Wednesday, September 21, 2011

For some Maine lobsters, the pressure’s on

I know that in life you have to take the bad with the good. And that, the older you get, the badder the new bad gets. And the gooder the old good looks.

Still, with all the shucking and jiving change that we have to contend with, there are some things you assume will be constant, at least as long as you’re around.

Among the things I have assumed would remain that same are certain food stuffs.

I just do not want to live in a world where, come summer, there is no corn on the cob, summer tomatoes, ice cream, or lobster.

And I want these food stuffs to be available in the same way, shape, and form that they were in when I first learned the pleasures of consuming them.

Thus, I have assumed that there will always be farm stands, where, come August and September, New Englanders can buy corn that they will shuck and boil or grill. That the tomatoes from said farm stands will taste like tomatoes. That on the way home from the farm stand, we will be able to stop by an some ice cream place and get a hand-packed pint of Cranberry Bog, Maple Walnut, or Maine Black Bear. And that the centerpiece of at least one summer repast will be lobster.

The lobster will be bought live, tossed in a heavy paper bag with however many of his luckless brethren you’ll be serving and taken home to await its fate. And will meet its maker – if there is, indeed, an afterlife for crustaceans – in a big pot full of water at a rolling boil, learning the hard way that life can, indeed, be nasty, brutish, and short.

While life as it knew it has now ended for the lobster, within a few minutes, you will have the pleasure of cracking open its claws, twisting off the tail and poking the meat through, dipping everything in drawn butter, and sucking what there is to be had out of the legs. (Which is never much.) After this messy pleasure, you will squeeze a lemon on your hands to cut the butter grease, and then cast around for a “moist towel-ette.”

Of course, having been a waitress in restaurants that served lobsters to tourists, I understand that there are some people who:

a) do not know how to tackle a lobster; and

b) bizarrely, and, I will add, disgracefully, have no desire to learn the simple lobster-eating techniques that give both pleasure and meaning to life.

Worse, some of them are vegan-squeamish about consuming something that they “knew” when it was still an animate, if not quite sentient, being. No problema with a thick and juicy steak that came from a cattle that likely had a few IQ points on a lobster, let alone with bacon that came from a relatively Einstein-ish pig. But, ewwwww, that little lobster is alive.

Still, I was completely unprepared for the news out of Richmond, Maine, that there is a new way of bridging the distance between lobster trap and tourist maw.

It has been introduced to our region by one John Hathaway, a restaurateur who discovered that most tourists wanted something called the Lazy Man Lobster, in which someone else has spared you the exercise of cracking and twisting. Tourists, he found, just want the eats.

Then Hathaway got wind of a high pressure method that Louisianans were using to process oysters, which, along with killing off bacteria and parasites, also yielded the benefit of shucking the oyster itself.

I understand why someone would want to obviate the need shuck an oyster, which is, by degree of difficulty, a 10 when compared to maybe a 2 or 3 for opening up a lobster. Shucking is hard. And if you don’t wear a glove, you can really hurt your hand doing it. Unless you’re a complete klutz, and manage to crack your knuckles with the lobster cracker or stab yourself with the pick, eating a lobster is not particularly dangerous.

So Hathaway took some live lobsters down to bayou country.

When Hathaway placed his live lobsters inside the oysterman’s machine, several things happened. The lobster came out looking exactly as it had before it went in, only it was no longer alive. But inside the lobster, the change was dramatic: the pressure had forced the meat to detach from the exoskeleton, which meant that when the shell was cracked, the meat slid out whole, undamaged, but still raw.

“It was amazing,’’ Hathaway said of that moment when he first held raw lobster meat. Previously, it was nearly impossible to get usable lobster meat out of the shell without cooking it, or at least blanching it.

This was a few years back, and since then he’s been selling raw lobster meat out of his company, Shucks Maine Lobster, which is located in what was once a golf shoe factory – which no doubt moved to South Caroline in the 1960’s and Vietnam in the 2000’s.

Although I have never seen this sort of pressure uncooked lobster on a menu, apparently it’s out there. Steve Corry is one Maine chef who finds the new way of lobster death a “game changer.”

“Steaming and boiling are aggressive ways to cook meat,’’ he said. “But when you can cook a lobster slowly, at 145 degrees, the difference is unbelievable. It’s tender instead of chewy, especially with the tough tail. You get something that you could easily slice through with a butter knife.’’

But, Steve, it’s supposed to be a little chewy, so you can work off some of the drawn butter calories.

Anyway, not only does Corry find the end-product better, but he was never that comfortable with the boiling method.

“You can argue whether they feel pain or not, but I’ll tell you this much, they know something is happening when you pop them into the water,’’ he said. “They’re hissing and kicking at you. I feel bad.’’

Maybe the lobsters I’ve tossed in the pot had their senses dulled by time served in that paper bag, but I have never had one hiss at me. Sure, they flail around a bit, but it has never struck me as panicked – perhaps because it was the lobster, not me, that was being dangled over a pot of boiling water by someone who weighed more than 100 times what they do. But hiss?

Despite some success selling to locals, Hathaway doesn’t believe that the future for raw lobster lies in Maine restaurants which, after all, do have pretty darned good access to live lobster, not to mention a long tradition of encouraging tourists to experience the real New England by eating a lobster the way that real New Englanders do.

No, since lobsters cost a lot to ship – at least if you want them to arrive alive – Hathaway believes that raw lobster meat will prove an attractive alternative to both live-shipped, and cooked and frozen lobster. Especially in Asia, where:

“They only trust raw.’’

Like Corry, Hathaway argues that his method is more humane than boiling. But I don’t know whether we can trust him completely on this, as it was revealed in the article that Shucks’ COO is a Harvard Business School grad.

All this just-say-no-to-boiling-a-lobster sentiment I find interesting. So much for the locavore, nose-to-tail, get to know your own chicken movement.

I do have to confess that, if I really thought about it, I would probably be a vegetarian. But, hey, I don’t think about it.

I do think about life without the simple summer pleasures of a lobster and corn-on-the-cob dinner.

What if they find out that the corn feels pain, too?

Source: Boston Globe.

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