Bug Out: The American Lobster Has Left Its Shell and Hasn’t Looked Back

by
Kevin Phelan

Illustrations by Thoka Maer

Few foods have a firmer claw-hold on the American imagination than the lobster. Regarded by the pilgrims and colonial-era Americans as barely worth serving to slaves and peasants, the now coveted crustacean has earned an exalted status as a savory and often celebratory delicacy. Like lobsters, who some scientists believe mate for life, America’s relationship with the big red bug o’ the sea was destined to be a long, torrid love affair.

Lately, the lobster has really come out of its shell — for some discerning foodies, perhaps a bit too far. A seasonal and regional treat once reserved for special occasions, the lobster is now a year-long, nationwide dish. Lobster production has more than doubled since the early 1980s, making it more available both on an restaurant menu and as ingredient for mass-produced supermarket items and even in fast food joints. Beyond volume, the various ways in which lobster is prepared and served are a testament to culinary creativity and its cultural mainstreaming.

Traditionally served whole, piled atop potato rolls and summer salads, or as a base for bisque, restaurant menus across the country now feature lobster mac ‘n’ cheese, lobster risotto, lobster ravioli and lobster omelettes as staples. Red Lobster serves lobster pizza; the BBQ Pit Boys boast an off-the-grill twist on the lobster roll; Bobby Flay offers a tantalizing lobster taco recipe; the Food Network provides detailed instructions on how to make lobster corndogs; and in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of the nation’s capital, Willie T’s Lobster Shack makes a mean lobster grilled cheese sandwich. The Las Vegas-based restaurant Lobster ME even rolled out a “lobsicle” — yes, a lobster tail popsicle. And in 2006 Long John Silver’s, America’s largest fast-seafood chain, raised eyebrows and the federal government’s ire when it introduced fried “lobster bites.” (With Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe leading the charge, the Federal Trade Commission investigated the chain’s advertising and eventually reprimanded it for calling the product lobster when, in fact, they were hawking the lobster’s punier cousin, the langostino. Undaunted, in 2009 Long John Silver’s re-introduced lobster bites made from “100% real Norway Lobster tail” which, the chain’s promotional materials are careful to clarify, are actually harvested off the Northern Ireland coast.)

Lobster innovations are hardly limited to fine dining and fast food. After repeated requests for a human-edible version of their popular lobster-shaped dog treats, the Friendship Lobster Treat Company of Friendship, Maine, is developing a lobster-based snack chip for dog owners. They may have to compete with corporate giant Frito-Lay, which earlier this year ventured to Sandwich, Massachusetts, to test-market its new lobster-flavored Lay’s potato chip. Lobster-shaped chocolates, gummies and lollipops litter the shelves of New England sweet shops, and are available for purchase online. Lobster martinis — typically served with a cold red claw bridging the glass — are increasingly popular, and Belgian chef Kristoff Marrannes has concocted a lobster-infused gin.

Following its brief interlude as a fine dining headliner, it’s fair to say the lobster has come full circle from pilgrim-era punishment four centuries ago to populist treat today. Is the lobster having its moment? Or is it now so mainstream that mass appeal will tarnish its luster — if that hasn’t happened already?

One thing is certain: Current lobster yields are up — way up.

According to journal notes taken by William Bradford, Massachusetts Bay Colony’s first governor, lobsters were so plentiful when the pilgrims landed that the crustaceans were literally crawling from the sea. The market price in 1620, so to speak, was at rock bottom. As Daniel Luzer explains in Pacific Standard magazine, U.S. demand did not rise significantly until late-nineteenth century locomotives sped the lobster’s transformation from peasant food to delicacy — and not only because trains carried lobsters westward from eastern shores. Still cheap and considered second-rate food, budget-conscious chefs passed off lobsters to train passengers as an exotic menu item. Those travelers began to order lobsters off-board, too, and by the 1920s the lobster reached an early peak price. “During World War II, however, lobster wasn’t rationed like other foods, and so people of all classes began to eat it enthusiastically, and discover its deliciousness,” writes Luzer.

“By the 1950s lobster was firmly established as a delicacy; lobster was something movie stars ate when they went out to dinner. It was the sort of thing girls from new-rich families ordered for their weddings, something the Rockefellers served at their parties.”

The real boom began three decades ago. Between 1981 and 2009, American lobster “landings” — the industry’s preferred term of measurement — more than doubled, from just under 20,000 metric tons to more than 50,000 metric tons. The vast majority of that yield comes from the Gulf of Maine stock, with most of the remainder hauled from the Georges Bank fishery due east of Cape Cod and a remaining sliver derived from the Southern New England region that ranges from Chatham, Massachusetts, to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. (Oddly, the waters off Cape Cod are part of all three stocks: Cape Cod Bay is in the Gulf of Maine region, the Cape’s Atlantic shelf is part of Georges Bank, and Nantucket Sound forms the northern tip of the Southern New England zone.) Canada — the only country that harvests more lobsters than the United States, and which boasts ten times as many processing plants as Maine’s three factories still in operation — accounts for more than half of American lobster exports. Your processed “Maine lobster” meat may have been landed in the United States, but was probably packaged north of the border.

Following the long, late-twentieth-century run of high market prices, the cost of wholesale lobster began to dip a decade ago. As New Yorker economic writer James Surowiecki observes, between 2005 and 2009 the wholesale supermarket price for lobster dropped by half, from about $6 to $3 per pound — and by 2013 the price slid closer to $2. “The impact of low-priced lobster is easy to see in the ports of Maine, where lobstermen are wondering how they can stay in business,” writes Surowiecki. “Where you won’t find much evidence of a lobster glut, though, is in American restaurants. Even as the wholesale price of lobster has collapsed, restaurant prices for lobster tails and that hipster favorite the high-end lobster roll have stayed buoyant. There’s more lobster out there right now than anyone knows what to do with, but we’re still paying for it as if it were a rare delicacy.”

But warm winters at the start of this decade gave way to colder temperatures and slower ice thaws in 2014 and 2015, which delayed the lobsters’ seasonal shedding process three to four weeks. That may not sound like a lot, but that extra month of winter pushes the huge summer landings beyond July’s start of the peak, summer vacation demand season. “Mother nature rules in this industry,” cautions Annie Tselikis of the Maine Lobster Dealers Association. With Canadian landings also down, wholesale prices last summer returned to $8 per pound and are expected to this remain there for 2015. Of course, lobsters landed too late for tourists’ plates this summer will be available for processing come September. And given the industry’s overall growth since the early 1980s, fresh or frozen lobster should be more available than ever. New and more creative preparations are sure to follow.

The lobster’s allure derives less from fluctuating supply and demand than from the creature’s curious and often difficult path from ocean to plate.

Lobster production begins with the fascinating process of lobster reproduction. Her underbelly crammed with tiny, ball bearing-like eggs, or “berries,” a female lobster’s pregnancy is roughly the same length as human gestation — about nine months. But the survival rate of her thousands of spawn is much closer to that of other marine species than it is to humans and other, small-litter mammals. According to the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, of the estimated 10,000 eggs typically hatched by a female during her lifetime about ten will reach adulthood. The rest will be devoured by a variety of predatory species, including its own: Lobsters living in proximity have been known to feast on each other. After a few rounds of molting, a lobster reaches adulthood in five to seven years.

All creatures slow with age, but a maturing lobster becomes more plodding by design. Battened inside its green-brown exoskeleton — reminder: a lobster turns red from boiling — the adult lobster survives the transformation from a tiny, shrimp-like creature darting near the surface into a cumbersome bottom-feeder thanks to its foreboding claws, hard shell and its skunk-like ability to deter predators by spewing urine from its tentacles. Yet so slow are mature lobsters that divers can easily snare them by simply threatening them from the front with one hand, and then, when the lobster reflexively curls its powerful flouted tail fin underneath to lurch backward, grab it from behind with the other hand. A decent breath-hold diver doesn’t even need scuba gear to snare lobsters hiding in the shallow reeds of the Northeast coastline, often in ten feet of water.

As easy as recreational capture may be, wholesale demands require fleet boats and industrial traps. The basics of lobstering have changed little over the centuries: Lobstermen lay down sets of traps spaced along lines marked by locator buoys, then return several days later to winch them to the surface; from the traps — or pots* — they remove the lobsters, band their claws, and cast overboard any undersized or pregnant lobsters along with whatever small crabs and other creatures were caught in the traps; finally, they swap out emptied bait bags for newly-baited ones and reset their trap lines along the bottom. James Acheson’s description of the lobster trade in his 1988 book, The Lobster Gangs of Maine, would have been as applicable in 1888 as it is today: “Virtually every harbor on the Maine coast has at least a dozen boats fishing for lobsters most of the year. Lobstering is particularly important in small harbors along the central coast [and] is a day fishery, carried on close to shore by men working alone or in pairs, in boats between thirty and forty feet long and within ten miles of shore.” (*Pro tip: Use the word “pots” to distinguish lobster experts from mere lobster eaters — the former regard them as devices also used to capture crustaceans, not just cook them.)

Advances since Acheson penned those words have made the industry more effective and efficient. With GPS and speedier boats, today’s lobstermen can locate, clear and reset traps faster than their ancestors ever imagined. Open-stern boats permit traps to slide gently back into the water as boats pull away, saving crews the backbreaking job of lifting each trap in sequence up and over the stern. Invented in 1808 by Ebenezer Thorndike of Massachusetts, the heavier, round-top wooden traps one sees adorning the walls of seafood joints have given way to lighter, rectangular and more durable PVC-coated wire models. On-board tank systems prevent spoilage between catch and dockside offloading or retail delivery, and cell phones allow modern boat captains to call ahead to shore to make arrangements with wholesalers.

Complications may arise from the recent spike in lobster landings. “American lobsters are almost exclusively fished with trap gear and, in general, it is accepted that traps have a moderate to low impact on benthic habitats,” states a 2012 Seafood Watch report. [“Benthic” is scientific jargon for “ocean floor.”] “However, because of the intense fishing effort directed at lobsters and the amount of gear required — millions of traps being fished multiple times — the impact on benthic habitats may be underestimated… At this time, there are no extensive measures in place to manage the ecosystem and food web impacts of the fishery.” Then there is the omnipresent risk of depleting the stocks from overfishing: Anyone convinced the northern Atlantic shelf will never run out of lobster should consult a cod fisherman — if they can find one.

Cage-raised lobster farms offer a cutting edge, if ethically dubious solution to the twin problems of environmental damage and stock depletion. Even if these lobsters taste the same, much of the romance may be lost if diners learn that the bug they’re eating was farm-raised using practices similar to those in America’s much-maligned poultry industry. Diners want the fantasy of a Gorton’s-like fisherman hauling the lobsters they’re eating from his trap, early that morning, but a few miles offshore.

If the process and perils of lobstering fail to fascinate, the fraught-filled task of cooking and eating whole lobsters provides diners a parallel set of rigors and romance.

Even for those unmoved by the scoldings of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, boiling a live lobster can be disconcerting. Lobsters have been known to resist entry, and will desperately clang around once inside a hot pot. New science confirms that these cold-blooded creatures do experience “nervous irritation.” (Translation: pain.) But the studies also offer a more humane exit strategy for our clawed and tentacled friends. First, to anesthetize the lobster chill it for 15 minutes in a freezer, flip the numbed lobster on its back and split its underbelly with a sharp knife from tip to tail — a quick, surgical death — and then drop it the pot.

Once boiled, separating a lobster’s meat from its unyielding exoskeleton is an experience that ranges anywhere from knuckle-breaking nightmare to practiced art form. Start with the claws and finish with the tail? Bite and suck at the legs, or leave them uneaten in favor or meatier rewards? Devour the lobster’s light-green “tomalley” intestines, or scrape them aside in wretched disgust? (Tomalley-haters have a convenient excuse: The Food & Drug Administration periodically issues warnings about high toxin levels in lobster intestines.)

Like Marylanders who prefer to “pick” their whole blue crabs by hand, true Mainers defiantly dismantle their bugs using only a nutcracker, tiny fork and ample New England elbow grease as implements. Ordering a shelled lobster is for amateurs and tourists — presuming that’s a distinction with a difference, thankyouverymuch. For novices, the de-bugging process can be so unrewarding, even grueling, that drawn butter serves more as balm than condiment. Rookie or pro, whole lobster-eating is forbidding enough that, even in the finest establishments, wearing a bib is socially permissible and readily encouraged. (You have a bit on your face there, sir.)

Still, no matter how much one suffers while separating lobster’s stringy, succulent meat from the shell, remember that a Grundy-clad lobsterman worked harder to separate that lobster from the ocean floor — and the lobster worked harder still to separate itself from thousands of doomed siblings to survive long enough to arrive atop your plate at a legally edible size. Every lobster dinner is a longshot bet that paid out.

All the fuss over capture, cooking and consumption helps explain why the lobster is a food so indelibly burnished into the public psyche. With more than its share of cameos in American literature, film and TV, the lobster’s standing as a cultural icon is secure, indeed.

Here comes Woody Allen, seducing Diane Keaton in Annie Hall by chasing her around the kitchen of their summer rental with a live lobster-sword. There goes Seinfeld’s George Costanza, exacting revenge on the Kosher-observant woman who giggled at his post-swim manhood “shrinkage” by lacing her scrambled eggs the next morning with lobster meat. Kiddies sign along as Lobster Mobster and his pipsqueak sidekick, Da Shrimp, swimmingly serenade the Little Mermaid and her underwater cartoon friends.

The lobster has taken its share of serious star turns, too. Stewart O’Nan’s 2007 novel, Last Night at the Lobster, describes a Red Lobster staff’s final shift at a Connecticut franchise the corporate giant is shuttering the next day. In his 2006 play, The Most Humane Way to Kill a Lobster, playwright Duncan MacMillan uses the act of boiling a lobster as a device to trigger the female protagonist’s reflections about the meaning of her life. And the very title of In the Bedroom, Andre Dubus’ murderous novel and the Oscar-nominated 2003 film based on it starring Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson, is itself a metaphorical reference to the section of a lobster trap — the bedroom — from which lobsters cannot escape upon entering, and where two lobsters often fight each other to the death. (For those who saw the movie version, the bait bag in director Todd Field’s fatal trap is none other than Marisa Tomei.)

On the page or onstage, appearing on big screen or small, the lobster is always ready for its close-up.

Like Iowa to corn or Idaho to spuds, Maine is, of course, America’s lobster capital. The state alone accounts for 80 percent of all production of Homarus americanus, official title of the species commonly known as the American Lobster. Maine’s annual wholesale catch is worth an estimated third of a billion dollars annually; the value of the broader industry that includes boats, bait, equipment, processing, transport and sales, is pegged at roughly $1.7 billion.

Mainers take special pride in their lobster income and identity, and extra special care to protect that birthright. In fact, the state Department of Marine Resources’ lobster regulations include two subchapters specifically dedicated to the creation and license fee-based funding of four statewide agencies tasked with the study, protection or promotion of the lobster industry: The Lobster Fund, the Lobster Promotion Council, the Lobster Advisory Council, and the Lobster Research, Education and Development Fund. The DMR issues three regular classes of lobster licenses for residents, plus special licenses for non-residents, wholesalers, and those merely in the business of transporting lobster within the state.

As one might expect, wielding enormous influence over the state’s statutory and regulatory regime is the 1,200-member Maine Lobstermen’s Association (who land ‘em) and the Maine Lobster Processors (who process ‘em). In addition to the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, the state’s non-profit advocacy network includes the Lobster Conservancy and the University of Maine’s Lobster Institute. The lobster industry’s sway in Augusta is probably rivaled only by petroleum interests in Austin or orange growers in Tallahassee.

In 2004, the late, great essayist David Foster Wallace regaled Gourmet’s readers with an infinitely jest-filled tour of the Maine Lobster Festival, sponsored each August in Rockland by the state-funded Lobster Promotion Council. In his signature footnote-filled style, Wallace described the characters, costumes and contests featured at the Festival. The Festival includes the obligatory cook-off — 2014 winner: Adam Marcus’ French Quarter-inspired recipe for Lobster Bonart — and a lobster crate race for kids. At almost every turn of fun and frivolity, however, Wallace witnessed the industry’s broader economic agenda at work. “One obvious project of the MLF…. is to counter the idea that lobster is unusually luxe or rich or unhealthy or expensive, suitable only for effete palates, or the occasional blow-the-diet treat. It is emphasized over and over again in presentations and pamphlets at the Festival that Maine lobster meat has fewer calories, less cholesterol, and less saturated fat than chicken.”

Will the American lobster industry steal a page from Chick-fil-A’s brilliant marketing campaign and roll out a goofy, chicken mascot holding an “Eat mor Lobstuh” sign? Are Chipotle-styled, make-your-own lobster roll franchises destined to appear in flat malls across the country?

Probably not. Unfortunately for the Lobster Promotion Council, there’s no chicken-or-egg conundrum as to whether the clucker or the claw has captured Americans’ culinary curiosity: The bird came first, and it still dominates our diets. The average American consumes more than 80 pounds of chicken per year. Total per capita fin and shellfish consumption hovers around 15 pounds annually, and the lobster is lucky to account for one pound of that. The truth is that the curious red crustacean makes fewer plate appearances each summer than an American League pitcher.

But if the Canadian and American markets sustain current growth rates, the American lobster may continue its steady crawl from culinary treat toward dietary staple. Often changing hands as many as six times between being caught and served, there will always be a certain amount of markup along the way. Lobster isn’t cheap — nor should it be, any good lobstermen will insist. But the rise of price-friendlier lobsters and lobster meat — fresh, frozen or even fried — could change how and how much lobster Americans eat. The Lobster Chalupa by Taco Bell can’t be too far away and let’s just hope they’re not served in Dorito shells.

Kevin Phelan is a cofounder of EatDrinkLucky.com, a daily foodie newsletter. He loves lobster, dirty martinis, and has a borderline unsafe tuna sushi habit.

All beautiful illustrations by Thoka Maer

SOURCES

Luzer piece in Pacific Standard magazine:
http://www.psmag.com/business-economics/how-lobster-got-fancy-59440

David Foster Wallace’s Gourmet piece:
http://www.columbia.edu/~col8/lobsterarticle.pdf

Surowiecki new Yorker piece on market price:
http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/08/26/clawback

Canada and Maine lobster markets and data:
http://www.pressherald.com/2012/08/11/market-forces-make-everyone-feel-the-pinch_2012-08-12/

Funky lobster variations

Friendship Lobster Treats LLC:
http://www.mainemade.com/members/profile.asp?ID=4024

Lay’s lobster potato chip:
http://www.boston.com/business/news/2015/01/30/lay-made-lobster-roll-potato-chips-for-the-town-sandwich/mvfOfpQg52djxTfxgL7sBK/story.html

The LJSilvers controversy:
https://www.ftc.gov/sites/default/files/documents/closing_letters/long-john-silvers/090623lobsterclosingletter.pdf

http://www.cbsnews.com/news/taking-aim-at-impostor-lobster/

http://www.ljsilvers.com/lobster-bites

BOOKS

The Great Lobster Chase:
http://www.amazon.com/Great-Lobster-Chase-Mike-Brown/dp/073661205X

The Secret Life of Lobsters:
http://www.amazon.com/The-Secret-Life-Lobsters-Scientists/dp/0060555599#reader_0060555599

Last Night at the Lobster:
http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/05/books/review/considering-the-lobster.html?_r=0

Lobster Gangs of Maine (Acheson quote used in text comes from p. 12):
http://www.amazon.com/Lobster-Gangs-Maine-James-Acheson/dp/0874514517

GOVT and STATS:

Maine Division of Marine Resources regulatory code:
http://www.maine.gov/dmr/lawsandregs/lawbook10-09-13.pdf

2012 Seafood Watch report:
http://www.seachoice.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/MBA_SeafoodWatch_AmericanLobsterReport.pdf
http://www.eater.com/2014/11/5/7155501/life-in-chains-kfc-taco-bell

FDA warning against eating tomalley:
http://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/Newsroom/PressAnnouncements/2008/ucm116927.htm

New science on mercy killing of lobsters:
http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/05/books/review/considering-the-lobster.html?_r=0

Chicken stats from national chicken council:
http://www.nationalchickencouncil.org/about-the-industry/statistics/per-capita-consumption-of-poultry-and-livestock-1965-to-estimated-2012-in-pounds/

http://taatrain.cffm.umn.edu/publications/LobsterMrktOverview.pdf