Glorious Violence: How to Prepare and Deconstruct 19th Century Poverty Food
Having committed a record-breaking grocery shopping fail this afternoon, I tasked myself with correcting the error and went back to the store for ground chicken. I went to a different grocery store, so as not to be identified that guy who screwed up the first time and has to slink back to the grocery store, tail between his legs. It’s not like going back to the hardware store during a home improvement project, which I believe is mandatory.
But I digress.
There on the doors of what is usually the slightly more expensive supermarket was a hand-drawn sign that read, “Lobsters. $4.99/lb. While supplies last.”
I have to assume the fish manager over-ordered and they were having a fire sale. I made a quick call to Castle O’Nolan, only to discover that the residents were, for reasons I cannot explain, not interested in lobster for supper.
Undeterred, I made my purchase, figuring that I could hide a lobster on my next Ordinary Times expense report.
Have we discussed how handsome Will Truman is?
Anyway, the ground chicken was more expensive than the lobster.
There’s a story that goes around these days and it goes like this: Back in the old days—sometimes it’s the 18th, sometimes it’s the early 19th century—prisoners in Maine complained because they were so frequently being fed particularly unpalatable fare: lobster. Sometimes John Adams is even drawn into the tale to draft a Prisoner’s Bill of Rights. The story has all the hallmarks of being bunk, and it probably is, but it is often used to reinforce the very real fact that lobster was, until relatively recently, a poverty food.
My maternal grandmother—Dotty to her friends, Nana to me (she passed away not too long ago and would be 100 now, God bless her soul)—grew up in Waltham, Massachusetts and used to have lobster bodies as her lunch to take to school some days. Lobsters were once so plentiful they could be gathered on shore in New England in the old days and became popular as a nostalgia food for the nouveau riche in Boston and New York in the late 19th century, later to get a boost as an unrationed luxury food during World War II. If a rich man could eat lobsters by the half dozen, then they must be good, right?
Frankly, yes, damnit, they are.
A lobster is an ideal vehicle for butter and lemon and, failing that, has any number of uses. There is lobster bisque, for example. There are many variations of lobster in pasta, lobster alfredo being a favorite of mine. There are even two distinct takes on lobster and a roll, one of which involves mayonnaise for some reason, the other of which is coated in butter as God intended. Lobster in paella? Yes. More on that later, though not for the squeamish.
These are all valid comestibles, but they share the common fault in that they ask the consumer to pay the producer, or some lackey there employed, to do the work of freeing the deliciousness from its casing.
Lobster has a learning curve, I will freely admit. It’s not just a case of buy the thing and cook it according to the instructions on the packaging.
It’s like hunting is, to me, I imagine. I don’t come from a hunting family. I have never hunted. But if I were to, say, go to my local Bass Pro Shops and buy a double-barrelled shotgun and an Elmer Fudd hat and head out into the woods, I’d be no closer to supper than if I’d gone to my local dairy farm and given the assembled cows the finger.
Sometimes you need a guide when exploring and expanding one’s cuisine.
I look at a crawdad and think, “Someone needs to show me how this works.”
So, too—for many—the lobster.
I have no problem with those who eschew this process on religious or ethical grounds. I make no exoskeletons about it: Eating a lobster is not the neatest of processes and if the Divine told your people to stay away I’m not here to argue otherwise. Those with objections have my unwavering respect. When I met my now wife she was just acclimating herself to eating food that had bones. For several years did I cook her a lobster and break it down for her. I recently shattered a claw and accidentally sprayed lobster water some eight or ten feet into my in-laws’ kitchen.
So, for the lobster curious but uninitiated, here is your guide to lobster consumption, without paying someone to do it for you.
After you have purchased your lobster, bring it home and put it in the fridge. If you’re on the coast and you want to party O’Nolan style, then while grandpa goes to Mother Shuckers in Roque Bluffs, Maine, send the grandkids down to the cove with a large plastic bin with the task of filling it up with seaweed.
This is merely ambiance and a compensation for the small refrigerator at my in-law’s camp.
It’s glorious; you’d love it.
Otherwise, store the giant sea bugs in the fridge.
Put a stock pot on the stove to boil. I’ve heard people say you should salt the water or use sea water. I’ve tried both, and I’m here to tell you that both are bunk, Save your energy and sodium chloride and just use tap water. Lobsters have been literally brining since birth, They’ll be just fine.
I’ll be honest. The results of your labors are going to be delicious and you’re not about to do much work at all. How best, then, to show that you are a warrior poet in the kitchen? Show off your smarts.
Flip over a lobster and look at the place where the tail meets the thorax, the body. See in the picture above how, in the center of the frame, there are two thin tendrils that are turned upwards towards the thorax? These are called swimmerets. The fact that they are translucent and crossed at the tips tells us that this is a female lobster. If they were bony and opaque and pressed up against the thorax, this would be a male lobster.
When you’re on the boil, drop the lobsters into the pot.
This next step is critical. The lobster or lobsters came in a thick plastic or reinforced paper bag. Do not throw out this bag. Take it and a bowl or vessel that it will fit in to the table and put the bag in the bowl upon it in a position where all can put their spent shells therein.
There are those who will tell you to remove the rubber bands on the claws before dropping them in the water. I assume these people like to get lobster clawed. Leaving them on is fine. There are also those who will tell you about ethically killing your lobsters and there’s even a restaurant in Maine which gets them high before cooking.
Trust me; just drop them in head first once the water boils.
Cooking time depends on the number and size of your lobsters, so either ask your fishmonger or the internet for your specific situation.
Fun lobster fact: If a lobster survives to get beyond a certain size they can no longer be legally taken. A lobster with a carapace—the thorax or body—longer than five inches must be returned to the sea to protect the breeding stock. Assuming they also manage to survive non-human predators, they can live, theoretically, forever.
Story time while they cook.
I decided to add lobster to the O’Nolan family’s annual New Year’s paella one year. I, being a dumbass, decided to just take a lobster and, wielding a butcher’s knife like an ax, chop off the tail. It was that day that I learned just how long the reflexes of a lobster persist after being separated from its brain.
The damn tail would curl up when I touched it every time. It was terrifying.
I eventually got it into a pot.
Long story short, if you need to cook a lobster tail in a dish, par cook the bastard first.
Alright, let’s talk tools.
You need some kitchen shears and some small bowls or ramekins to hold the butter you will melt.
You also need some specialty tools that frequent lobster-eaters have on hand. Or you can MacGyver yourself things that will perform the same function. Soft-shelled lobsters can be broken down with the hands, but hard shells need the tool pictured above on the bottom right. You’ll use this to break the claws and various meat-containing joints. The fellow on the bottom left with the small hooked point on it is used to draw meat out of harder to get spaces. The tool at the top is less necessary, but the forked end acts similarly to the previous tool and the scooped end . . . I’ll be honest, I never use that part.
So find yourself at least a smasher or crusher—pliers?—and something thin and pointy.
Doing it yourself is going to save money and you get the satisfaction of having, well, done it yourself.
Do I hear the kitchen timer going off?
To the lobster pot!
With some tongs pull each lobster out of the pot and plate individually. They will be very hot.
Have somebody melt some butter and portion into the ramekins. Once you are a committed lobster eater you can upgrade to the self warming kind.
Have some lemon wedges on hand as well.
Now, the the hardest part of the cooking process.
Flip the lobster over and look at where the tail and the thorax come together. With your kitchen shears, cut the exposed part of the tail exoskeleton laterally.. Next, cut the same part of the exoskeleton, but this time along the length of the tail up its center from where you first cut to the end of the tail.
Have a large bowl on hand to drain as much water out of the lobsters into at the time. There will be more, of course, but you and your diners will appreciate that you minimized the mess when you eat.
Now, the fun part: You eat!
Lobster tails get all the hype, but I like to think of the animal as a meal that starts with the claws and works along the body until you get to the tail. For first timers, I would insist on this approach, as the tail contains some bits folks don’t like to look at. This way, if you try the claws and discover you don’t like lobster, you can have the lobsters out of the house before the pizza arrives and avoid the potentially unsightly stuff altogether.
That reminds me: Lobster on pizza is good.
The photo above shows the joint at the base of one of the lobster’s claws. Grab and twist to free it.
Let me take a moment to talk about lobster claws. While they’ve always been my favorite part of the lobster to eat, they are more than just meat. Every lobster will have one claw bigger than the other. The larger claw, called the crusher, holds the lobster’s prey in place, while the smaller, the pincher, tears it apart.
Nature is beautiful, yes?
So now you’ve got your lobster claw and arm. Twist where the arm meets the claw to separate the two. The arm joints can be broken by hyper-extending them, or using your crushing device on them. Dig out that meat.
Crush the claw, as well. The white, fatty substance can be discarded.
There are two different approaches as to how to consume the meat—either dipping or steeping in the butter and when and if to apply a squeeze of lemon—but the important thing to know is that there is no right answer here.
Take care of the other claw.
Now, my mother and late-grandmother would disown me if I did not have you take a look inside the socket in the body where the lobster’s arm came from. See that meat in there?
There is not only meat in the body, for those willing to dig for it, but there is meat in all those little legs, as well.
And those legs? Separate them from the body, break them at the joints and use your teeth to draw the meat directly into your mouth.
Now to the finale: the tail.
Take the tail in one hand and the body in the other and separate the former from the latter. You’ll find two strikingly colored substances at the base of the tail. The orange one is the roe or coral. The green is the tomalley. Everyone seems to have a grandfather—I did!—who loved to eat the tomalley. I’m not sure about future grandfathers, but I’m not going to criticize if you claim at table that your grandfather was, also, a great lover of tomalley. Eat it in moderation, however, as any pollution the lobster encountered passed through there.
The last bit you may want to avoid is found when you divide the “spine” of the tail. The translucent tube containing a blackish substance is the alimentary canal of the lobster. Toss it.
Don’t miss the meat in the flippers at the end of the tail, either!
Sit back, now. You’ve just cooked, cleaned and eaten a lobster. Give yourself and your fellow diners a fat, dumb and happy high five.
If there’s leftover meat—I know people who buy an extra lobster expressly for this purpose—see the list above of other ways to eat lobster and try them out. Unless you’re planning on making lobster bisque, take that bag of lobster shells directly to an exterior trash receptacle. It will draw wildlife like you’ve never seen.
Do something differently or have a suggestion? Comment below!
Please let me know where to send my expense report for Ordinary Times!
I love lobster! I mostly broil tails only in the oven.
For home boiling though, it cannot be stressed enough: the pot has to be quite large to boil more than one lobster at a time.Report
I miss the old days when you could get the grocery store to throw these suckers in the steamer for you. I can’t remember the last time I saw live lobsters in the fish department. What I DO frequently see are tails. My local Kroger has them on sale for $6 each right now. Poach them and eat as above. Less work (I’m lazy.)Report
I know the story as being Maine/New England domestic staff revolting because they were served Lobster so ofte.Report
Most lower-class foods that are now delicacies have this in common: they start will lower-quality ingredients, and then process it in labor-intensive or time-consuming ways to make. Now they’re expensive because we’re paying for the labor. (Think pastrami.)
But lobsters just have to be boiled and server with butter to be delicious, so I don’t see what changed.Report
Overfishing. Same with Oysters.Report
Transportation as well. The railroads allowed lobster to be shipped in land to say Chicago and they became luxury food there because of the transportation costs.the practice then spread back East.Report
I enjoyed this article quite a bit. However, in the interest of full disclosure, my father is a lobsterman who lives on an island off the coast of Portland, Maine. So, I’m pretty much in the pocket of Big Lobster.Report