Eating the Lobster

Approximate Reading Time: 5 minutes

“You can really have no notion how delightful it will be
When they take us up and throw us, with the lobsters, out to sea!”
—“Lobster Quadrille,” Lewis Carroll

One of the things I’ve learned, almost by necessity, since I am never usually preparing something like lobster for more than two people anyway, or, if I’m making what I call a Paella Royale (with shrimp and clams in the shell and lobster pieces), it’s best to cook with lobsters that are the size called, for some strange reason, “chicken” – which is to say, ideally, about a pound and a quarter or very slightly more – but the absolutely best size for individual lobsters is between one and a half and two pounds (or very very slightly less).

One of the better Paella Royale dishes I’ve made, this one in 2009. photo © Howard Dinin

I never understood the virtue of getting gigantic, and presumably more and more mature, that is, long-lived specimens, simply because one is going to attempt to feed say six or eight people. For one thing, that’s probably counter-productive to sustainable lobster populations (which, I admit, do seem, realistically, to wax and wane for reasons they keep thinking they understand, but really don’t). I can say that, because it makes sense.

Anyway, if there were more than two eating lobster, I get more than one lobster. For one thing, it’s easier to deal with the claws and tail, etc. of smaller lobsters in every aspect of preparation, cooking, serving, and eating.

But even more important, on the subject of executing one’s dinner before cooking it, it’s much easier to kill a lobster quickly for what one can persuade oneself are humane (i.e., lobsterian) reasons when they are smaller.

I still remember the ordeal of trying to plunge the tip of a very sharp blade of a 10” chef’s knife into the very tough head of a lobster that weighed somewhere north of two-and-a-half pounds. It was an ordeal for me, and I’m sure for the lobster. Especially as I was trying to minimize the discomfort the arthropod was going to experience at the same time I was trying to eliminate any possibility whatsoever of doing some harm, especially inadvertently to myself.

There is the expedient of cutting through the thinner carapace on the bottom of the beast, prior to bisecting the bug, one-half from the other. But as I can relate, it would still have been a bit of an ordeal, as when the size of the lobster increases so does the thickness of every aspect of his shell, even on the bottom.

Something to keep in mind.

I also happen not to have particularly tender meat from a very much larger specimen, not even in restaurants. That may be due to some kind of confirmation bias. But I’m pretty sure I’ve always had quite tender enough lobster meat from a nice small manageable shellfish.

It’s True: Before Cooking Comes the Killing

And there’s nothing else to call it. It’s not just tradition, certain crustaceans and mollusks (and the lobster as an arthropod with a carapace, along with shrimp, krill, and even barnacles, make up the preponderance of the taxon; it’s not exactly on point, but these are, to my mind, the creatures that exclusively deserve the cognomen “shellfish;” oysters and clams and such are mollusks, and they may live in water, but they aren’t fish, and those aren’t shells) should be alive just prior to preparing them for being eaten, usually through the intervention of being cooked.

I’ll grant, lobsters do have a heart, and it’s a noble, but I think mainly a symbolic injunction to kill a lobster instantly by stabbing it in the heart with dispatch. But the lobster heart is pretty small, and it’s hard to locate from outside the body. Also, not unlike ours, it’s not precisely centered.

Also, lobsters have slightly decentralized nervous systems. So there’s a problem anatomically speaking with the more recent “humane” technique of providing for a conscientious instantaneous execution of the beast by plunging a sharp tool into its head. Their brains are tiny, and though there’s a major nerve in the “head” (the portion just behind the pointed section at the front, between the eyes and antennae, there are two other nerves there that serve auxiliary functions and likely keep it alive and kicking).

The Swiss government feels so strongly about humane killing of lobsters, they have made it a crime to boil them alive. Their prescribed method is electrocution (and naturally there’s a commercial product for restaurants, which costs about $3500, that does the trick), but this is impractical. In lieu of it, they say one should slightly anesthetize the lobster by giving it a dunk in salt water, and then plunging a knife into the head (at the same point I mentioned above, behind the pointed section of the head).

The alternative method, though not sanctioned by the Swiss government, it isn’t forbidden either, and the one that makes most sense is the one that most chefs with an ounce of humanity (shouldn’t that be lobsterity?) in them is to plunge a knife in the mid-section, with the lobster on its back.

The method fully, then, seems to be to plunge the knife in the mid-line and to split the creature in half as quickly and neatly as possible.

Let’s deal with the traditional methodology quickly by the way, even as we consider the philosophy behind thinking about the humane way to do the delicious creatures in. The worst thing you can do to a lobster is boil it alive. Other than that, there doesn’t seem to be a scientist alive at the moment who will say with certainty that a lobster (or a crab for that matter, or a crayfish) feels pain in the way humans understand pain. They have nerves, but nerves don’t exclusively transmit pain, in addition to whatever other signals they transmit.

And though it’s clear that experiments have proven that crabs, for one, will avoid their dark hidey-holes in order to avoid whatever it is they experience when shocked with electricity, it’s clear, for once and for all (for now) that the way to kill a lobster quickly is with a knife and a rapid dissection in half.

One of the reasons Jasper White’s pan roasted lobster recipe became my favorite way of cooking the beast is because it came out right about the time I learned how cruel it is to boil or steam (actually steaming is worse, apparently) a lobster, and cutting it in half alive is necessary to make the recipe. And then there’s the bourbon in his recipe, and a little extra helps assuage any sense of guilt as you anticipate the pleasure eating this awesome dish – actually any dish that includes lobster, because, let’s face it, even right out of the shell just after cooking them very quickly, they’re uniquely delicious.

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