7.06 / June 2012

How to ____ a ____ Lobster ____

At some point in your life, you’ll want to believe the writers and the artists, the travel sites and the brochures, and visit the State of Maine. You’ll particularly surrender to the coast, we predict, and therefore must try some lobsters. Prepare first for your vacation by watching all possible footage of Acadia’s surf and Aroostook’s moose and the spectacular loneliness of the Appalachian Trail. (Warning: you’ll want to get on the road immediately.) Then, more practically, make sure to view the various “How to” lobster videos that are out there. You’re going to encounter lobster icons everywhere in Maine –  they are as numerous as the illusions you are in the market for – and you need to understand that the state employs for its way of life no better scam artist than the lobster: so lowly, so ugly, so busy goosing humans to pretend they’re outdoorsy, rugged, independent, rich, sated, pure, primitive, or at least not office-bound; such a fresh and perfect vehicle for carrying dreams, not to mention butter. In fact, lobsters are so good at their job that you’ll need help in interpreting the fantasies they raise, help from people like us, who have already succumbed more or less completely to the lure.


Fill in the First Blank

Realize first that lobsters are hardly all about eating. A world of wonder surrounds them.

1. “How to catch.”  In this illusion be prepared to be male and burly and wear a hoodie. Be immune to seasickness; the ocean always seems to be rough on film and you’ll pitch around the boat picturesquely. Water splashes over the gunwales, the horizon rises and drops like the water in a toilet tank, the deck is slippery with guts and kelp. It’ll be cold, too – wear slickers and gloves. If you’re lucky, the lobsters will practically jump out of the traps and into your heart. If not, you can utter stoical comments about next time. This is a boy’s dream: out in the wild, in the company of men, reaping from nature where he didn’t sow. Even in those videos, the mystique is palpable; you can almost smell the unwashed jeans and the briny air and the rotten herring in the bait bags, feel the saltwater seeping down your neck.

Or, make it slightly more real and arrange to visit our living rooms when you come to Maine. In our little corner of the coast, you can get out the binoculars in comfort and watch our neighbor’s son fish in the cove, one man against the elements, so adroit the way he slews the steering wheel around. In effect, the boat drives itself in a nice contained arc as he handles the winch and empties the traps and ties on the bait bags and slides the traps back into the waves. It’s not dramatic like the video close-ups of menacing claws but it’s pretty nice. The sight makes you feel good – real food, real men just outside your door, everything there for the picking, the perfect sustainable harvest. You can almost imagine the way it used to be when lobsters were so plentiful that kids scooped up basketfuls from the shore, so common that lobsters were contemptible, food for servants, fertilizer for fields. Before the shore was bought up by people from away.

Now this beast is another kind of fodder, for tourists and Mainer wannabes. Lobsters are plentiful (100 million pounds landed in Maine last year), about the only creature in the sea that is these days, and therefore you’d think they’d be cheap – which they are considering what the fishermen get at the dock. But then the long chain of distributors and wholesalers and retailers and chefs takes over, adding so much cost that you, having “caught” your dinner in the lobster shack by pointing to it in the tank and then strapping on your plastic bib, will feel privileged just looking at the prices.

Being this kind of tourist is fine, but we encourage you to feel more authentic and mystical and Mainiacal. Rent a house for your vacation, and on at least one evening go to the local fish shop and pick up a bagful of lobsters. Feel even more authentic and wander down to the local town dock and buy from the wholesaler, or better yet, ask our neighbor’s son for a few fresh ones off the boat. That’s a good story for the folks back home and will be topped off perfectly when you hire Captain Jack to take your family and your Canon out in Rockland Harbor. He’ll show you the real thing, in under an hour. Your kids can touch one.

2. “How to kill.” If you choose the direct route, not the restaurant route, of course you will realize from the commotion in the bag you’re carrying that lobsters need to be kept alive as long as possible for best flavor. This means murder in your kitchen. To prepare, watch the lobster scene in “Annie Hall” and practice speaking shellfish – that is, take a light touch, laugh at your lover’s squeamishness, and don’t forget to take pictures. Above all, don’t panic once you’re in killing position. (At this point, your modern class of chef-instructor on video politely advises that the timid will want to look away. Julia Child, you’ll note if you look her up, didn’t bother with such niceties.) The positions are advised to be several. You can grasp your dinner and plunge it head-first into boiling water, or stab with a pick what passes for its brain, or slice down its spinal cord with a sharp knife. However you kill, feel proud that you’ve at least approached your food supply so closely as to respect it.

3. “How to cook.” First of all, don’t ask what difference it makes whether you boil or steam. We don’t have a clue. (Other methods such as grilling or broiling are chosen, we believe, by hosts and chefs who have run out of other ways to impress their guests.) The main point is to achieve that pretty red color that looks so good on brochures (next to an ear of corn and a pot of butter and a tub of slaw, on a weathered picnic table next to a dock, on a quaint harbor full of boats, at sunset). Do pay a little attention to cooking times, however, unless you enjoy spending $75 on the equivalent of old shoes.

4. “How to eat.” At last you’re really ready to start feeling like something you’re not. Rich and sophisticated, perhaps. Or for a different kind of human, earthy. But first you have to dismember the animal. (Do not, we say, if you value your personhood, ever succumb to eating lobster meat pre-split, processed, picked, whatever, except of course on a roll at Red’s Eats.) It’s fine to go ahead and get your sea legs and first watch those elegant displays on YouTube, the twisting and cracking and picking, the impeccable hand-eye coordination, not a drop of water spilled, not a morsel un-excavated. Not even the spindly legs escape the quest for meat. Just know that the actual creature is awfully messy. Yet do not wear one of those plastic bibs (or if you must, do not so obviously read steps 1 through 7 printed thereon), especially if you’re in a restaurant, especially if it’s a Maine restaurant. We will shun you. Proper technique will keep your shirt and soul clean.

Try a soft-shell shedder if you’re dainty, but understand that real men go for hard-shell. You are certainly permitted to use nutcrackers on the claws and knuckles, but for maximum eeewww-factor, do not use nutcrackers, and definitely not tin snips, to open up the tail meat. Get in there and use your hands, thusly: after you twist the tail from the body, bend it back near the end and into the resulting crack insert a finger – you choose which one – and push the meat out. Look around and hope someone saw your proctological prowess. Feel cool and rustic.

If you have been fortunate enough to rent a house in Maine, or even buy one, and want to cook and eat your own lobsters, here is what not to do: very soon after this instructor and his wife bought their Maine house, we had overnight guests from the city. Lobster of course was called for. Like true Mainerbes, we asked our neighbor, who fished a few pots, if he could spare a half-dozen bugs for dinner (so cool we knew the lingo, so awesome that our food could come right out of our cove!). So far so good, but that was the highpoint: none of us really knew how to eat a lobster, the claw crackers didn’t work, our four collective pre-teen daughters were pretty much stunned with grossness, water seemed to drain endlessly from the shells (and permanently stained the walnut wood of the table, we discovered later), the smell lasted three days because we didn’t put out the garbage immediately, and we have not cooked lobster since. So much for mystique: just because one ate lobster doesn’t mean one had a Maine experience. If you practice your techniques, however, you may preserve or even enhance your fantasies, especially if you decide to eat that gray-green tomalley stuff inside the body (maximum eeewww-factor, maximum points) and it isn’t quite what you expected.

Finally, if you’re richer in money than in imagination, order up a lobster bake, complete with chowder and clams and mussels and slaw and corn and blueberry pie, from some outfit in Bar Harbor, either for inside consumption at one restaurant where (we quote) “you and your guests can watch and take pictures,” or for outside authenticity in a fire pit on a beach, on, say, the gala Thursday night of your week on a windjammer.


Fill in the Second Blank

There is really only one word you can employ in this blank. Oh, just to see where Google goes you might experiment with “rock” (the B-52s singing “Rock Lobster”) or “spiny” (but you discover these are crustaceans without claws – impossible), or “langostino” (otherwise known as “squat” and which is really a crab and a made-up restaurant word and beneath contempt). But truly only one word suffices: Maine. Take it from us: that search result is two nouns inseparably joined at the hype. Someone at a gathering in Massachusetts will ask us about plans for vacation, and we’ll say, “We have a second house in Maine,” whereupon the rejoinders will almost always be one question, “On the water?” and two statements, “Pretty cold up there in the winter,” and “You must eat a lot of lobster.” The simplest response is to say yes to all three. This reinforces the idea of Maine as Vacationland and dreamscape and a place that most Americans would be terribly bored to stay in for longer than a week or two, which is just how we’d like flatlanders to view it. Bring your money, folks, but do not stay long. Unless, of course, you fully embrace the place. As we are trying so hard to do.

In any conversation about Maine, we do not say how much we are in love with the state, how we wish we could live here permanently; such emotional statements tend to fall flat, and no rejoinder or joke will be possible, thus inhibiting the party atmosphere. We do not admit that we really don’t care for lobster. It may cause our listeners to combust. We could, however, discuss the lobster’s economic importance to the state, and how fishermen are taking affairs into their own hands and certifying Maine lobster against Canadian imports, and we even could mention, depending on the politics and the enthusiasm of the circle around us, one of two ideas: with Republicans, Linda Bean’s Perfect Maine® and her new “vertical marketing and distribution” strategy from dock to dish; or with Democrats, the importance of government regulation in keeping the fishing industry strong.

Thus, we advise deflecting all comments and questions if they arise about your own dreams of Arcadia, assuming you have some. They are private and crucial and can’t be bandied about. Encourage your inner dreams, however, by a double dare. First, really get out there into nature. Feel the splash of salty, icy waves; touch slimy rockweed swirling in the tides and hiding all manner of creatures, even infant lobsters; gaze on azure sky; hike on woodsy mountains; breathe in air so pure that the islands in the bay seem to float on their rocky shores. Then proselytize for the perfect Maine not only by taking pictures and collecting stories but by a second level of creation – meditation, poetry, painting, prayer – for that’s how you make dreams come real. Experience wonder, make salvation. You’ll at last understand the power of belief. Put your love into walks and words, not Winnebagos. Imagine being a lobster: scurry with your fellow millions on the ocean floor, wander in and out of traps eating your free lunch, glare balefully at those who would imprison you, stay fresh and alive right up to the moment of your transfiguration.


Fill in the Third Blank

Sorry to say we will not offer you any choice here but “humanely.” Indeed, lobster may be the only food you welcome alive and kicking into your home, where only warm and friendly feelings should roam. It’s therefore incumbent upon you to behave to the crustaceans as you would to your children, and cause the least amount of pain and suffering as you process them. Current theory for the average homebody suggests putting them (the lobsters, of course) in the freezer for a half-hour before boiling, which slows their metabolism and pain receptors down to almost nothing and also avoids that terrible banging about in the boiling water under the pot lid. (By the way, videos don’t show the freezer option – it’s not dramatic enough.) If you live on an estate in Falmouth Foreside or subscribe to the views of PETA, spend several thousand dollars and buy a countertop CrustaStun, the electric chair for lobsters. If you’re a large-scale operator in lobster processing, cleverly combine the moral and the economic and use a machine called a hydrostatic pressure processor both to squeeze lobsters to death and to shuck them quickly and in quantity.

These, then, are the several humane methods that must be considered, for if the tables were turned, if some large, alien Homarus americanus arrived in our neighborhood with a taste for Homo sapiens al fresco, then we too would appreciate the consideration. To proceed, stick a thermometer in your principles. The throes we commit on the lobster vary greatly – frozen to insensibility in many minutes, boiled to death in a couple of minutes, hammered to death in a few seconds, electrocuted to death almost instantly – but they’re still death throes. If the moral temperature rises, we may have to give up lobster (red meat, white meat, eggs, etc.) entirely. Understand that this reasoning may be hypocritical. We can hardly live without inflicting inhumanity on something. The world’s moral soul does not bear close examination and we cannot substitute “painlessly” for “humanely,” not even for killing lobsters. There may be no such thing as “painless.” Therefore, one needs illusions to live.

Remember that lobsters eat their brothers without hesitation, that the chicken we had for dinner last night – well, we don’t want to know how it died, much less how it was raised – the shoes we walk in could be Elsie the Cow, and even that the gallon of gas that takes us to Whole Foods upon our vegan conversion is a poison to water, air and land, not to mention the greed it stimulates in Riyadh and Houston. Pity for our fellow animals is commendable, if a little unctuous. We as apex predators are much better served by learning a harder lesson: how to do everything we can to save a Maine lobster’s way of life forever, however chimerical and inauthentic our part in the drama may seem.

Jim Krosschell divides his life into three parts:growing up for 29 years, working in science publishing for 29 years, and now writing and travelling between Massachusetts and Maine. His essays are widely published. See Saving Maine and One Man's Maine for other work.
7.06 / June 2012