June 15, 2012: Rock-a-Bye Lobster

June 15, 2012

I did learn something in my one-year stint as a chef’s assistant in the French restaurant. Unfortunately, it wasn’t any of the things I went in it for. I naively expected to learn subtle and arcane cooking techniques at the hand of master that would nurture and project my culinary skills to heretofore unfound levels. What I really found, outside the hard work (which was the only part of the job I could appreciate) was my discovery of my own tolerances of extremely harsh working conditions, frequent burns, the terror of stove fires, psychological abuse, destroyed clothing, anxiety, and an ego-crushing subservience. Having had bits and pieces of some of these things in my previous jobs I eventually questioned the need to have all of them in one. I did learn one thing, however, that I much doubt I would have ever learned otherwise: I learned how to lull a lobster to sleep.

Unless you have done it at least once before, most people quail at the prospect of dispatching a lobster. The scene of “Julie and Julia” where Amy Adams is  trying to wrestle the lobster into the pot? Yeah, that’s pretty much what it can be like, for the unprepared, only it is not nearly as funny when it is happening to you. I had one friend that had this experience and she was a wreck for the entire evening afterward. Most of us do not kill the creatures we eat and as such, we are not inured to the ghastliness and likely guilt that occurs when one does. The conundrum: if you choose to eat lobster, and you want it the best way possible…there’s no way around it. Into the pot the lobster must go.

Cockroach of the Sea

Lobsters are truly weird creatures. It’s difficult to imagine a creature whose form is so scary and alien to the human imagination. Essentially, a tasty sea-bug, the lobster has been around for 500 million years in pretty much its present form. Like its distant cousin, the cockroach, it’s a survivor. As its closer relative, the spider, it has blue blood, containing a high content of copper, compared to the iron that saturates our blood. Like us, it is an omnivore, eating just about anything (alive or dead) it comes across in its path. We are used to the lazy lobsters in restaurant or store tanks, but they can propel themselves quite rapidly in water, when they choose. Lobsters have a weird enzyme that actually repairs its own DNA sequences, allowing it to live indefinitely, if not trapped or injured. Lobsters losing an eye or a claw can simply grow another. Specimens up to 40 lbs. have been recorded. It has a simple but extended ganglia and can live up to 18 hours out of water, if kept moist. In or out of water, the lobster is one primal tough cookie.

Dispatching the Beast

So, we all want to put the lobster through as little suffering as possible. Keeping the lobster cool effects that primitive brain and will keep it somewhat docile. As soon as it gets warmer, the lobster will become active once again. Some chefs advocate piercing the lobsters brain with a knife, but because of its extended ganglia, this does not guarantee a kill. Some sources say to put the lobster in cold water and slowly bring the temperature up to boiling, but I have yet to find a source that fully explains the possible benefits of such a cruel and protracted death. The most common method is to put the lobster directly into boiling water. Expect the lobster to thrash around a bit but after a few seconds, it is its primitive reflexes that are responding. The best way is to have steaming water in a pan with a rack above the water. Quickly place the lobster in, cover, crank up the music, and the thrashing (as well as the cooking) will be over shortly (1Lb. lobster-10 minutes; 2 Lb-18 minutes; 5 Lb.-40 minutes.)

Releasing the Kraken

So, set the wayback machine to two years ago, lobster season at the restaurant. A bevy of huge lobsters out on the table, all warmed up and feisty! My job is to prep them for cooking. When I have done this in the past, this is simply shuffling the well constrained beast (bound with strong rubber bands around their claws) from table to pot. I now suspect that I was singled out for this task because it was known that I was a vegetarian, and that I was this evening’s entertainment and to test my assumed vegetarian resolve and sympathy to animals. Where it is never my first choice to kill any animal, my vegetarian choice has very little to do “morals,” per se. Finding me (at least outwardly) OK with the task, I was instructed to remove the rubber bands! Of course, there was no culinary purpose for this. I’ve cooked lobster a number of times before and the bands do not cook, hence add no taste, to the lobster.

Inwardly terrified, but outwardly cool (trying to keep the “entertainment” factor low) I was pretty sure that I could keep my fingers, handling this 2.5 Lb. mini-version of a 60’s Japanese movie monster, but I was not so adept about getting the beastie into the pot while keeping said fingers. After several tries, I ceased to become less of entertainment and more of an irritation, so the chef yelled “Just put him to sleep!” I briefly contemplated the silly nature of singing a lullaby to a sea-going bug struggling over a pot, but having left my harp at home, I asked the chef what the hell he was talking about!

Strange but true…if you stroke the back of the lobster from eyes to tail, they will go into a kind of beta-sleep that momentarily reduces their stress. Although this is an interesting technique, obviously, the best is to quickly transport the lobster from fridge to steam, keeping the bands (and fingers) intact. The cold should keep the lobster in the beta-catalepsy.

When I think about my fear of those few moments wrestling this unleashed primal monster, while simultaneously trying to control that fear, I think back to poem Alice recites to the Mock Turtle and the Gryphon, ‘Tis the Voice of the Lobster.” It’s all about a lobster that is terrified of sharks, but tries to cover it up. It’s nice to imagine that we might have at least that much in common.

Tis the voice of the Lobster: I heard him declare, “You have baked me too brown, I must sugar my hair….”


One comment

  1. You would think, knowing that lobsters are relatives of cockroaches, that I wouldn’t break into a cold sweat and hyperventilate whenever I see a roach. But I don’t think to myself, OH I’LL BET THEY’RE DELICIOUS. I just panic and want to vomit.

    Lobsters are delicious, though I hate the way we have to kill them.

    Also, your former boss was King Masengill of Xanadouche Mountain.

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