Second Course: All About Lobster
“Man needs to know but little more than a lobster in order to catch him in his traps.” – Henry David Thoreau
Greg and I are making a trip through Maine this week (currently up on Mount Desert Island!) before he starts back up at work after a two-year stint in business school and I wanted to find out more about one of the food topics closest to my heart. This one is lengthy but is the essence of summer. Enjoy!
If you grew up in New England, odds are you also grew up eating lobster, at least a couple of times a summer. I was a bit of a picky eater as a kid (childhood friends will probably find my love of food amusing; adult friends will have a hard time believing I was so selective) and didn’t care much for most seafood. Lobster, though, has always had a place in my heart.
Eating lobster is a treat, a delicacy to be savored. The sweet, pink meat is nearly impossibly tender and tastes just a hint like the ocean. For anyone who grew up north of New York, you know what I mean. I’m a firm believer that the briny air of the North Atlantic never quite leaves you, even if you’re far from home. Greg and I have been lucky enough to eat lobster multiple times in the last few weeks and I’m still not sick of it. 🙂
Amazingly, lobster didn’t start out as a delicacy (at least to the European settlers.) In fact, it was very much the opposite: a food for the poor: a bottom dwelling dinner for those on the bottom of the social hierarchy in the new world order. Even its name denotes its status: a combination of the Old English words for locust and spider.
The history of lobster really corresponds with the history of Maine and it’s people. Most records seem to point to the fact that the native people (primarily the Algonquin people who were comprised of hundreds of tribes, including the New England-based Abenaki, Wampanoag, Massachusett, Nipmuck, Pennacook, Passamaquoddy, and Quinnipiac) used lobsters primarily for bate and secondarily for food. They were cooked in a pit, much like a clambake would be today. More on that later.
The first lobster catch recorded by a white settler came in 1605 was most likely fished off the coast of what is now Maine. They were apparently so plentiful at the time that a person could wade into the water and pluck them straight from the shallows. Their abundance and inexpensiveness made them readily available to all and over time they became synonymous with poverty and indentured servitude. Records show that a group of Massachusetts indentured servants reviled the lobster they were served so much that they took their masters to court, eventually winning a judgment that they were not to be served lobster more than three times a week. Lobsters were also used as fertilizer for native and white fields alike, allowing crops like the “Three Sisters” (corn, beans and squash) that flourish in the rocky New England soil.
By the mid 1800s, the lobster population had significantly deteriorated and was thus less common and more expensive. During this same period, lobster trap fishing became the preferred harvesting method. (It remains so to this day.) Oceanographer Glenn Jones has studied restaurant menus from early America and found that lobster first appeared on menus as early as the 1850s, where it was priced lower than chicken. At the same time, Maine lobstermen found a way to further preserve their goods by using a new style of boats called Smacks (designed with holding wells on deck for live catch) and by canning lobster meat. By 1870 there were lobster canneries up and down the Maine coast.
As demand for high quality lobster meat rose throughout the 1800 and 1900s, the size of the average lobster correlatively decreased from over 3 lbs. to just 1-2 lbs. a piece, making the canning process too expensive to turn a legitimate profit. At the same time, more and more wealthy families escaped disease-ridden Boston and New York in the summers for the cool salt air of Maine and to them lobster looked and tasted exotic. Furthermore, the 1-2 pound lobsters that canneries had no use for were the perfect dinner portion for families “summering” along the coast. Thus, a delicacy was born. Prices for the lowly crustacean skyrocketed until the Depression, when they (unsurprisingly) temporarily crashed.
When America became embroiled in World War II and ration cards were the norm, lobster remained exempt due to its status as a delicacy. Thus, lobster became an accessible and viable protein for Americans in the 1940s, a taste they did not leave behind when the war ended.
The fishing industry is heavily regulated, both for economic and ecological reasons and the first lobstering policy passed in Maine in 1828 banning out-of-staters (those “from away” in Maine vernacular) from fishing in Maine waters. It was subsequently followed by two separate laws in the 1870s: First, a policy requiring that lobstermen throw egg-bearing females back into the ocean and second, a policy requiring all landed (kept) lobsters to be a minimum of 10.5 inches from the eye to the tail. (This has now been reduced to a length of between 3.25 and 5.0 inches long.)
Throwing egg-bearing female lobsters back continues to be the standard practice and lobstermen cut a small notch in the tail of each lobster they throw back as an indicator for future fisherman that the animal is contributing to repopulation efforts. This practice was codified into Maine law in 2003.
There are now seven different lobstering zones (called Lobster Management Areas – LMAs), from Cape Cod to the northern point of the Maine coast and each LMA has it’s own requirements for trap limits, lobster size, required and banned gear, and seasonality. Where a lobsterman can fish depends on the LMA and federal requirements and all lobstermen must abide by the “Most Restrictive Rule,” meaning that if any two laws are in conflict, the lobsterman must abide by the more stringent of them.
Traps are also regulated and must include both escape vents and so-called ghost vents which decay over time and give the lobsters opportunity to escape if the traps are abandoned. Each fisherman marks his/her traps with federal or state trap tags and with buoys, which are painted in his/her unique design. Hauling lobster traps that are not yours is a major breach of etiquette and may even get you killed.
Maine lobstermen set a record in 2015, hauling over 120 million pounds of lobster, a catch worth $495.4 million. It will be interesting to see what future yields look like and whether the ever-growing market for lobster will drive its population down.
Lobster is the stuff of culinary lore, and indeed the red crustacean has permeated the cultural identity of the northeast, particularly Maine. It has been the grounds for survival, the livelihood of a people, a delicacy, and an economic engine.
It is not surprising, therefore, that much has been written about lobster – indeed, too much to cover here. Instead, I’m recapping two of the more interesting (and diametrically opposed) things I’ve read.
An Ethical Discussion:
The celebrated writer David Foster Wallace lay out the moral questions around eating – or, more accurately cooking – lobster in an essay for Gourmet in 2004, in which he argues that to eat lobster is, essentially, to commit another living being to suffering and an uncomfortable death. “Given the (possible) moral status and (very possible) physical suffering of the animals involved, what ethical convictions do gourmets evolve that allow them not just to eat but to savor and enjoy flesh-based viands?”
I respectfully disagree. To eat is to kill, be your food animals or plants, and whether you participate in its death or you don’t. There are many reasons to choose an omnivorous diet or a vegetarian or vegan diet, but if you do eat meat, it is more than a bit contradictory to say that cooking and eating lobster is somehow morally wrong just because you participate in the process. Rather, I would argue, participation in the rendering lends a certain respect for your food and from whence it came.
Consider the Lobster is, nonetheless, an interesting and thoughtful read for all of us who eat.
One of my favorite authors is Linda Greenlaw who writes about her experience as a fisherman and boat captain. I’m partial to her for a few reasons, not least of which is the fact that, like me, she also majored in Government at Colby College and is now a well-regarded author and all around badass woman (my favorite kind.)
Ms. Greenlaw gained some notoriety back in 1997 when Sebastian Junger published The Perfect Storm about the Andrea Gail, the Gloucester sword fishing boat lost during the infamous 1991 hurricane. (Incidentally I vaguely remember this storm. I’d just turned six and Gloucester is only a short ride from where I grew up.) Greenlaw was, at that time, one of the best fishing boat captains on the east coast and was working on the Hannah Boden, sister ship to the Andrea Gail. After The Perfect Storm, she was approached to write her own perspective, which became best selling The Hungry Ocean. Her second book was about her transition from sword fisherman to lobsterman called The Lobster Chronicles.
The Lobster Chronicles is a funny, down-to-earth, true story about the challenges and joys of catching lobster off a small island off the coast of Maine. An ode to the less than glamorous aspects of the procurement of one of my favorite foods.
Incidentally, Linda and her mother have also co-authored Recipes from a Very Small Island that covers all foods Maine, including fish, blueberries, cranberries and of course, lobster. I also own and enjoy this cookbook and am happy to share some of its delicious recipes, should you want them. Just ask.
Now that I’ve rambled on about the history, policy and culture of lobster, I shall get to the part I’m most fond of – the preparation and eating. I have three separate recipes that I’m particularly excited about, although (short of overcooking it) you can’t really ruin lobster. The first two involve basically the same preparation, and are easier. The third is a more challenging and time intensive process, but one that we found was incredible.
The Classic Lobster Roll
This is most people’s introduction to lobster and, if you’re going to get one out, it ought to be from a stand on the side of the road someplace. Extra points if it looks like it’s been there since at least 1850. But they are easy to make and highlight nothing but the sweat meat, making them a New England classic.
Serves 3 (but is easy to multiple)
- 4 1.25-1.5 lb. lobsters
- 3 New England Style Hot Dog Buns
- 1.5 Tbsp. Mayo
- 1.5 Ribs of Celery
- Cook the lobster or cheat and ask the store to steam them for you like I did. If you’re going to cook them yourself, the Culinary Institute of America has a great resource here.
- Crack the lobster and remove the meat. It’s a messy job, so line your kitchen table with newspaper or a plastic tablecloth. Wear a bib or apron. Just do it. As my friends will tell you, I am an aggressive lobster cracker who leaves no lobster meat behind. You’ll definitely need a lobster or nutcracker, a small fork, and possibly scissors if you really want to get in there. (I’m hoping to do a short video on lobster cracking soon, so stay tuned!)
- Dice up the celery in ¼-inch chunks.
- Dice up the lobster tails and other meat into large, 1-inch chunks. Leave the claw meat in tact.
- Mix the meat, celery and mayo.
- Butter both sides of the hot dog rolls and grill them until each side is a warm brown.
- Fill the rolls with salad and top with claws. Serve with Cape Cod potato chips, salad and/or grilled corn on the cob!
The Lobster Cobb
Much like the lobster roll, you’re going to want to have about 1-1.5 lbs. of lobster per person. This is a time-consuming recipe but it’s SO good. If you’re feeling lazy, are in Maine, and aren’t on a tight budget, I highly recommend the lobster Cobb at Stonewall Kitchen. You will not be disappointed. In fact, my only photo for this came from a salad I got from SK and took to the beach. I’m still getting used to this having to take photos thing.
Serves 2 (but is easy to multiply)
- 2 1.5 lb. lobsters
- 1-2 heads Romaine Lettuce
- 1-2 Eggs, hardboiled (Best done like this.)
- 3 pieces of Uncured Bacon, cooked (I like this method.)
- 1.5 ounces Blue Cheese (I LOVE Rogue Smokey Blue, but Maytag is also delicious and cheaper.)
- 1 Avocado
- 2 Plum Tomatoes
- Olive Oil
- Balsamic Vinegar
- Fresh thyme
- Cook the lobster or cheat and ask the store to steam them for you like I did. If you’re going to cook them yourself, see my notes above.
- Crack the lobster and remove the meat. Again, see my notes above.
- Start by baking the bacon and roasting the plum tomatoes. Line two rimmed baking sheets with foil. Spread the bacon out on one. Cut the plum tomatoes in half lengthwise and drizzle with about a tablespoon of olive oil, plus a teaspoon of salt and a half-teaspoon of pepper. Put both pans in the oven and heat to 400 degrees. The bacon should take 15-20 minutes and the tomatoes should take 25-30 minutes, depending on how accurate the temperature in your oven is and how done you like things.
- While the bacon and tomatoes cook, hard boil the eggs and dice the romaine into bite-sized pieces.
- While the bacon, tomatoes and eggs are cooling, make the dressing. Use ¼ cup of oil and 2 tablespoons, plus ½ teaspoon of thyme and salt and pepper to taste. You can also add a ½ teaspoon of Dijon mustard. Whisk together and set aside.
- Dice the avocado, blue cheese, eggs and bacon into roughly ½ inch pieces.
- Assembly time! Start with the romaine, and then in add each ingredient, either in rows or in layers.
- Top with a bit of the dressing. Don’t use too much – you’ll cover up the delicate flavor of the lobster meat!
- Enjoy outdoors, preferably at the beach if you can. The salt air really does something for the whole meal.
And, here’s a picture of the grilled shrimp Cobb I made shortly thereafter – not exactly the same protein, but the same idea…
The Misnomer-ed Clambake
I admit right up front that I can’t take any credit for this at all. I was an observer and willing participant in the eating process, but nothing more. Nonetheless, my recent clambake experience warrants a “recipe” of it’s own, because it was heavenly. Light and salty and smoky, the pit cooking took lobster to a whole new level for me. And though I
risk dive into hyperbole here, I must say that eating this lobster was like eating the soil and the brine and my ancestral home.
[Many thanks to our friends Adam and Kira and Adam’s parents, Dan and Suzie, for their wonderful hospitality on the Cape a couple of weeks ago!]
A note to start: The clams shouldn’t go into the pit – if you want them steam them on the stove; otherwise they will be overdone and rubbery. None of the clambake participants really liked clams all that much, so we omitted them all together.
A second note: This is a dinner for a crowd and it’s an all day affair. Don’t think you’re doing this for you and your partner after work on a Tuesday.
A final note: The clambake is really the result of the traditional pit cooking methods used by the native peoples of the Northeast. Not only is cooking in this manner delicious, but to me, it’s a reminder of where we came from and our regional culinary history.
- 8 1.5 lb. lobsters
- 8 Ears of Corn
- 8 Potatoes (I like a mix of Red Bliss and Sweet)
- Sausages (optional)
- 2 sticks salted butter
- Steel plate, slightly larger than the hole
- 3-5 buckets of rockweed
- Wire grate, about the size of the hole.
- Fabric Tarp, soaked in water
- Tin foil
- Charcoal or wood
- Dig a pit, about 3 ft. wide by 3 ft. long by 2 ft. deep. Make sure there isn’t anything flammable (like grass) nearby.
- Add enough charcoal to fill the pit about ½ full and stoke a fire. You want a good size fire going.
- Peel the cornhusk back but don’t remove it. Discard as much of the silk as you can. Pull the husk back up and wrap each ear of corn individually in foil.
- While that’s getting hot, half each potato and wrap each half individually in foil.
- Once the fire is very hot, put the steel plate on top and about half of the rockweed on top of that.
- Add the remainder of the rockweed to the grate and arrange the potatoes and corn in it.
- When you’re ready to put it on the fire, add the lobsters on top of the corn and potatoes. Then place the grate on top of the pit.
- Cover with the wet tarp and wait.
- Let cook for about 45 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender.
- While the pit is covered, melt two sticks of salted butter on the stove.
- Remove the grate from the fire (carefully!)
- Crack the lobsters like you would for lobster salad, but dip the meat in the butter before eating.
A clambake is best enjoyed with your fingers, a garden salad, lots of butter, good friends, and a cold G&T or sauvignon blanc. Remember to wear a bib or old clothes. After you’re done with everything, the pit is primed for s’mores, star gazing, and laughter. 🙂
And, on that note, I’ll call this post a done deal. Off to Thurston’s Lobster Pound for more tonight!