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Started low and finished high

Books | Richard Johnstone considers the lobster

Richard Johnstone 24 August 2011 2252 words

Pieter de Ring’s Still Life with Goblet (around 1635–60). Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

By Richard J. King | Reaktion | $29.95
Lobster: A Global History
By Elisabeth Townsend | Reaktion | $24.95

The unglamorous yet strangely charismatic lobster is the subject of two recent books, both of them appearing under the Reaktion imprint. Richard J. King’s Lobster is the latest addition to Reaktion’s splendid Animal list, where it joins monographs on the crow, the ant, the tortoise, the cockroach, the rhinoceros and thirty-five others, with wolf, trout, sparrow and chicken coming soon. Elisabeth Townsend’s Lobster: A Global History forms part of its Edible series, where its companion volumes include Cake, Caviar, Cheese and Chocolate. Inevitably, there is some overlap between the two series: between Cow, for instance, and Cheese or Milk. But the lobster provides the only example of a direct match.

It’s as if it wasn’t quite clear where the lobster belonged, which seems somehow appropriate for a creature whose essential character – its lobsterness – is so difficult to pin down. Both King and Townsend do their best to simplify the unsimplifiable by offering a clear and concise definition, although given the confusion that exists in the English-speaking world over what exactly is meant by a lobster, as against say a crayfish, a prawn, a shrimp, a bug or a langoustine, one may as well ask, as King rhetorically does, “what is a biscuit?”

And yet of course the many species of lobster do share certain characteristics. According to Tin-Yam Chan in the Lobster Newsletter, an electronic journal currently hosted by the Western Australian Department of Fisheries, at last count there were 247 living marine lobster species, twenty-eight of which were first described only in the last decade. Among the most common and best known are table lobsters like the clawed American and European lobsters (sometimes referred to as “true” lobsters) and Western Australia’s rock or spiny lobster (also popularly known as the crayfish, even though, just to muddy the waters even further, the crayfish is a freshwater and not a marine crustacean).

The novelist David Foster Wallace, in a piece called “Consider the Lobster,” first published in Gourmet magazine in 2004, runs through the common features. “A lobster is a marine crustacean,” he tells us, “with five pairs of jointed legs… stalked eyes, gills on their legs, and antennae.” He continues, the language growing more self-consciously specialised and impressively scientific, before concluding with the bathetic acknowledgement that lobsters “are basically giant sea-insects.” Biological precision notwithstanding, Wallace recognises the lobster as one of nature’s boundary-crossers – an animal that lives with the fishes and looks like an insect.

In terms of public image, the lobster is a good few steps ahead of the cockroach, but in contrast to the cat, for example – which, like the cockroach, is also part of the Reaktion “Animal” (and, just to be clear, not the “Edible”) series – the lobster does not have the advantage of a huge, ready-made supply of potential readers, of cat-lovers for whom the volume Cat would make an excellent birthday present. In both the visual and gustatory senses, lobster is something of an acquired taste which, once acquired, inspires great loyalty. And not just from diners. It is the loyalty of the second look, the realisation that what appears at first to be an unprepossessing creature is in fact quite beautiful in the intricacy of its construction. King quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson to this effect; Emerson found the lobster “monstrous to the eye the first time it is seen,” but on closer examination “as perfect and suitable to his sea-house as a glove to a hand.”

Culinary history is full of foods that have, in terms of the esteem in which they are held, started low and finished high, beginning as a staple and assuming over time, thanks largely to decreasing availability, the status of special treat. Oysters are just one example. The trajectory can also go the other way, as industrial levels of production transform an occasional luxury like chicken to a familiar and predictable standby. Lobster, however, with its customary capacity to straddle the boundaries, has managed over a very long time to keep a foot or five in both camps. King and Townsend, assisted by Reaktion’s generous quota of illustrations, include (different) images of seventeenth-century Dutch still lifes in which the brilliant red of the boiled lobster draws the eye into a privileged world of sensuality and indulgence. Yet at roughly the same time, across the Atlantic, the Pilgrim Fathers were shuddering at the thought of yet another lobster dinner. Both authors quote the words of William Wood, author of New England’s Prospect (1634), who showed a fine appreciation of the laws of supply and demand when he observed of the abundance of lobsters in the new colony that “their plenty makes them little esteemed and seldom eaten.”

Lobster stocks – while no longer as plentiful as they were in seventeenth-century New England, or in the commercial heyday of the late nineteenth century or even as they have been within more recent times – remain relatively robust, at least when compared with the much more rapid decline in the numbers of some other marine species. Attempts to farm them on a large scale have so far proved disappointing, but the early adoption in many of the major fisheries of sustainable practices to ensure the preservation and protection of breeding stock has helped to support the numbers. The Marine Stewardship Council, King tells us, have “given their certification (of environmental sustainability) to the spiny lobster industry off Western Australia… the first of any fishery in the world,” and others have followed.

As major industries go, lobstering retains an artisanal quality. Even when it is practised under the auspices of large corporations, as it is in Canada, for example, it remains primarily reliant on natural cycles and the hard-won skills of the professional lobsterman. The lobster on the dinner table evokes for us a connection with its habitat and the natural world that has been all but lost in the case of other, more staple proteins like beef or chicken. By way of reinforcing the point, purists recommend that for the optimum culinary result, the lobster be boiled in seawater.

Lobster doesn’t take kindly to being relegated to the supporting cast. The authoritative and always authoritative-sounding Jean-François Revel, in his Culture and Cuisine (1982), rules that “lobster in a bouillabaisse marseillaise is merely a tourist ‘frill’: its flesh becomes flabby in the cooking and its flavour is lost, adding nothing to the dish.” Lobster is best when it has centre stage, whether grilled and served with butter and lemon or playing more elaborate costume parts, dressed up in classic recipes like Lobster Thermidor or Newburg. It fits easily into the leading role, which helps to explain why it is so strongly associated in our minds with special occasions. Those seventeenth-century Dutch still lifes, showing a lobster with a claw or two hanging nonchalantly over the edge of the serving plate, emphasise the creature’s enviably regal bearing (appropriately enough, a lobster’s blood is sometimes described as having a blue tinge).

As is perhaps inevitable with such a focused subject, King and Townsend cover much of the same territory, particularly when it comes to the literary and artistic life of the lobster. King ranges more widely and deeply in this department, which again is not surprising given that he has what many people would regard as one of the world’s ideal jobs, teaching the literature of the sea at the Williams-Mystic Maritime Studies Program in Mystic, Connecticut. King is particularly good at conveying something of the dedication and enthusiasm of those people who have over the years devoted themselves to studying the lobster, like Francis Hobart Herrick, author of Natural History of the American Lobster (1911) and described by King as “the Da Vinci, the Darwin, the William Shakespeare of lobster biology.” At a time now of heightened distrust of theories of everything, there is something heartening about the kinds of insights into specialised worlds that characterise this and other volumes in the “Animal” series, worlds of shared and mutually supportive expertise, communities of enthusiasts not only for the lobster, but for the cockroach or the cat as well.

Townsend’s focus is much more specifically culinary, and couched in a direct, even colloquial style. “If you’re thinking about eating a dead lobster, think again,” she advises. “Forget cooking any shellfish… that has died before you prepare it.” In this instance at least her directness leads her further than King ventures in confronting the vexed question – what might be called the lobster in the room – of how to ensure optimum freshness and flavour (not to mention food safety) while dispatching the lobster humanely. King entitles the relevant chapter, with a Townsend-like touch, “To Boil or Not to Boil,” while Townsend heads hers “Killing and Cooking (Humanely).”

It all hinges, as David Foster Wallace considered at length in his 2004 essay, on how we see the lobster. Is it to all intents and purposes an insect, a kind of giant mosquito that cannot be understood to feel pain? Or do those scrabbling claws, struggling to escape the boiling water as the live lobster is plunged into the pot (“head first,” announces Julia Child airily in a YouTube clip from one of her cooking programs, apparently on the grounds that this will ensure an almost instantaneous death), signal not only the experience of pain but other, human emotions like fear and anguish and even, perhaps, a sense of betrayal?

Both sides of the argument tend to favour anthropomorphic language, with the advocates of live boiling or last-minute dispatch emphasising the least attractive non-culinary qualities of the lobster. Trevor Corson, author of The Secret Life of Lobsters (2004), recommends either the “professional” method (“take the largest knife you can find and plunge it straight into the bottom of its head and then quickly slap the knife down so it cuts through the middle of the head, through the nose and between the eyes”) or, for the more squeamish, the so-called chill-and-kill method, which involves first putting the lobster in the freezer for fifteen minutes to render it near-unconscious. This unsentimental approach seems at least partly reinforced by Corson’s characterisation of lobsters – in a 2004 interview in which he responded to what he saw as Foster Wallace’s wishy-washy approach – as rude, anti-social, cannibalistic and “constantly pissing in each other’s faces.”

In his A Concise Encyclopaedia of Gastronomy, first published in full in 1952, André Simon acknowledged that plunging a live lobster into boiling water resulted in “violent attempts… to emerge.” On the other hand, “with the lobster placed in cold water and the boiler put on the fire, there was no evidence of discomfort.” It is difficult today, in our climate of confusion and concern over live transportation and the methods used to kill animals for the table, to maintain quite such a level of insouciance. The passive voice – “there was no evidence of discomfort” – just doesn’t strike the right note for a contemporary audience. Australia’s RSPCA is unequivocal on this issue, forthrightly advocating the chill-and-kill method for lobsters: “The RSPCA believes that all crustaceans that are used for food and other purposes must be killed humanely as soon as possible after capture. This is because crustaceans experience pain and suffering and should be given the same respect and consideration that other animals are given.”

For Townsend, the answer to producing lobster meat humanely may lie with a giant machine, described colloquially as The Big Mother Shucker, which, while the name doesn’t sound especially compassionate, “kills lobsters in about two seconds” by means of very high water pressure. But, as with so much to do with lobsters, this isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. In an essay in the Summer 2011 number of the Virginia Quarterly Review, an issue devoted to the state of the world’s fisheries, Jesse Dukes notes that the manufacturers of this new technology say that “it can take up to forty-five seconds for the tanks to reach full pressure,” from which he concludes that “it’s unclear how long it takes a lobster to die.”

These new, industrial methods may, says Dukes, “be no more humane than boiling.” Both King and Townsend are sensitive to the ethics surrounding the dispatch and consumption of lobster, but they both feel too that, as King puts it, “the live lobster in the kitchen… is a final vestige of what it is like to butcher or kill our own food,” a way of maintaining what Townsend calls a “connection between the food we ingest and its origin.” But that’s easier said than done. It is all very well to emphasise the connection between origin and ingestion when the subject is a potato, but a variety of more complex emotions intrudes when we are confronted with a flailing lobster. The debate is likely to continue. •

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