The American lobster (Homarus americanus) is the largest and heaviest species of crustacean, reaching sizes in excess of 40 pounds. The largest specimen I’ve ever handled was 27 pounds and with claws so big I could fit my hand in the crusher claw while closed! They have a range from the Labrador coast to the tip of New Jersey and are closely related to the smaller European lobster. Both of these species are considered “true lobsters” as opposed to the spiny lobsters, which are closer in relation to hermit crabs.
Although a valuable food item to native peoples for millennia, familiarity bred contempt in early New England. These “cockroaches of the sea” were so abundant that servants, prisoners, even cattle were fed lobsters. There are legends of rioting prisoners and laws prohibiting feeding them too much lobster. Although these stories may be apocryphal, it is a cautionary tale; enjoy the bounty while it lasts. Lobster began to rise in popularity with the introduction of canning in the 1840’s. No longer poor people’s food, this was the beginning of the famous Maine lobster fishery as we know it today. With improved transportation, live Maine lobster (often marketed as such regardless where caught) is available worldwide. American lobster is also available all year long, most of it supplied by Maine, Massachusetts, and Eastern Canada.
Lobster can be caught by divers, and in trawl-nets but mostly by the iconic lobster trap, now made of wire instead of wood. It has been said that the process of baiting lobster traps is evidence of the most successful aquaculture process in history. Lobster fishing is very sustainable, has very little by-catch, and lost traps do not keep fishing thanks to escape hatches and bio-degradable elements. Although lobster landings fluctuate, in many areas it is the bait that is harder to come by.
Lobster is usually sold live, but lobster meat can also be sold refrigerated or frozen. Frozen and refrigerated lobster meat is usually pre-cooked, but frozen raw lobster is usually sold as an intact tail. When picking out lobster you want a “live” one: vigorous tail flipping is a good sign. Don’t go for lobster that looks droopy (they are called “weaks” for a reason) and definitely don’t cook a dead lobster. Many lobster dealers offer a good price on “culls” which are lobsters that are missing one claw or on “bullets” which are missing both. When I was lobster fishing with dad we ate a lot of culls, bullets and weaks and sold the rest.
I like my lobster in the two-pound range and usually in the colder months, when the shells are hard and I get a good chance of a head full of roe and tomalley. However I know most people think of lobster as a summer time food. Remember, during the spring-early summer American lobsters shed their shells. Although a soft shell lobster is easier to eat – you may not even need a shell-cracker – you run the risk of eating a lobster with less meat and tasting more like seawater than lobster. If you want a rich-tasting, succulent lobster then go for a hard shelled one.
Although a lobster tail is a nice big piece of meat, there is plenty more in a good-sized American lobster and some is better tasting. The claws, head, even the little legs and small tail flaps all have good tasting meat, but the knuckles that connect the claws to the body are the sweetest – the tenderloin of the lobster. Many people ignore the little legs as a waste of time, but there is a good amount of sweet meat in there. Do what I do and save them for the end; break off the segments and roll them with one of your empty beer bottles like a rolling pin to squeeze out every last bit of flavor.
There is no shortage of options for buying lobster, from the local supermarket to online. However I suggest supporting local fishermen as much as possible by buying domestic lobster and not a foreign import. If your local source has suspiciously cheap lobster, check to see they are not imported before buying.
I think it goes without saying to avoid the lobster rolls sold in fast-food chains in the summer months. Sure it may be “100% lobster” but what kind of lobster? Some chains use either inferior Atlantic lobster or more often Norway Lobster (also known as langoustine or scampi) or squat lobster (often mis-labeled as longoustine/Langostino).
For an alternative to lobster, large shrimp or prawns can be used. Monkfish has long been known in New England as “poor man’s lobster” however it has been discovered by the public for its delicious flavor. A tasty substitute, but maybe not for the “poor man” anymore.
Lobster Bordelaise (1896)
Cut some live lobsters into eight pieces, crack the claws without spoiling the shape, put them in a saucepan and cover with white wine, a little garlic, two bay leaves, a small bunch of parsley and thyme, and a little pepper and salt; place the lid on the saucepan and let the mixture boil for twenty-five minutes, stirring often to prevent burning. When they are cooked take each piece of lobster out, dry in a cloth, and replace them in a clean saucepan. Fry a few slices of onions and shallots in butter, and when they are browned stir in a little flour, cook it, then pour in some of the liquor in which the pieces of lobster were cooked. Stir over the fire for ten minutes, then mix in a teacupful of tomato sauce, a pinch of cayenne, the pieces of lobster, and warm them again. Arrange the lobster on a hot dish in such a way that they will not have the appearance of being cut, put the claws around, pour over the sauce and serve.