Lobster: A Love Story

How to Cook and Eat a Whole LobsterHow to Cook and Eat a Whole LobsterHow to Cook and Eat a Whole LobsterHow to Cook and Eat a Whole LobsterHow to Cook and Eat a Whole Lobster

It’s been quite a while now since I took these lewd and indecent photos of ravaged lobster carcasses. I’ve been practically dying to share them with you, because who doesn’t want to see something like that? And even more than that, I’ve been busting at the seams to teach you how to pick every last morsel of sweet, tender meat from the innermost cartilage of a lobster body like your children’s lives depended on the meager income you’d earn from it. I want to be the one to teach you that, because you never really forget a person who profoundly changes the way you see the world. It’s selfish, I know, but it’s also very generous of me.

The thing is, I’ve been struggling to find the words. It might be because I love lobster so dearly that whenever I think about it, a swell of emotion overtakes me, and I need to lay down with a paper fan in one hand and the other hand splayed across my perspiring brow. Or it might be because to tell my lobster love story as it truly occurred, I have to take you all the way back to 1993. And so it begins.

Once upon a time, a beaky young wisp of a high school junior in Bridgewater, NJ, sat at her dining room table picking through college application forms. Due to a misfiring of neurons related to puberty, she was dressed in an oversized plaid button-down shirt from Eddie Bauer, skinny lightning-wash jeans, and Birkenstock sandals, with enough eye makeup to keep at least two stock boys from at least two CVS branches gainfully employed for the foreseeable future. She gave the impression of being, at once, a struggling adolescent girl and the faceless New England prepster that girl wished to date — a strange performance-art rendering of her college selection criteria in flannel, denim, and petroleum products. But somehow she found Princeton, and somehow they let her in. Possibly to fill the diversity quota for fledgling drag queens. Still, in is in.

For the next four years, she did her best to appear arty but down-to-earth, thin but curvaceous, brilliant but approachable. After an awkward transition period populated with stalkerish grad students and understandably confused lesbians, she ditched the giant flannel shirts. After that, to overcompensate, she would from time to time wear a pair of “third-floor pants” — so named because preppy college boys wondered appreciatively whether a girl had needed to jump from the third floor of a building to get into them. Preppy college boys knew all sorts of things like that about physics and friction and what have you. But she didn’t really care about those things. She had her eye on the small, earnest subset of preppy college boys who had spent their summers in coastal Maine learning to pick lobster meat as unpaid, underage day laborers for their grandmothers. That’s who all the peacocking was for. And after a while, she snagged one.

Even back then, she knew the golden rule of lovestruck artists and artisans: that talent is not sexually transmittable. So she got herself invited to New England — to meet the parents, sure, but also to meat the lobster. The boy’s hands, strong and nimble as a surgeon’s, worked their beautiful magic — cracking, twisting, pushing, finessing. She watched. She learned. She ravaged. She scribbled copious notes with briny, sea-washed hands. And one fine day, after many such visits, the student became the master. (And yeah, she married the guy, but try to keep your eye on the ball.)

Now it’s your turn.

How to Choose, Cook, and Eat a Whole Lobster

Step 1: Choose. Find a dockside fish market (or a reputable online vendor who will ship lobsters from dockside overnight). Choose the bitchiest looking lobster you can get. It can be hard to find one wearing too much eye makeup, but a lot of flailing about of the tail, legs, and claws is a good sign. Female lobsters are often full of delicious orange coral, so if you’re into that sort of thing, you can let the fishmonger know you prefer chicks. I don’t know if this next bit works outside of the Jersey Shore, but if you find yourself there and sporting a decent set of hips, try smiling a lot and mentioning that you would like your lobsters to be “just shy of a pound and a half” or whatever the weight is where the price point changes. You may find yourself with slightly bigger lobsters for slightly less money — and a pound-and-a-half lobster is a good portion size for the average eater. Bring your beauties home in a paper bag and cook them the same day.

Step 2: Cook. Commandeer your largest lidded pot and your largest burner. Fill the pot with two inches of water, and salt the water like you own stock in Levatol. It should taste like seawater. Bring the water to a rapid boil over high heat. Add the lobsters to the pot one at a time (up to about four lobsters per batch to ensure even cooking), and replace the lid right away. When the water returns to a boil, start timing the cooking. Cook for 8 minutes for the first pound, plus 3 minutes for each additional pound — so a batch of 1 1/2-pound lobsters would cook for about 10 minutes total. (Do NOT add up the total weight of the lobsters in the pot.) When the lobsters are cooked, the shells will be bright red, and the meat will be tender and creamy white.

(Note: There are all sorts of people in the world with all sorts of opinions on whether you should kill lobsters and how is the most humane way to do it. For a variety of reasons, none of which is that I haven’t thought the issue through, I simply drop them into boiling water. If you have strong opinions to the contrary, feel free to express them elsewhere. Oh, snap!) And with business taken care of, now the fun begins.

Step 3: Devour.

  • Get your tools. A metal nutcracker (or a hammer), a large, empty bowl, a big napkin, and something thin and pokey like the back of a fork should do it. They sell special tools for the job, but you don’t really need them. A little ramekin of drawn salted butter and some lemon never hurt.
  • Separate the claws and the tail from the body. Grasp the tail with your right hand and the body with your left. (I’m a righty, so if you’re a lefty, you do what you do, friend.) Twist the tail away from you and the body toward you at the same time until the two parts separate easily. Next, still holding the body in your left hand, separate each claw (along with the armish sort of pieces, to get all technical), by twisting each off with your right hand where it meets the body. At this point you’ll have a body, a tail, and two claws-with-arms on your plate.
  • Eat the tail. Now pay attention, because this is important. Cope-san (the original master of lobster eating) isn’t all that flashy, but he knows how to get the job done. Although the lobster tail may seem to the uninitiated like the prize piece to save for last, Cope-san says you must eat it first. This is because you will need the fuel for the long journey into the heart of the lobster carcass, where in fact the sweetest meat resides. Find the flippers at the…ahem…tail end of the tail and twist them off one by one. Use your teeth to bite out the little piece of meat inside each one. Then hold the tail lengthwise in your two hands, with the red shell facing down toward your plate. Forcefully pull the sides of the shell apart from each other like you’re opening a book, until the red shell in the back snaps. This will help the tail stay straight for the next step. Straighten the tail as best you can and push your thumb into the hole created when you ripped off the flippers. Wiggle it around a bit and push some more until you’ve pushed the tail meat right out the top of the tail shell, all in one piece. Turn the underside of the tail up toward your face and, holding the tail meat lengthwise in your two hands, again open it like a book. By tearing the tail in half lengthwise, you will expose the “poop shoot,” which will be like a hideously large version of the same anatomical part of a shrimp. Remove the poop shoot and devour the tail.
  • Eat the claws. This is where your crackers and pokey thing will come in handy. Twist the large, um, claw-like section of each claw apart from the arm-like section until it pulls away. Crack the claw with your crackers or hammer right in the middle, until you can pull the shell apart enough to access all the meat. Pull the pointy little thumb-like part of the claw back until it snaps off (like you’ve maybe had nightmares about an assailant doing to you), and use your pokey thing to pull out the little piece of meat inside. Inside the biggest section of claw meat is a flat, inedible piece of cartilage, so be sure to find it and pull it out. Then, by twisting and using your crackers if necessary, separate the rest of the claw parts at each joint and push the meat out of each section.
  • Chew the meat from the spindly legs. Now on to the body. Twist off each of the spindly legs from the carcass as close to the base as possible. Remove any sort of hairy-looking meat that’s noticeably more gray and/or nasty-looking than the rest of what you’ve seen so far. There isn’t much lobster meat that’s inedible, but anything that looks furry is a piece of lung, heart, or brain, and you’ll want to avoid it. Then, working joint by joint, chew the meat out of the legs almost like you’d eat edamame.
  • Fish out and eat any coral and tomalley from the carcass. Inside the carcass, you’ll find some greenish-brownish looking stuff and, if you’re lucky, also some orangish-reddish looking stuff. The former is the tomalley (lobster liver), the latter is the roe or coral (lobster eggs), and both are ridiculicious. Eat them, please.
  • Open the carcass and behold the multitude of wondrous meat. Finally — and here’s where you can really tell who’s a boy and who’s a patient, loving, dedicated man (so man up!) — stick both of your thumbs into the body cavity. With one thumb, gently hold back the mass of cartilage and meat while you use the other thumb to pry the shell off from the top, hingeing at the head. You’ll be left with a few things you shouldn’t eat and, with a little persistence, about a quarter cup of the best meat in the lobster. Cope describes the process of dismantling the cartilage as “kind of like reverse Tetris.” There’s a network of cartilage inside the body with an almost honeycomb-like structure. When gently handled, it can be opened up bit by bit, and the meat extracted almost like you would remove pomegranate seeds from their pulp (if you’d never learned the underwater pomegranate seed extraction method). Remember to avoid the hairy-looking parts — you’ll know them when you see them. The rest of the meat is your reward for a little bit of dedication and hard work. Good on ya.

{If you’re really feeling ambitious, clean off the shells and stick them in a resealable freezer bag in the freezer for stock. I’ll post about how to make lobster stock another time. It’s at least as easy as making chicken stock once you’ve gotten this far.}

  • Eva Weems

    Loved reading your humorous rendition of how you snagged the earnest preppy college boy who spent his summers in Maine learning how to properly pick lobster meat! You snagged a good one!ReplyCancel

  • Too right about the tail. I always pity the people who save it for last. Amateurs.ReplyCancel

    • Still, I feel like I would happily attend a pity party for amateur lobster pickers any day of the week….ReplyCancel

  • Well played! I went to college in Maine and have been lucky enough to learn how to dismember a lobster from several downeast lobstermen. Your description is spot on. It’s always a shame to me when people toss the whole head away and only eat the tail and claws. Absolutely tragic! Great description…I might have to pass this on to some of my lobster inept friends. Cheers!ReplyCancel

    • Hi Dave, thanks for contributing that gloss of Maine lobsterman credibility! Cope is sort of unflappable and probably doesn’t care one way or the other whether people approve of his method, regardless of who they are. Me, though, I really appreciate a good flapping.ReplyCancel

  • henry Doll

    Great story!

    We love lobsta and kahn! For about a decade, when my kids were in their teens, we’d spend some of our summer vacation time with friends on a lake in the Belgrade Lakes area of ME. …let us not forget the Whoopie Pie!

    You might like to try my approach to crustacean deconstruction. It has now evolved to relying solely on a good pair of kitchen/poultry sheers.

    Legs, broken away at each joint, simply go in the mouth using the teeth to perfect a ‘squeezing’, or ‘peristaltic’ action to remove the contents.

    All resulting in a clean, no small splinters; and a no shooting juices across the table operation!

    (….and please pass me your tamale and roe, thank-you)ReplyCancel

    • Henry Doll, I’ve missed your contributions here. Especially because you use phrases like “peristaltic action.” And extra much because you don’t use phrases like “reverse peristaltic action.” Welcome back, and thanks for the tips.ReplyCancel

  • There are few things I love more than well-cooked lobster.ReplyCancel

  • Amusing and informative, a joy to read. Thanks for posting :)ReplyCancel

  • I love this! My whole family’s from Boston, so I too have a poignant love (and many family photos) with the crustacean. Lobster boils every summer! Thanks for a post reminding me of them while I’m on the west coast.ReplyCancel

    • Hi Corianda, thanks for visiting! I just checked out some of your art, and it’s really beautiful. Glad to see you’re focused on eating these days, but don’t forget to paint, please. I want to see MORE of your work. :)ReplyCancel

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  • David Spahr


    I’m from Maine and I have eaten a lot of lobster. Come visit me sometime and I will give you some pointers. You missed a number of things even some Mainers don’t know. Gotta say it. Don’t salt your water and don’t boil the lobster. Everybody in Maine who knows steams their lobster. They cook better that way. Really. It’s also faster and more humane. A steam pot is much hotter than boiling water. The leftover water can be used if you don’t salt the daylights out of it. The way you break of those claws and flippers makes a big difference. You break the claws off by breaking toward the back. If the last claw segment is still attached to the body you did id wrong. A couple of other bigs points you missed here. Ain’t gonna be no bisque after the fact the way you are doing it….. Let me know when you are in Maine.ReplyCancel

  • Great story =).Thank you so much for sharing.ReplyCancel

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