(RE)CONSIDER THE LOBSTER
Skip the special occasion. And the pot of boiling water, for that matter. Buy and kill your own, then cook this stately crustacean the way our ancestors did:
An ode to our favorite crustacean and a case for the chargrilled treatment it deserves
over hot coals
Eating lobster can be an elegant affair, but the process of getting it to the plate is more of an adventure. Plan to do a little dirty work. I remember this as I buy a 9-pound sack, carry it home, and brace for what’s next—bringing the knife down hard into the lobsters’ carapaces; the sandpapery sound of salt and oil rubbed onto the brittle shells; cracking apart the joints and clearing away the rainbowcolored innards; and the sizzle of the cold shells hitting the fire. For now, I place the bag in the fridge and ready the accoutrements for a grilled lobster dinner: sweet-smelling corn, inky blue potatoes, and soft golden bars of butter.
The regal reputation of lobster runs deep. Their scarlet red bodies graced the center of Dutch oil paintings in the 1600s, mosaics on the dining-room floor of ancient Pompeii, and the poetry of Virgil’s Aeneid and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. But lobsters have primitive beginnings—a fact that’s easy to recall when you see their spiny bodies crawling across a tank.
The crustaceans are part of the arthropod phylum, which includes spiders and mosquitoes, and according to fossilized shells found on British shores, they have been eaten as far back as the Stone Age. Back then, the creatures weren’t delicately prepared, nor were they petite. Our ancestors probably caught bigger, easier-to-spot ones, maybe as large as 45 pounds. The meat would have been tougher and plucked out, raw, and eaten with their hands. According to Elizabeth Townsend, author of Lobster: A Global History, coastal communities in Africa, who discovered fire almost 2 million years ago, were likely the first to cook them—and first to discover that their dark shells turn bright red when roasted over hot stones. Later civilizations, across South America and Europe, began boiling them and preserving the meat by drying it with smoke or soaking it with brine and burying it in the sand.
It wasn’t until the mid 19th century, after haute French chefs began experimenting with lobster, that it became a food of the elite. Americans followed suit—scalloping, fricasseeing, potting, deviling, and simmering the meat in white wine with cayenne and nutmeg—before developing a much simpler and wildly popular approach in the 1930s: the lobster roll. Even doused in butter or mayonnaise on a white bun, it was considered to be special, as overfishing had led to scarcity.
Due to meticulous industry efforts over the past few decades, the number of large-clawed American lobsters has steadily increased. In fact, the population is now stable in Maine, which is why the American lobster is also known as the Maine lobster. Landings (or lobsters sold) in the state have surged from 20 million a year in 1980 to a record of around 130 million in 2016, making it one
of the most successful fisheries in the world. Prices have dropped accordingly, while lobster restaurants, co-ops, and food trucks have continued trending up.
Now that laws dictate lobster can only be caught and sold at the ideal weight for eating, between 1 and 2 pounds, their taste is consistently better, too—especially when cooked in straightforward ways. “We boil or steam lobsters,” says Cyrus Sleeper, a lobsterman and longtime local in Sprucehead, Maine. “Or, occasionally, we grill them.” Just as our ancestors did and just as I plan on doing.
But first there’s some work to be done. While enjoying the finest caviar at home requires nothing more than investing in a tin, the finest, most tender lobster imaginable requires sticking a knife into a living thing. I pull the sack out of my refrigerator and work up the courage to plunge a forearm into the bag’s opening. A curved, ridged shell squeaks between my fingers and I quickly pull it upward and out. In my hand, the lobster arches his blue-black claws and tail up and back like a skydiver, revealing a pretty orange underside. I pay my silent respects and set it atop my cutting board. As I pick up the knife and begin to slide it in, a rush of adrenaline hits—a mix of dread and delight that I’m sure I’m not the first to feel.
While it looks gnarly, many believe that cutting firmly through the tip of the carapace is the most humane method of killing a lobster.