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Let Them Eat Lobster!

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This may seem sorta silly, but I come from a long line of Maine sea cooks and captains (each of whom got an extra share of the catch of the fishing ships they worked on, so one can romanticize it as being entrepreneurial, but if you have ever spent any time on the Maine coast, it is still a hard way to earn a living). Lobster catches in the North Atlantic spiked up and stayed high relative to previous norms post WWII for reason not well understood (but my great uncle, the biggest lobster broker in Maine, and therefore presumably presumably the US for many years, benefitted. My uncle, who at the age of 74 got a PhD in lobsters, ahem, marine biology [he hauled lobsters for many years after losing his job as a teacher, major shaggy dog story], failed to find a good explanation). Longwinded way of saying I take more interest than I ought to in the health of the lobster business.

Bottom line: Lobsters were cheap last summer. But because they are perceived as a luxury good (which strikes me as funny, there are a lot of coastal Maine residents who regard them as the functional equivalent of garbage fish), people are reflexively shunning them. So they are even cheaper now. And the exit of Icelandic banks as financiers had had a big impact. From the Financial Times:

[Lobster} Prices have sunk so far over the past two years that some mass-market restaurant chains have added lobster to their menus. Tennessee-based Ruby Tuesday, with about 850 outlets in the US, offers lobster tails, as well as lobster carbonara and lobster macaroni and cheese.

Hannaford Supermarkets, a New England chain in the heart of the US lobster industry, has the crustacean on special this week at $4.99 a pound, half the price of halibut.

The lobster fishery’s woes are closely tied to the global financial crisis, which has shrunk demand for a delicacy long associated with celebration.

Yves here. Ahem, this account misses two issues. First, most restaurants treat lobster as a high end item, which deters most people from ordering it. But lobster is very ill suited to eating in a formal setting (if a whole lobster), since it’s messy. The diner has to pick out a lot of body parts (which usually involves putting your hands on the carcass and using crackers and picks). Lobsters are best eaten on a picnic table with beer and a bib. And lobsters ex lobster rolls are seldom used in other dishes (lobster cakes? fried lobster? Lobster Rockefeller?)

Lobster is now so cheap that cooking it at home is attractive. But how many people know how to cook lobster? It’s easy but disagreeable (throw them in a pot with a about an inch of boiling water and leave the room while they scrabble around trying to escape). And eating them is a bit of work, particularly if you don’t know the tricks for tackling them (especially the late in season “hard shells” which are tough to get into but have much more meat). Back to the story:

The credit crunch has also deprived North American and European processors of working capital. Icelandic banks, among the most prominent casualties of the meltdown in the markets, were big lenders to the seafood industry.

Bank of Montreal, a big lender to Canada’s east coast fishery, urged Canadians this week to make lobster part of their New Year festivities.

“Canadian lobster fishers need your support,” the bank said. “You’ll be having a treat and helping out your fellow Canadians at the same time.”…

Boat foreclosures have driven some fishermen out of business..

The gap left by the Icelandic banks is being filled by institutions such as GE Capital and the Canadian government’s Farm Credit Corporation and Export Development Corporation.

Low prices have boosted supermarket sales, but restaurant orders are in the doldrums.

“The problem now is that the stock market is picking up, but casual dining is most affected because people are still losing their jobs,” said Michael Tourkistas, chief executive of a large Maine-based distributor. “We’re not out of the woods yet.”

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48 comments

  1. Glenn Condell

    ‘how many people know how to cook lobster? It’s easy but disagreeable (throw them in a pot with a about an inch of boiling water and leave the room while they scrabble around trying to escape’

    Please consider reading David Foster Wallace’s essay Consider the Lobster – it’s brilliant, compassionate, funny, and sad – a bit like Wallace himself.

    1. Vinny G.

      Sounds easy enough. The problem is that my daughter, who is still at the Little Mermaid and Finding Nemo stage, might have a problem with your otherwise brilliant procedure. :)

      Vinny

    2. oliverks

      I prefer to BBQ them. You’ve got to hold them on there for a few seconds. Really this is better than dropping them into the pot.

      I will agree with the ravioli suggestion someone made, but my wife complains it is too hard to make.

  2. doc holiday

    More lobster cooking stories of note:

    “Obama was such a one, but he is obviously like the character of Robert the Bruce in the movie Braveheart, or perhaps the Bruce’s father, who chooses practically and cynically to support the nobles. He is finished; no one will follow him as his betrayal becomes too painfully obvious.

    Will it be the banal fascist with the easy answers, the vile leftist with retribution to offer, or a ‘braveheart’ who has nothing to offer but hardship, and freedom?”

    http://jessescrossroadscafe.blogspot.com/

  3. bob

    All the more reason to spend on the good stuff now, although I don’t particularly like lobster, giant cockroaches.

    The perceived ‘budget foods’ are experiencing price increases, more demand from people trying to slim down budgets.

    On the opposite end of the spectrum, the high end, the marginal drop in demand should produce a much bigger drop in price.

    This can always complicated by currency issues.

    I found a lot of very good prices on very high quality foods through this past holiday season. Imported, high end cheese was the most obvious to me.

    Buy now, and buy good. Its cheaper, and probably better for you.

    Another point on ‘high end’. I knew a bank examiner once who smoked cigars(long since retired). He had what he called the cigar indicator. When it got too expensive for him to buy his favorite stogies, he said ‘its time to go out and choke the fuckers.’

    But no one smokes anymore, how were they supposed to know?

    1. Vinny G.

      Good point!
      Let’s live it up on these fiat dollars before they turn in hyperinflated currency plancton.
      Vinny

      1. bob

        It’s not going to last forever, but neither will the food. It has to be sold before its not food anymore.

  4. Ina Pickle

    I seriously love lobster. But I learned from some smart person long ago to slice straight through the head before cooking them. I hate the scrabbling and screaming, although I was raised with ranching and I am otherwise comfortable with the concept that somebody dies when I eat meat — another reason to be respectful and never waste it. And it isn’t like this thing has a particularly large, well-developed brain. . . .but I still do better slicing through it in one stroke than boiling the poor thing alive.

    It’s a conundrum. The overcapitalization of fisheries became like an arms race, and we’ve so severely overfished most species that I try and avoid fish where I can in the vain hope of doing my part to reduce demand. But typically inland fisheries like lobster fisheries are much more sustainable and involve minimal bycatch – exactly the type of thing that I am not loath to support (God, it doesn’t hurt that I could eat lobster daily). But a part of me hears that someone lost a boat and wishes it were a supertrawler, despite the human toll. I worry about what we’re doing to the ocean.

  5. Jojo

    Seems a lot of shellfish are cheap these days in Northern Calif.

    Saw cooked whole Maine lobsters for $7.99/lb last week. Alaskan King Crab legs are the same price this week at Lucky supermarket. But we tend to eat Dungeness crab out here more. They were selling cooked last week for $2.99 – $3.99/lb.

    I’ve heard the stories about cooking live lobster and crabs. Don’t think I could do it.

    Now, on the opposite of cheap, I came across this story today. $345/lb for tuna!
    ==========
    Giant tuna fetches $177,000 at Japan fish auction
    By SHINO YUASA, Associated Press Writer
    Tue Jan 5, 6:28 am ET

    TOKYO – A giant bluefin tuna fetched 16.3 million yen ($177,000) in an auction Tuesday at the world’s largest wholesale fish market in Japan.

    The 513-pound (233-kilogram) fish was the priciest since 2001 when a 440-pound (200 kilogram) tuna sold for a record 20.2 million yen ($220,000) at Tokyo’s Tsukiji market.

    http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/as_japan_giant_tuna_sold/print

    =============

  6. Charles

    After the Giffen Good and the Veblen Good, is it the emergence of the “naked capitalist” Good ? Could be your road to fame Yves ;-) !

  7. Francois T

    “has the crustacean on special this week at $4.99 a pound, half the price of halibut.”

    Hmmm! Someone is screwing us between New England and Philly, because I’m a serious fan of seafood (native from the Gaspe northern shore…you tell me!) and the price of halibut is still north of 16$ per pound (grrrr!) and lobster ain’t better at 11$+.

  8. Ginger Yellow

    “And lobsters ex lobster rolls are seldom used in other dishes (lobster cakes? fried lobster? Lobster Rockefeller?)”

    Lobster bisque is delicious. And I had lobster cakes at Hakkasan in London a couple of months back – very nice. Sadly, lobster remains very expensive in the UK. When I was in Selfridges before Christmas they were selling it for more than £40 a kilo. I realise this is Selfridges I’m talking about, but still.

    Also, Ina Pickle is right about the knife through the head trick. More humane and less distressing for the cook.

    1. NS

      you had better add veal to your list as well.

      The way food is has been industrialized to suit corporations production means that most animals are treated with complete disregard. This has resulted in the all too predictable results of new diseases and a poor quality end product. Some of those diseases are transmittable to humans like spongiform in cows, H1N1, H5N1, superbugs of ecoli, etc. Crowded and unsanitary housing, poor diets, stressful conditioning like use of growth hormones, genetic manipulation in ways nature could never produce are recipes for disaster.

      I’m not a vegetarian although I was one for many, many years. I’m lucky that I can source my food now. The price of cheap is expensive.

      For those who are interested, small farmers saw a 40th percentile gain in bankruptcy this year over last. This decade we began importing food, now the majority of our fresh fruits and vegetables are imported, base ingredients for processed foods are coming from Asia via a recent GAO report.

      I’ve noted the tendency to blame the sick for being sick; that people should take a responsibility in their health. For those that want to do that, remember that cheap foods breed chronic disease in the human animal. Rather than go hungry, people will feed themselves with whatever they can afford. Beyond that HFCS (high fructose corn syrup) IS IN EVERYTHING and is likely a contributor to the high rate of diabetes.

      FOOD FOR THOUGHT. WAKE UP USA.

      Please take the time to visit youtube or buy and watch the documentary “Food Inc.” Its balanced and extremely well done.

  9. aw70

    Just my two cents on this:

    For me personally, there are only two common “posh” foods that are on the black list: foie gras, and lobster.

    And neither is on my “do not eat” list because it is not tasty. Nor do I personally have problems with the fact that something had to die for my meal – such is nature, such is life.

    But I firmly believe that we, as the human beings that are allegedly on the top of the evolutionary pyramid, have a duty to avoid unnecessary cruelty, and that very definitely involves not boiling things alive. Why people put up with this perverse way of their food being prepared is beyond me – and this is from someone who has, on many occasions, been the one who did the killing of whatever was for dinner himself. But it was always as quick and efficient as possible. And not having the creature wriggle around in boiling water, screaming, for minutes.

    1. Ginger Yellow

      aw70: As mentioned above, it’s perfectly simple to cook lobsters without boiling them alive.

  10. Seven Years Of College Down The Drain

    The Lobster Hut in Plymouth, MA has a fried lobster plate which is basically a lazy man’s lobster with the work done for the diner and the meat lightly battered then deep fried. Num num. I’d do this four days a week if She Of The Big Brown Eyes would let me.

  11. Nancy Ortiz

    Re cooking lobster–A painless way to dispatch the delicious lobster one wishes to cook is to put it in the freezer where, after about an hour, they will die painlessly by just going to sleep. Don’t have to trust me–Alton Brown and that bunch say so. Here in SWGA, everthing starting with lobster and crab is expensive. I could do with some nice, cheap Maine lobster. FYI.

  12. Moopheus

    Yves, I’m surprised that you say that Mainers think lobster is a garbage food (though I know that in Ye Olde Days, lobster was so common on the New England coast that it was undesirable). I was under the impression that lobstermen consider crab to be the garbage food.

  13. Paul

    You may get a kick out of this story from Canada.
    For lobster lovers it must seem like something out of a dream:

    http://www.cbc.ca/canada/new-brunswick/story/2010/01/04/ns-storm-lobsters.html

    A different kind of storm cleanup took place Monday in Petit-Rocher in northern New Brunswick — beachcombers were busily picking up lobsters beached by the huge waves on the weekend.

    People crowded the beach as soon as the storm calmed down, and many braved massive waves to pick up buckets of lobster.

    Mayor Pierre Godin was among the hundreds of people who came out to collect the crustaceans, picking them out from among the seaweed, shells and ice floes on the beach.

    “It was around 300 people from there to there,” Godin said. “All the time, until midnight, it was full of people here, flashlights and everything. Marvellous. Very marvellous and we thank the God.”

    About once a year, a big storm will bring lobsters to the beach, Godin said.
    Crustaceans get disoriented

    “Because it’s a storm of the sea, and it’s snowing, and big waves and the lobster is getting very upset and disoriented and because of that the lobster doesn’t know where he is going. But I know,” Godin said.

    While he admits fishermen might not like it, Godin said local residents love the chance to collect the seafood.

    Fernand Aubé, dressed in raingear and rubber boots and carrying a plastic bucket, scoured the beach.

    “I was on the beach at four o’clock yesterday [Sunday] morning, until four o’clock yesterday afternoon. If I hear there’s a storm coming, I don’t sleep,” he said.

    Aubé said he had gathered about 45 kilograms of lobster, which he planned to cook and freeze.

    The federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans said it’s illegal to take lobsters without a licence, and warned that eating them could be a health risk.

    Gotta love the Govt officials noting you need a licence to pick up lobsters off the beach otherwise you might get sick. hahahaha

  14. Ron Tough

    Come on you guys, you still think that lobsters ‘scream’ when put into water. I like this blog and the links but sometimes the misinformation (and the leftist slant) is a little much:

    http://www.lobsterworld.com/store/Scripts/faqs.asp?extra=60

    17. Do lobsters feel pain when immersed in boiling water?

    Pain is a human concept . Human beings and other vertebrates possessing an advanced nervous system, feel pain. Lobsters are invertebrates, with a very primitive nervous system similar to that of a grasshopper. A lobsters nervous system is lower on the evolutionary scale than that of fish, and is designed to respond to very basic stimuli contained within their habitat. Scientific research conducted at the maine department of marine resources shows that lobsters, like most other marine invertebrates, do not tolerate heat and can die at temperatures of 85 degrees fahrenheit (30 degrees celsius), which feels lukewarm to human touch. Contrary to some reports, they also lack vocal chords. The sound that a lobster makes when it hits the steam isn’t a “scream” but simply air escaping from the lobster’s body cavity as it expands from the heat.

      1. K Ackermann

        A lobster can detach a claw to escape a predator. Their claws grow back.

        They are also cannibalistic.

        If they weren’t so stupid, they would figure out they could be autocannibalistic, and detach and eat one of their own claws whenever they wanted a snack.

  15. Jesse

    As someone who attended graduate school in the Boston area, I grew very fond of lobster and fried clams. Fond memories of the Willow Pond Kitchen in Concord, the Red Wing Diner in Walpole, Durgin Park at the Quincy Market, and of course the famous Legal Sea Food at Kendall Square, which was walkable from the campus, even during one of Boston’s brutal snow storms.

    I never had a problem preparing lobsters. If you dump them head first into a rolling boil of a large full pot they are stunned almost immediately.

    Alas, lobster prices are not reflecting the surplus here yet, for whatever reason.

    Thanks for the memories Yves.

    1. Stephanie

      Heh. There’s a chapter in Little Women in which Amy wants to host a party for her fancy society friends and decides to serve them tongue. She gets in a cab with a poor old woman who’s bringing a lobster home for dinner, and of course the two packages get switched. Poor Amy is of course mortified by what she has now to serve. As a kid I never understood that chapter: why on earth would anyone prefer cow tongue to lobster? Times change I guess.

  16. NotTimothyGeithner

    In every New England state, there are laws forbidding the serving of Lobster to prisoners more than five days a week. It was considered cruel and unusual punishment before Lobster became a luxury item.

  17. Jim in MN

    Grad school graduation party, 1994, several days on Cape Cod (Providencetown) in a couple of beach houses.

    Two crates full of lobsters went down one evening. Compliments to the chef…yours truly.

    It wasn’t pretty but it had to be done.

    You know Yves, a few family recipies stashed around this site would probably multiply your traffic substantially. Or at least make one loyal reader happy…..

    As for fried clams: Charlie’s Kitchen near Harvard Square. Dingy, old fashioned diner joint, open late…I always heard good things about their lobster roll but those clams….never got to the lobster there!

  18. Walter

    I love Lobster, but I think you should say it’s a bargain, or unusually affordable, rather than cheap…

    I grabbed up some lobster for my wife and I when it was on sale for $8.99 a pound here in Texas, it ended up costing us about $25 for a delicious lobster dinner, certainly a bargain compared to the $18.99 or more I was used to seeing, but hardly a truly cheap meal.

    Even when as you point out it’s priced at less than halibut it’s still realistically more expensive than an equally priced fish fillet when you figure out the price per pound for the actual meat.

    And cheap is chicken for .99c per pound.

  19. chuck roast

    Bring back the Cod – they love lobster, yummy!
    Then the olde Mainers can cook a “real” fish stew, and the coastline won’t look like some weird pointilist nonsense gone awry.

  20. Lobster Bandit

    We used to scoop them by the sackfull at night with a flashlight. Illegal, but very tasty. It afforded us much more beer that way.

    When I worked at DeMoulas supermarkets, we used to steam them up for ourselves at closing and eat while we scrubbed the deli.

    Of course, we didn’t call them lobsters. They were always bugs to us.

  21. Cullpepper

    “(which strikes me as funny, there are a lot of coastal Maine residents who regard them as the functional equivalent of garbage fish)”

    Hah! As a Mainer, and someone who has worked lobster boats, I can tell you this is true. Not so much that we won’t sell them to tourists as premium menu items, but the basic fact is that damn things live on sewage and deadfall. The best location to catch lobster near Portland is along the disbursing pipe that runs out of the sewage treatment plant and into the bay…

    Something else to note: the lobster population has exploded since the 70′s, largely because their top predator was traditionally the Codfish. We have eaten all the cod and destroyed that fishery, so there is little population pressure on the lobsters. If you look at a graph showing the decline of the cod, I think you’ll find it closely matches the increase in lobster.

    (A secondary phenomenon is that lobster became easier to sell. Post WWII the interstate went in and commercial trucking took off. Lobster is very hard to freeze or can and still taste good. Suddenly lobster could be delivered live to inland distribution centers. So your Uncle was experiencing the effect of upstate fishermen suddenly having access to expanded markets due to a reduction in the price of transport, resulting in higher volume. There’s a peak oil lesson in here somewhere but I’ll leave it to you to figure it out.)

  22. gray days

    Your story is a missed opportunity to investigate the economics of lobstering, specifically the difference between retail and boat prices for bugs. Maine lobstermen were outraged this season by boat prices that didn’t budge from $2.75 per pound april-november (Portland ME area/downeast had small difference but still fixed price) . With the cost of bait and diesel fuel at an all time high, a good portion of the marginal Maine lobstering fleet teeters on bankruptcy. Commercial boat loan delinquencies have skyrocketed. Meanwhile, retail prices for lobsters have remained high. The maine state attorney general’s office is currently investigating allegations of price fixing: http://www.workingwaterfront.com/online-exclusives/Attorney-General-investigates-allegations-of-lobster-price-fixing/13545/
    The handful of lobster dealers in the state blame sluggish demand and the collapse of Icelandic banks, who bankrolled the flash freezer industry (cruise ship demand driven), for the flat price and low consumer demand.
    That’s fine, but how does a commodity/product not waffle one penny for six months? The equivalent haddock fishery, prices change daily. Add to this the fact that during the summer the dealers speak with eachother every day–but supposedly not about price–and its a grim waterfront indeed. Lobstermen certainly compete against eachother to catch more of the finite numbers of lobsters on the ocean bottom. I’m not sure the same can be said about Lobster dealers and brokers. It’s a very exclusive and chummy club. Smaller dealers who step out of line–push the price up– can be punished by the large brokers, who use their weight to shut the tiny guys out of retail markets. If Atwood Lobster Pound controlling a quarter of the Maine catch doesn’t want a higher-paying lobster broker pipsqueak selling at Fulton, the doors will snap on pipsqueak’s arse.

    It’s funny, but the lobster fishery is a lot more like a vassal/serf (or surf if you prefer) relationship than a free market auction. Dealers require steady flows of lobsters for their customers, so they encourage–through special bonuses, boat loans, presents and deals–lobstermen to sign up with them, to sell their lobsters exclusively to them for the year. Those who don’t sign up are considered whores and are ridiculed and rejected on the waterfront. These are the guys who sell to the pickup retailers. The dealers enforce their unwritten agreements among lobstermen and eachother. One particularly egregious case this year: a highliner lobsterman in Portland area, tired of waitingto sell behind a line of boats at his regular dealer’s wharf steamed down to another dealer three wharves down and sold his load. His “regular dealer” then went down to the second dealer, announced those were his lobsters, picked them up and wrote a check to be given to the lobsterman. The appalling reality: the second dealer was fine with this.

    A final note: due to low dealer prices this summer a group of lobstermen, having obtained the appropriate permits, began selling their own catch along the roadsides in the Portland Maine region. The region’s lobster dealers responded by signing a petition sent to the city council asking for the roadside lobstermen to be shuttered. Their claim: unfair business practices. The dealers insisted because of their overhead–wharf space, buildings, tanks, etc–they couldn’t compete against one-man operations and that the council should help them. The lobstermen submitted a counter petition excoriating the dealers. As the summer progressed the issue drifted off into the ether, but I’d say it points out lobster dealers aren’t used to any “real” competition.

    1. MarcoPolo

      Thank you. Just as nice, the big guys (trident on the left coast) can borrow from the capital markets – i. e. the lobsterman’s money – to fund the enterprise and keep them in servitude.

  23. g.

    Food historian Waverley Root wrote that lobsters used to be so plentiful in the Hudson River that laborers protested it as a steady diet. Lobsters were thrown on fields as fertilizer. They were trash food.

    Me, I could eat it every day. I learned my limit on a Maine vacation. We bought eight lobsters for the two of us; even the cats couldn’t finish them. Now I’m satisfied with one.

  24. Larry

    I’d prefer to eat lobster Cantonese style. Deep fried, or with black beans or stir fried with green onions and ginger, etc.

    Lobster ravioli is pretty good too.

  25. Ishmael

    I ususally kill the lobsters by sticking inserting a knife between their eyes prior to boiling and grilling. More humane. All animals are hard wired to flee pain.

    As mentioned above the surge in lobsters is more of a tale on the depletion of the oceans of other sea life which use to feed on them. We could reach a point where most sea life is depleted. Accordingly, I only consume sustainable seafood. Halibut and lobsters are two categories which are caught in a sustainable manner. Avoid tuna and rock fish even though I love both.

    There are a number of dishes to cook lobster in including risotto, quiche and lobster newburg.

    Hard to go wrong with a two pound stuffed lobster from Legal Seafood. I will grab one of those prior to jumping a flight back to LA from Boston.

  26. gray days

    Sorry, but its hard to muster much sympathy for lobsters. They are no strangers to inflicting pain especially on one another–they make Kurtz look like a sissy. Lobsters left in a trap more than a day or two often begin feasting on one another. We’re not talking starvation, we’re talking ruthlessness. It’s a veritable subsea Thunderdome. You actually feel bad, pulling a trap, seeing one big hardshell female and a couple of half-eaten runts, claws and legs missing. This is a species used to dying one bite at a time, so what’s so bad about eight minutes of hot water?

    I chuckle about public perception of lobster banding–as if lobstermen want to protect the consumer;) They just don’t want the profits eaten before the critters reach the dining table.

  27. Wade Phipps

    Just had grilled lobster tails as part of our New Year’s day meal. Prices are most agreeable right now. I will eat them until the price gets too much. They are cheaper than a good steak per pound right now.

  28. MarcoPolo

    The good news; Google has the algo fixed. Anybody notice the ad for Alaska seafood? Much more apetizing than “see britany naked”

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