, along with the crabs and occasional eel that makes their way to the parlor.

Dr. Jelle Atema from the Boston Marine Biology Laboratory describes the mating of lobsters as “poignant” and involving a gentleness that is “almost human.”

When the hen is ready to mate, she seeks out the male of her choice in his lair, Dr. Atema explains.  There she molts, shedding her shell to expose “her naked vulnerability.” (Atema’s words, certainly not mine.)

At that point the male could either mate with her or just eat her, but he chooses the former, turning the hen’s vulnerable body over unto her back. The male lobster, all dominance in hard shell, pointy legs and mouthparts, inserts his first pair of swimmerets, which are rigid and grooved, and passes his sperm into the female’s soft body. Dr. Atema observes that the female lobster will remain in the safety of the male’s den for about a week until her new shell hardens.

No matter what you’ve seen on television, lobsters do not mate for life.

To ensure not being pinched by the lobster en route from trap to sorting table (or again, if you’re lucky, traveling trap to boiling pot) the lobster must be held by its carapace, the long solid shell between head and wickedly articulated tail. Being smacked by the under side of their flipping tail hurts almost a much as being pinched. It doesn’t take long to pitch one in the pot, though and lobster eaten on the boat where it was caught has no match in any restaurant.

Traps are marked with buoys identified by the lobsterman’s license number. Occasionally whales get caught up in the lines between traps and buoys, other times the lines are cut, by storm or mishap or rival, leaving the “ghost trap” on the floor of the sea to go on catching lobsters forever and ever, amen.

Giving lobsters a sense of security. Tender mating rituals and ten months to produce the youngsters (crickets!). Kitchens and coffee cups! No wonder we have such mixed feelings about consigning them to their deaths in a vat of roiling seawater and steam.

Even Alice in Wonderland is loathe to admit that every lobster she’s ever known is one she’s eaten, choosing her words very carefully as the Mock Turtle teaches her the Lobster Quadrille.  Will you, won’t you, won’t you, will you, won’t you join the dance?

Some “animal rights” radicals have repeatedly brought up the issues of cruelty (though really how seriously can you take an organization that calls fish “sea kittens”) and various theories have been floated in response to make cooking lobster more “humane.” Some suggest a gentle steaming.  Others suggest putting the lobster in the freezer for a few minutes to lull it into sleepy complacency. The truth of the matter is those are worse.

Lobsters die immediately upon contact with boiling water. Any residual twitching is a nervous response, not unlike (but less sophisticated than) the chicken running around after her head’s been cut off.  As for lobsters “screaming” in the pot, they have no vocal cords and thus no way to scream. The sound is made by air escaping the carapace.

Still, though, we don’t generally handle our food while it’s still alive. (Okay, oysters, in fact are still “alive” while traveling down my throat, but it’s really a stretch to anthropomorphize an oyster.) People try hard to disassociate the living lobster from the lobster recipe, even going as far to refer to them as “bugs,” and insects and lobsters are both arthropods. Yet whole threads exist on websites like Chowhound musing the question of how to kill a lobster.

Some recipes call for raw lobster meat—and it’s true that if you use “boiled” lobster meat in puff pastry, bisque, omelets and the like that the meat will be tougher. I’ll just have to live with that, because I am not willing to take up a cleaver to butcher a living creature even if said creature is just a step or two above earthworm on the evolutionary scale.  I’d rather have someone else dump it in a vat of boiling water and go on in my ignorant bliss.

The last time I’d had a lobster was October 2007 at the Red Lobster restaurant in Rapid City, South Dakota. I know, I know. Lobsters start to die little by little as soon as they’re taken from the sea. Their life in a tank is a kind of purgatory. Occasionally a particularly large or charismatic lobster will be “rescued” by a customer to be returned to the ocean. They rarely survive the trip back.

Of course, the Red Lobster restaurant charged “market price” which would have paid for two other entrees, and they brought out the melted butter and the bib. But they forgot to crack the tail with a kitchen knife and they couldn’t find the crackers. I asked the waiter to take it back to open the shell. When he brought it back, it seemed they’d taken a hammer to it. We didn’t end up paying for it finally, but even so, the lobster was so rubbery it was hardly edible. We had to go by a burger stand on the way back to the hotel, which is what we should have done in the first place.

Lobsters used to be so plentiful on the New England coast that after a storm, they’d pick them up on the beach and distribute them as food for widows and orphans. They made a regular appearance on the tin plates of prison inmates. Some employment agreements stipulated that the employee would not be made to eat lobster more than twice a week. Then, around the middle of the 19th century, someone figured out how to successfully transport lobsters to urban centers around the country and fresh lobster became a luxury food. Which brings me back to the remaining three pounds of fresh lobster (at $6.50 a pound) in my kitchen in Dayton, Ohio.

I can hear the shower go off upstairs. Carrying a cooked lobster in one hand, I tiptoe up the stairs, and standing to one side, use the lobster’s claw to scratch on the door to the bathroom.

Scratch scratch scratch.

“What is it?” my teenage son asks from within.

Scratch, scratch, scratch.

“Who’s there?”

Scratch scratch scratch.

“Yes?! What IS it?”

Scratch scratch scratch.

The door flies open and I wave the lobster at him.

“Argh! Mom! You killed it didn’t you?!”  I’m laughing so hard I can hardly catch my breath.

“No, no—ha, ha, ha” I rattle the lobster gently. “They killed it for me.”  He rolls his eyes and shuts the door.

In the kitchen, I whack the length of the tail with a chef’s knife. There’s so much tomalley I’m worried that something’s awry. I know some people love the dark green goop, that which serves as liver and intestines for the lobster, but it’s not my thing. Plus, with the rise of toxins in the ocean, I’m not keen on ingesting the lobster’s filtering system. I rinse the tail meat in the sink.

The claws have a kind of milky white jelly in them, that’s the cooked “blood” of the lobster. It’s not dangerous, but has little taste and I rinse that off too.

The last lobster is also overly full of tomalley. I wonder how many calls the upscale grocery has received from people concerned that their lobster was bad. I’ve never seen tomalley in this kind of quantity, but maybe that’s the norm now.

While I’m pulling apart one of the claws, the lobster draws blood as the sharp edge of the pincer slices my thumb.

“Dammit!” I drop the claw in the sink and raise my thumb against my mouth. “Ouch.” I have to go wash my hands and find the band-aids before I can return to making the lobster salad.

Lobster salad is for lobster rolls, my idea of culinary heaven and my last attempt to persuade my husband and son into the league of lobster lovers. It’s the meat of two lobsters, a teaspoon of green onion, a stalk of celery chopped fine, the squeeze of half a lime, a teaspoon of hot sauce and a tablespoon or two of mayo—just enough to bind it together.

This is the kind of lobster I dream about eating. If I were on death row, this is the meal I would ask for. Lovingly I spoon the mixture into the grilled-in-butter hot dog rolls. My husband eats one, but there’s not much enthusiasm. Julian seems to be finishing his, so I offer him another.

“Uh, no thanks, Mom. I’ve had enough.”  When I pick up his plate, I see that he has eaten the lobster roll, but around the lobster, picking out the chunks of meat, which litter his plate.

I give up. I am resigned that lobster will join that pantheon of other things I love but They Will Not Eat. Banana pudding, coconut cream pie, crème brulee, watermelon, summer soups, tomatoes, salad caprese, steak tartare, sushi, clam chowder, mussels in saffron cream sauce, oyster stew and now, lobster.

Long, long ago in Boston, I regularly drove north to Revere Beach for lobster rolls at Kelly’s Roast Beef.  A seaside joint, it’s open nearly every hour of the day (with a two-hour break from three a.m. to five a.m.) every day of the year except Christmas and Thanksgiving. No matter the weather or the season, you walk up to the window and order your lobster roll (some people do get roast beef I guess) and bite down into absolute bliss.

We usually went at night. I don’t remember all the people that went with me to Kelly’s. My ex-husband, I’m sure. I know my mother went at least once because she still talks about it. Girls in summer frocks and combat boots, skinny boys with new tattoos, friends home from Paris and people I could hardly stand; all of us at the window bathed in a pale blue fluorescent glow—the sea stretching out behind us inky black.

I don’t remember all of them because when I think about going to Kelly’s Roast Beef I think about all the times I went there with Joe.  He and I worked together and every day was punctuated with theater, gossip and lunch.  We adored each other, but you know, not like that. Or maybe it was like that. Will you, won’t you, won’t you, will you, won’t you join the dance? I could count on Joe to hold my hand, to hold my head up, to keep me from drowning in self-pity and self-loathing.

He loaned me his leather motorcycle jacket when I needed to wear a leather motorcycle jacket. (And not just any leather jacket, either, but a Schott, like Marlon Brando’s in The Wild One.)  There’s a photo of me somewhere in that jacket, looking just as brave as I needed to look.

Not that there wasn’t trouble in paradise. The worst fight we ever had was over a shower curtain, and it was bad. We didn’t speak for weeks.  And when we did speak again, we got in my Volkswagen and drove to Revere Beach for lobster rolls.

Lobster rolls consumed in companionable silence in the Victorian pavilion across the street, the waves whispering along the shore. We hear the lullaby of the sea, as we go lightly across the sand. We were so beautiful then, and too distracted to even know it. Joe went to New York to be a playwright; I went to the land without lobster.

I haven’t been to Kelly’s in nearly twenty years.

It isn’t the same, quite, eating lobster rolls in the kitchen of my house in Dayton, Ohio, on a summer night, thumb bloodied and bandaged.  With my eyes tightly closed I taste the lobster roll: buttery crispy hot dog bun, cool, tangy dressing, lobster sweet and resilient, redolent in my mouth.  And there it is, the spell of the lobster’s song: I taste and just for an instant, I am again at the edge of the sea.  Will you, won’t you, won’t you, will you, won’t you join the dance?

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§ 2 Responses to Lobster Songs

  • Cpt Jeanne says:

    Goodness! Where do I start. Firstly, I think this article should be fittingly called “More for me!”. the less E and J eat of it, the more for you.

    You know me so well, huh? Eh? 😉 I’m not afraid to cook’em up and have done so many times. Won’t find me on a fishing boat doing it, though. I’d be plumb tuckered from my Gravol to cook. Thanks for the laughs and the very educational information on lobsters. I, too, remember PEI lobsters. I was much older when I found out that, athough I used to eat 2 or 3 on the island, I could only eat one elsewhere. Come to find out, they’re market size there and the ones we buy now are 1.5 to 2 lbs each. Mostly 1.5. Love it any way I can get it. My Aunt made me us a lobster bisque using live lobster. Not only … well, cruel in my eyes, but it was a darn thing trying to take the shells off when they were in the soup! I don’t cut open the tail, I stretch it out, lay it flat in my hand and squeeze hard. Pull open and take out the meat. Oh, now I want lobster, and it’s 4:20am! Sigh…

    Your incident with J made me laugh out loud. Expecially the part about his leaving the lobster bits on his plate. LOL It does take some getting used to, though.

    Oh, thanks for your recipe for lobster roll and I’ll be watching my email basket for your recipe for mussels in saffron cream sauce. We had something like that in Lennox, Mass. Yum!

    Thanks, also, for sharing your memories of Boston. I know how much your time there meant to you and still does. You gotta visit! Nearly twenty years? Oh my….

    Cpt Jeanne

  • lobsterlady says:

    I love this. Lobster Songs. I also love lobster. I also, way back when, had an earie feeling about putting them in water. Then I went out hauling with a friend from Maine & actually saw all the hard work & from that day on I never had trouble cooking them again. Great story.

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