Past Is Prologue

The Emotional Toll of Cooking Lobster

And the history of how these crustaceans became a ‘fancy’ food

Lobster roll. Chez Sasha. Photos courtesy of the author.

I’m a dyed-in-the-wool New Englander. I’ve lived in London for nearly a decade, yet I still staunchly meditate on the following stations of the cross: I am vocal and vociferous behind the wheel. I feel a personal kinship to the works of Stephen King. But, most importantly, I’m not a little bitch about the winter, and summer is not summer without a lobster roll.

After being stuck at home in lockdown for months, I decided to treat myself with a seafood delivery box. The quarantine gods were smiling because, for the cool price of £20, I could add two Cornish lobsters to the assortment.

Derived from the Old English word “loppe” meaning “spider,” these marine arachnids are unique. In their native Maine or Cornish coastal habitats, I am told these odd, spiny, asymmetrical creatures can grow indefinitely, though scientists are not entirely certain how large they ultimately could get. Commercial traps are designed to catch only specimens of a certain size, but the Guinness Book of World Records clocked a 44.3 pounder off the coast of Nova Scotia in 1977.

Besides living indefinitely without predatory interference, they’re wicked awesome. They taste with their legs and can regenerate limbs.

But what I find the most fascinating about lobsters is that, prior to the mid-1800s, they used to be a distinctly un-fancy food. In New England, they were served to prison inmates and indentured servants. Some records show that lobsters were considered so gross that employers weren’t allowed to feed them to “the help” more than three times a week. People eating them were so embarrassed, they would bury the shells rather than throw them in the trash. In 1622, the governor of Massachusetts William Bradford apologized that all he “could present [his] friends with was a lobster.” Lobsters then were so abundant they’d wash ashore in two-foot-high piles.

But the fate of the lobster was about to transform.

As railroad travel boomed during the 19th century, passengers needed to be served something to eat. Thrifty proprietors decided to serve these humble Homaridae because they were so darn cheap. Plus, the Middle Americans wouldn’t know that it was considered “gahbage” by the Massholes of the coast.

But, plot twist, the passengers loved it. Rumor has it, people started asking for lobster in restaurants across the United States.

After all, perception is what ultimately drives peer behavior. Take PBR — Pabst Blue Ribbon — for example. It is as close to piss as it is possible for canned beer to be, yet I soaked it up during college because not only was it cheap, but it was also “cool,” having had a revival among hipster beer drinkers in the latter half of the 20th century.

Low and behold, restaurants started serving lobster more regularly, and as a result, there were fewer and fewer lobsters. Scarcity drives up price, and voila, lobster is now a “luxury” food.

A similar thing happened to oysters in London. They were cheap as chips up through the end of the 19th century and were a great protein substitute for families whose incomes couldn’t plump to beef or other more expensive proteins. The urchins of London hoovered them up, which led to a shortage, which bred demand.

Classic greatest hits — what the masses enjoy, the rich eventually get a taste for and they elbow out the competition. Why do you think housing is so expensive in Brixton these days?

Oysters at The Bonnie Gull in Soho.

The sustained price point of the lobster has to do with a combination of factors. They’re gnarly to raise in captivity as they are not above cannibalism; they take quite some time to get to eating size, but most importantly, they’re finicky to ship. If you want to eat one in London when it was plucked out of the sea in Cornwall and you don’t want to get ill, these little suckers are (like the oyster) going to have to be shipped live and dispatched just prior to consumption.

When my seafood box arrived, I sliced through the tape shrouding the styrofoam sarcophagus and peeled back the first layer of plastic, as intrepid and plucky as Rachel Weisz in The Mummy. Beneath some ice packs lay a monkfish tail, two red mullets, a John Dorian (sorry I recently binged all of Scrubs), a turbot, and two sizable wild bass. They were forensically laid out, gutted and scaled, and ready for some butter, fresh parsley, and lemon after a quick sizzle in the pan.

Beneath the perished piscines were my two lobsters. They goggled at me blearily, their claws bound with rubber bands like helpless kidnapping victims awash with relief at finally being rescued. Except that my cue in this story signals their swift finale. Exeunt not followed by a bear, but instead a toasted brioche roll, some mayo and a dash of Old Bay.

My brace of lobsters.

Maybe it’s just that death has been on my mind a lot lately. If you’re anything like me, I’d hazard a guess it’s been on yours as well. Each day brings new figures of those who have passed and every headline twists an outrage one way or the other: to mask or not, to beach or not, to protest basic human rights or not. Fear has been at the forefront of our minds as a global population.

It’s possible that generalized anxiety precipitated what happened next. I wish I were joking when I said that tears instantly came to my eyes as I looked upon my lobsters.

My Eastern European grandma once found me crying at the end of Titanic and riposted “I had my fingernails and toenails pulled out in prison during the war. What do you have a cry about?” Touché.

But the whole process just seemed so unfair and sad. Not that the lobsters were going to die; we’re all going to die. What suddenly struck me as cruel was the manner of their final days. They were ripped from their crustacean families — the whole “they mate for life” thing has been debunked but still — and had been buried alive in a marine charnel house. They then survived a bumpy postal journey in the dark and cold, to sit at the foot of my stairs for hours. Suddenly, I saw myself through their eyestalks.

I too had been shut in a box. Not for 48 hours but for 120 days: Seeing only my boyfriend and my dog. Boiling in the unseasonable British summer heat. We had gotten off comparatively lightly.

And as I thought this I could swear I saw the one lobster nestle closer to the other.

At least they were together at the end, I thought, as I dropped them into the pot. Maybe that’s all we can hope for.

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