The Safina Center

May 13th
2011

The Lobster Report

photo: Dann Blackwood and Page Valentine/USGS

I don’t know what the weather was like where you live this past winter, but here on the East Coast it was awful. The snowstorms seemed as though they’d never end and the sky was a hopeless shade of gray.

As I drove through the towns and villages of Long Island during the deep freeze, I passed multiple closed clam shacks. They looked so forlorn that they seemed more like abandoned archaeological sites than gathering places that had any sort of meaningful future. At that moment it was impossible to imagine the sound of laughter as people sat together waiting for their food or the smell of clams being fried, let alone the sweet, delicate flavor of lobster meat.

Once April arrived and the giant snow piles slowly retreated, I could see that picnic tables and benches were emerging from under the blankets of snow that had made them look like misshapen igloos. Large planters and window boxes appeared as well, and eventually some small level of human activity could be detected: one day a parking lot would be swept clean, the next day dead leaves would have been raked out from under the hedges. Tulips began to bloom in the abandoned gardens and window boxes and I finally allowed myself to believe that warm weather was truly on its way.

Now that it’s May, most of these establishments are now open. Bright red and yellow bottles of ketchup and mustard adorn the picnic tables, small signs of life as colorful and welcome as the red and yellow tulips that bloom in the planters. I see people spending afternoons and evenings lingering at the tables, eating clams and lobster rolls – and even oysters – depending on the menu.

Now that I have lobster on my mind, I have been wondering what kind of a season it will be for New England lobstermen. Last year, the lobster catch off of Rhode Island and Connecticut was down enough for a ban on lobstering to be considered. In the end, the ban was not put in place. Maine’s lobster catch, on the other hand, had been exceptionally good – record-breaking, in fact.

What’s the forecast for the coming year? According to the Boston Globe, the Maine lobster catch for this year is predicted to be an excellent one. Lobstermen are hoping to get slightly higher prices than last year to offset the increasing cost of fuel and bait.

If you’re interested in lobsters and lobstering, here are two books you might enjoy reading: The Secret Life of Lobsters: How Fishermen and Scientists are Unraveling the Mysteries of Our Favorite Crustacean, by Trevor Corson, and Lobster: A Global History, by Elizabeth Townsend.

The Secret Life of Lobsters presents a thoughtful portrait of the lives of lobstermen, scientists, environmentalists and – last but not least – the lobster themselves. Corson worked as a lobsterman for two years, learning first-hand about all aspects of the endeavor. His book combines natural history and science – he reports in detail on the life the lobsters live beneath the waves, including lobster courting rituals – and he also describes the lives of the scientists who study the lobsters, their hypotheses and assumptions, and the experiments they conduct to try to understand what makes a lobster population thrive. Corson also reports on the personal lives of the scientists – decisions and sacrifices they’ve made to be where they need to be when they need to be there – and he captures the lives of the lobstermen as well. He describes what it’s like to live in a small (and quite literally insular) community, as well as chronicling the time the men spend on the water, and the choices they make trying to strike a balance between the demands of fishing and the needs of their families. The book is an excellent meditation on what it means to be part of a small, close-knit community and what it feels like to pursue a profession that can be difficult and dangerous, while also being steeped in tradition and very satisfying.

Lobster: A Global History, chronicles the history of lobster consumption from pre-literate times up to our own: this book covers a lot of territory engagingly and succinctly.

Townsend begins the book with descriptions of different lobster species – clawed and clawless – and discusses traditions of eating lobster in Stone Age Europe and ancient Peru. She also traces the history of lobster through legal documents: in 1548, the British Parliament converted Saturday into a fish day, requiring the people to eat seafood rather than meat. She writes, “Fish days were important in this century because they increased fish consumption, thereby conserving cattle, which were reserved for the navy. Fish days also spurred shipbuilding, expanding the ranks of mariners, and sparked the fishing business.”
Townsend covers Native American consumption of lobster and relates that they were relied upon as principal sources of protein and oil. She chronicles Europeans’ changing attitudes toward North American lobsters as they settled in the New World, and she quotes food historian Kathleen Curtin as saying “One of the most persistent and oft-repeated food myths is… about laws being enacted to protect prisoners/servants from eating lobster no more than three times a week – it never happened.”

Enthusiasm for dining on lobsters created a need for transporting them over ever longer distances. In the 1500’s, the Dutch built ships with tanks or wells in their holds which allowed them to transport live fish over long distances, and the English followed suit in the 1600’s, building a fleet of well-vessels that they called smacks.

People sought to preserve lobster as well. Potted lobster was made from cooked lobster covered with butter, and once sealed, this preparation could last up to a year.

As tourists began to summer in Maine, a fresh lobster dinner came to be considered an important part of the experience, and Townsend traces the history of lobster salad, clambakes, and lobster festivals.

She also covers competition between countries over lobster fishing grounds, and the controversy over whether it’s cruel to eat lobster. She relates the best ways to kill lobsters so as to minimize their suffering. She also discusses the future of lobster populations, and cites research and legislation all geared toward supporting lobsters’ continuing existence.

One of the most interesting and entertaining sections of the book is a series of recipes that are presented chronologically, from recipes for Boiled Spiny Lobster attributed to Apicus (late fourth to fifth century AD), to Pickled Lobsters (a recipe recorded by Robert May in 1671), to Anne Gibbons Gardiner’s Lobster Pie (1763), up to Curried Lobster (Mrs. Lincoln’s Boston Cook Book, 1889) and current recipes for Baked Lobster Tail Souffle and Lobster Cantonese.

The book is also illustrated with interesting artwork and photographs, ranging from photos of different species of lobsters to Salvador Dali’s Lobster Telephone (1936) and PETA posters.

If you’d like to read more about lobster, here is a link to a directory of stories about lobster in the NY Times, including a list of recipes.

Here is my recipe for Lobster Salad with Tomato-Lemon Balm Dressing, as well as detailed written instructions for how to cook and break down a lobster. And here is a video featuring Jasper White, describing how to pick a lobster. Talia Bigelow, lobster biologist, shows you how to eat a lobster.

Bon Appetit!

– by Roz Cummins

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