The Food Lab: Reconsidering The Lobster (and Hot Buttered Lobster Rolls!)
Last week we took a look at New England-style lobster rolls. The cold, mayo-based lobster salad variety, that is. For most people, that's what a lobster roll is and always will be.
But there are certain pockets of the population—mostly in Connecticut, as well as satellite colonies all up and down the New England coastline—that prefer their lobster rolls hot and buttered.
Frankly, I like them both ways. We've already done a lot of the legwork necessary for perfect lobster rolls in the previous post, so this time, all we've gotta do is tweak the recipe a bit.
That gives me plenty of space to go on a slight detour. If you're interested at all in lobster-killing ethics, read on. Otherwise, you can skip right past this section and get straight back to the delicious stuff.
Reconsidering The Lobster
Before we get into the nitty gritty of cooking and eating lobster, a few quick words about lobster-killing etiquette, and my stance on whether or not it's an ethical act to snuff out the life of a crustacean by boiling it.
Whenever this argument comes up, the late David Foster Wallace's essay "Consider The Lobster," published in 2004 in Gourmet magazine is quoted as one of the primary sources of the anti-kill movement. As well-written as the piece is, I find its core argument to be significantly lacking in substance. Here's the crux of his argument against killing lobsters:
However stuporous the lobster is from the trip home, for instance, it tends to come alarmingly to life when placed in boiling water. If you're tilting it from a container into the steaming kettle, the lobster will sometimes try to cling to the container's sides or even to hook its claws over the kettle's rim like a person trying to keep from going over the edge of a roof. And worse is when the lobster's fully immersed. Even if you cover the kettle and turn away, you can usually hear the cover rattling and clanking as the lobster tries to push it off. Or the creature's claws scraping the sides of the kettle as it thrashes around. The lobster, in other words, behaves very much as you or I would behave if we were plunged into boiling water (with the obvious exception of screaming). A blunter way to say this is that the lobster acts as if it's in terrible pain, causing some cooks to leave the kitchen altogether and to take one of those little lightweight plastic oven timers with them into another room and wait until the whole process is over.
Now, don't get me wrong. The prose in his piece is stunningly beautiful and his passion is very clear. But what bothers me about David Foster Wallace's piece is the lack of reason. He certainly seems to have done plenty of research on the subject, yet the only defense he offers for his thesis is in the above paragraph: a gut-wrenching anthropomorphism. And to equate lobsters to humans, to project our emotions and reasoning capabilities onto a large crustacean is a fallacy; A fabrication, based not on reality, but on ignorance, delusion, or deception.
What's surprising to me is that a mere two paragraphs later, he admonishes those who would draw a false analogy between the wildly differing physiologies of a frog and a lobster.
In order to save a lot of research-summarizing, I'll simply assure you that the analogy between frogs and lobsters turns out not to hold.
Unfortunately, the analogy between lobster and human is even more tenuous.
Frankly, I have a very hard time believing that someone who can write so intelligently and beautifully as David Foster Wallace can truly believe that a lobster—a creature that has poor eyesight, that has a sense of touch based on a highly sensitive ability to monitor changes in water pressure and is thus rendered completely useless outside of water, and that has no centralized nervous system—has the mental capacity, much less the presence of mind (or more realistically the presences of the multiple disjointed ganglia distributed around its body that are the closest thing it has to a mind), to put forth a concerted effort to shove the lid off of a pot.
To his credit, he very openly admits his confusion on the issues towards the end of the article, but most of the intellectual damage has already been done by this point. Supplying a sensationalistic emotional response as a valid counterargument to a clearly supported thesis is simply not a sensible thing to do, nor is it an honorable or even valid way to win an argument.
Fact is, a lobster does not know what a pot is. It does not know what a lid is. It does not connect the fact that by pushing a lid off it may be able to crawl out to safety. It does not have the mental ability or the physical dexterity to "hook its claws over the kettle's rim." In other words, a lobster behaves nothing at all like human being lowered into boiling water. Rather, it acts very much like a cockroach being dropped into a pot of boiling water: It behaves like a bunch of overstimulated bundles of nerves rapidly firing and causing muscles to spasm in an unpredictable and wild manner.
Some of those spasms may well indeed cause the lobster to flick at the pot's lid or against the wall, or even—if you're very lucky—to stick its claws out over the lip of the pot. Does this constitute a reasoned and calculated escape plan, or does it even indicate any level of self-awareness or what we humans call "pain" in the crustacean?
Nope. It's admirable that DFW doesn't suggest (as some do) that lobsters scream when they are being boiled or steamed. Lobsters have no vocal chords and therefore cannot scream. Whatever noise one might be hearing (I've personally never heard this noise) must be coming either from the scraping of chitin against metal, or perhaps the sound of gases escaping from cracks in the carapace.
Now, we can argue over the definition of pain and suffering. If a simple avoidance of things that cause harm or bodily damage constitutes pain, then we'd have to extend the umbrella to include all plant life as well, as plants most certainly avoid damaging themselves, sometimes quite actively so. If, on the other hand, we take a more reasonable definition of pain as one that requires at least a degree of self-awareness and the mental capacity to understand what is happening to one's body beyond pure reflex, then we're more in the realm relevance.
Under this definition of pain, there's no doubt that killing mammals, birds, and probably fish causes them pain. And I'm comfortable with that. I try my best to minimize the pain caused to these animals when I slaughter them myself, as well as by trying to make reasonably ethical choices at the market. But I've no doubt that my eating habits do cause pain to other creatures. As an omnivore, that's just something I have to face up to.
So honestly, whether killing by boiling or stabbing causes a lobster pain is not the issue for me, and for most meat eaters. The issue at hand is, am I comfortable with the level of pain that it causes? And to this, I answer yes. I am indeed comfortable.
Physiologically speaking, a lobster is far more similar to insects than to mammals. Personally, I'd sooner kill an insect-like lobster—whose succulent flesh I'm about to enjoy—than swat a mosquito or goosh a cockroach just because they have annoyed me. And I have no compunction with swatting and gooshing those annoying bugs.
All of us, whether we are meat eaters, vegetarian, or even ninth-level vegans understand that not all animals are the same. We don't treat dogs the way we treat other humans. We don't treat lobsters the way we treat our dogs. There is a hierarchy in terms of the level and quality of interaction we can have with our fellow creatures on this earth, and my ability to eat or empathize with them is directly related to this hierarchy.
Lobster, frankly, falls pretty far down the ladder. Given that I eat pigs, cows, and lambs, I'm afraid the big sea bugs just don't stand a chance.
Back To The Rolls
Last week we determined that the best way to cook a lobster for a roll is to very briefly steam it, just long enough to tighten up the exterior of its flesh so that it won't stick to the shell. Then roast it in the oven to prevent it from taking on too much water during boiling. With hot buttered lobster rolls, we've no need to roast the lobster—we can simply finish them directly in the butter we're going to serve them with.
If you want to get fancy, you can even steam your lobsters, shell them, cut them up, then cook them in a plastic bag with butter in your beer cooler with water at exactly 135°F. You'll never have more tender lobster in your life. It turns buttery sweet with an almost braised texture to it.
Personally, I feel that for such a humble dish, it's a bit of overkill. If you're careful enough, you can get away with simply sautéeing the lobster pieces in a skillet with butter over relatively low heat. As long as the butter never starts sizzling and you make sure to take the lobster off the heat just as its done cooking, you're all set.
Added bonus: the lobster juices and melted butter will emulsify into a sweet sauce to pour over the rolls after you stuff'em.
While my cold lobster rolls get nothing but some diced celery, I really like the flavor of a bit of sliced scallion in hot lobster rolls. I add it to the sautéeing lobster meat just before it finishes cooking.
And once again: top split hot dog buns toasted in butter are a must!