The timeless topic of how best to dispatch a lobster is revived again this weekend in a New York Times review of two new books that flesh out the lobster literature alongside my book, The Secret Life of Lobsters.
The review ponders the best way to kill a lobster for cooking, and cites “an illustrated blog post” I wrote detailing a quick and humane way to end a lobster’s life before cooking it. I’m republished that post here, below.
The Times review also mentions the "Crustastun" lobster-killing machine, which I’ve written about and posted pictures of as well (it’s two stories tall and weighs 80,000 pounds; you’ll also see a photo of the slightly horrifying “crustacean without the crust”), and you are welcome further to peruse my essay in Boston magazine on the Whole Foods lobster-killing controversy, as well as my criticism of the late David Foster Wallace in a Salon interview concerning his famous “Consider the Lobster” article.
Interestingly, debate has been raging over in Europe (and in the page of New Scientist magazine) about whether crustaceans should have legal rights, like cows and pigs; imagine a near future in which the police arrest you for boiling a lobster alive. There’s at least one town in the world where that could actually happen, as I’ve written in The Atlantic.
Personally, I think it seems a safe assumption that being boiled alive probably sucks, which is why I use the humane-approved technique that follows for killing lobsters before putting them in the pot:
Step 1: Cool the lobster in the freezer for fifteen minutes or so. Lobsters are cold-blooded and their body temperature adapts to match the ambient temperature around them, with a corresponding slowing of their heart rate, metabolism, and neural functioning. Cooling the lobster prevents it from moving around while you’re working, which is a lot safer, and results in some deadening of the animal’s nervous system.
Step 2: Hold the lobster upside down and place the point of the knife between its hindmost legs.
Step 3: Thrust the knife straight down into the body, and proceed immediately through Step 4.
Step 4: Slice down through the head, to split the front of the animal in half.
A few additional pointers:
• You don’t have to slice all the way through the last bit of shell to the cutting board; leave the top of the lobster’s shell intact for a more attractive presentation on the plate.
• If you execute the knife maneuver correctly, the claws and front legs should go instantly limp. But be aware that because lobsters have a decentralized nervous system, even though you have severed most of the nerve ganglia in the front of the lobster, the tail and hind legs may continue to twitch. (If that bothers you, remember that this is an animal that, based on its neural structure, appears to be roughly equivalent in its level of sentience to a mosquito. If it still bothers you, you should probably consider eating mock lobster.)
• Immediately after you kill the lobster, put it in the pot to boil, as you would have with the live animal.
WARNING: By reading this page you hereby agree to use the methods described here at your own risk. I make no claims to be a qualified instructor of culinary butchery, and I will not be responsible if you hurt yourself using a knife in your kitchen.
On the other hand, for those of you who crave additional drama and heroism in your kitchen, there are, of course, even more exciting ways to kill a lobster:
Maxfield Parish, untitled; cover linings for Poems of Childhood by Eugene Field, 1904.
P.S. Don’t take my word for all this. What follows is a statement prepared by Dr. Neville Gregory, who received an award from England’s Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
(At the time Dr. Gregory prepared the following statement on lobsters, he worked in the Animal Welfare and Stress department of the New Zealand Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. New Zealand has a significant fishery for spiny lobsters.)
The Humane Way to Kill a Lobster
by Dr. Neville Gregory
The appropriate way to humanely kill a lobster is to chill it, then kill it by either splitting or spiking it.
Chefs using this method can be sure that they are killing the lobsters humanely, while preparing good quality lobster meat.
Any animal killed for meat consumption must be killed humanely. This means the animal must not be stressed when being handled, should be held at the place of slaughter for only a short time under appropriate conditions, and the killing method must not cause pain or distress prior to death.
Many seafood shops and restaurants and also private citizen chefs kill lobsters inhumanely.
Eight common procedures are used to kill lobsters, usually with two or more methods combined. These were chilling, drowning, spiking, chest spike, splitting, and tailing, freezing, and boiling (definitions listed below).
Freezing or boiling methods affect the quality of the meat. Boiling lobsters alive tends to make the meat chewy while freezing makes the meat lose its fresh appearance. Both are inhumane.
Lobsters need to be chilled before being killed.
Being cold blooded, chilling the lobster helps reduce nerve function and metabolic activity. When it is fully chilled, the lobster will stop moving and no longer responds to being handled.
After chilling a lobster, split it along its length where it has two chains of nerve ganglia, with interconnecting nerves along its body under the shell. Chilling beforehand prevents the lobster from moving which avoids mistakes during splitting—otherwise it is hard to achieve a humane kill in an unchilled animal.
Original text and photos are © copyright Trevor Corson. Please only use this material with attribution, thanks!
In an email from a Japanese friend in Tokyo:
People in Tokyo tend to have spring allergies, so in the old days at this time of year, we’d greet each other with the words, “The pollen count is low, it’s a nice day, isn’t it?” Lately, we’re greeting each other with the words, “The radiation level is 0.09 millisieverts, a little higher than normal, isn’t it?”
Having experienced the earthquake in Kobe, Japan in 1995—during which I was utterly convinced my life was about to end—and now seeing even worse devastation in Japan again, with the tsunami, I’m struck by this graphic from the GeoResources website illustrating the confluence of tectonic plates that causes these devastating tremors. Japan could not be more terribly situated for seismic destruction.
People have been asking me whether I think sushi is going to be safe to eat, with the threat of radiation from the stricken nuclear plant possibly affecting Japan’s food supply. While this might seem almost irrelevant considering the potential direct threat to the people of Japan at the moment, it’s a fair question. For starters, here are few thoughts I offered the New York Times in an article published today:
…Trevor Corson, a sushi expert and a former commercial fisherman who used to live in Japan, said seafood caught “in an ocean churning with movement and dispersal might turn out to be less of a concern than agricultural products that are exposed and stationary.”
But Mr. Corson also said the Japanese seafood industry could face a long and difficult struggle “to establish faith in the safety of their seafood—not unlike the challenges faced by gulf fishermen in the U.S. after the BP oil spill.”
The Tsukiji fish market in central Tokyo, the world’s largest clearinghouse for just about anything that fishermen pull from the sea, was not physically damaged by the earthquake. Its cobblestone aisles and alleyways were as loud, profane and hurly-burly as ever on Saturday. But something in Tsukiji’s soul seems to have been lost, or at least badly bruised, in the tsunami.
Before the disaster, the market drew 10 percent of its daily inventory of 2,400 tons of seafood from the waters off Tohoku, the coastal epicenter of the earthquake. The fishery there is renowned for its scallops, seaweed, bonito and shark’s fin. Tohoku, as a place and a brand in Japan, was formidable. …
“I have started to hear people in the West worrying about radioactive sushi and so on, but perception and reality are quite different,” said Mr. Corson, the author of The Story of Sushi. “Much of the seafood typically used in sushi doesn’t originate in Japan and never passes through the country.”
Check out the entire article, which discusses other Japanese food products as well, such as Kobe beef. I’ll try to post more on this question soon.
Update: My more detailed post on this topic at The Atlantic.
Photo of destroyed Japanese fishing boats: Itsuo Inouye/Associated Press, via NYT.com
I must compliment the Lotos Club for considering the wide range of potential interests among its members and last night providing, in addition to Don Rumsfeld’s book signing upstairs, at the same time a talk on the lovemaking techniques of lobsters by Trevor Corson in the library—preparations pictured above. While Henry Kissinger chose not to attend my lecture, I’m pleased to report that several world-famous chefs opted for the crustacean porn.
The delightful and indefatigable Dorothy Hamilton, founder of the International Culinary Center and the French Culinary Institute, among many, many other accomplishments, has posted further details on the evening, including photos of one of said world-famous chefs decorated with a lobster bib.
If you have never seen a gathering of Beltway insiders metamorphose into a room full of sushi chefs, it puts to shame the miraculous transformation of caterpillar to butterfly.
At this shindig I taught at CulinAerie in Washington D.C. for the alumni association of the Potomac School, I provided the merest of instruction and the team was knocking out restaurant-quality old-school maki in moments. More proof that D.C. foodies are on the rise. Check out the rest of the pics.
My theory for why these classes are so satisfying is that people assume basic sushi is difficult to make, when in fact, provided the proper tips on the fundamentals, old-school maki that look perfect aren’t that hard to produce. You just need to forget everything you’ve ever believed about rolls being rolled. Secret: they’re not!
Immediately after the class, the young lady in the middle of this photo posted on Facebook:
Well, guess I can cross “Have my sushi made fun of by Iron Chef judge” off my to-do list before I die. That was the most fun I’ve had in a long time.
Lest I have worried that the fun I’d made, meant lovingly of course, might have been too Gordon Ramsay-esque, the next day she sent the following note:
Dear Sushi Concierge, thank you for an insightful, witty, and ridiculously fun night. I will surely think of this night the next 200 or so times I have sushi.
Honestly, I had a ridiculously fun time too. Although I’m also curious how long it’s going to take her to eat sushi 200 times. What’s your sushi-200-times timeline?
I’m very tempted to buy this. Only thing that gives me pause is “Pants not included.” Wondering if that’s what makes it “Adult.”
Members of the foodiesphere are calling for a guest judge appearance on Top Chef for the Swedish chef from the Muppets. I am 100% on board with this, and would in addition like to see a return of the Lobster Bandidos.
When I was a lobsterman in Maine I prided myself on my ability to navigate across the sea through the dense fog using a compass and my wristwatch. Just now I used my iPhone to search for a store in Manhattan that I didn’t realize I was already standing in front of.
Here’s a picture I snapped of the late Warren Fernald in his boat Mother Ann—if you’ve read The Secret Life of Lobsters you know the man well. He spent most of his days finding buoys and traps across miles of ocean, in all forms of weather, without the assistance of a single electronic device.
I wonder what we all might find if we pulled our heads out of our smartphones for a second and looked around.
Photo © Trevor Corson, all rights reserved.
What’s with the $400,000 bluefin tuna that just sold at a new year’s auction in Tokyo? Nothing. This recurring headline of extravagantly priced tuna is one of those news items that leaves you with less knowledge than you had before you heard about it. That’s because the only reason any bidder at the Tokyo auction ever pays that much for a fish is to deliberately spend way more than any sane person should. Blowing that much on a tuna is either a celebration of recent profits, or a bid for publicity to boost a restaurant or distributor’s profile. In short, it’s money spent on advertising, not on fish. And clearly, while very expensive, it’s a technique that works.
Which is not to dismiss the larger, very real, and very sad trend of generally increasing prices for bluefin tuna due to their growing scarcity. At this rate, it’s only a matter of time before the global sushi industry wipes these majestic fish off the face of the earth.
Which is doubly sad, because it’s completely unnecessary. As I’ve written in The New York Times, The Atlantic, on Yahoo/CSM, and elsewhere, bluefin tuna aren’t even a traditional Japanese sushi fish.
Photo: Kyodo via AP Images
photo: Sarah Corson
In case you sushi lovers haven’t had enough of my posts on nigiri topped with flounder testicle, here’s the latest high-end food fad in that category: sipping cod semen.
Apparently no one has told these people that we’re trying to bring back the cod population. I don’t think slurping down all the spermatozoa is going to help. Where is our faith in the future of the seas?
I know, if the fish has already been caught, there’s no point in letting the semen go to waste. So, for those who imbibe it, please do your part to replenish the ocean by finding a coddish mermaid to mate with. “Splash” for the twenty-first century.
Photo: Cod milt, from Serious Eats.
Most of us are probably overpaying for good sushi. Last night at my Sushi Concierge dinner lecture in New York, one guest declared our simple but elegant menu of traditional sushi better than meals he’d eaten at the much pricier sushi bars Masa and Yasuda. It’s all about knowledge. I’ll be sharing more insider tips at my next dinner lecture in New York on Tuesday, December 7. I’d love to see you there. Bring friends, you will all be surprised at what sushi experts you become.
Photo by Kirsten Luce for the New York Times.
It’s the 180th anniversary of the founding of the tiny fishing community on the Cranberry Isles in Maine, where the 5th-generation lobstermen depicted in The Secret Life of Lobsters live and work. Here’s the commemorative postmark, showing the small boat that still ferries passengers and brings the islanders their daily mail. Hard to believe I have been riding that same boat since I was a child.
If there’s one thing I learned while researching and writing The Story of Sushi, it’s that the history of sushi has been one of surprisingly constant change and evolution, both in Japan and internationally. The book’s subtitle isn’t “An Unlikely Saga of Raw Fish and Rice” for nothing.
The other day I had the honor of hosting a sold-out panel discussion at the Museum of the City of New York on the evolution of sushi with two talked-about young sushi chefs in the region: Bun Lai of Miya’s Sushi in New Haven (above right) and Hiroji Sawatari, an alumnus of the legendary New York sushi house Yasuda and future chef at the anticipated new SoHo eatery Niko, slated to open this fall (left). These two sushi chefs couldn’t have been more different.
Though relatively young, Hiroji is of the seriously old-school variety of sushi slinger. He began his apprenticeship in Japan at age 16 and brought his sushi-making skills to the U.S. at 21, where he spent four years at the highly-regarded Hatsuhana before returning to the very heart of the Japanese sushi world — the enormous Tsukiji Fish market in Tokyo — to hone his skills further for a year at Sushi-Iwa, a half-century-old shop located just steps away from the world’s clearinghouse for the freshest fish. Back in New York he worked his way up through chef positions at Sharaku and Megu in TriBeCa to a four-year stint at Sushi Yasuda. Last year he joined Food Network star Iron Chef Morimoto at his flagship Japanese eatery in Philadelphia.
Bun, meanwhile, is altogether different. The son of a Chinese father and Japanese mother, he lived in Japan as a boy, watching his Japanese grandmother pickle plums and cucumbers and prepare traditional Japanese fare including fresh fish. But the family moved to Connecticut, where Bun’s mother opened Miya’s in 1982, the first sushi bar in the area, and Bun grew up mostly Americanized. Bun’s mother still oversees the restaurant, but today Bun is the mastermind of its new incarnation, and his charismatic and unconventional approach to sushi, its ingredients, and its presentation has quickly transformed Miya’s into one of the most talked-about sushi restaurants around.
Bun conceives of his work at Miya’s as the logical progression of sushi as it inevitably evolves into food that is cross-cultural, and while his menu is unconventional, his lively interactions with customers also revive the traditional relationship between a sushi chef and his clientele. Bun considers himself both a social and environmental activist, and has transformed Miya’s into the first sushi restaurant on the East Coast to integrate sustainability criteria for the seafood it serves. (Bun is also the 2010 recipient of Key to the City of New Haven for his contributions to the community.)
A few days later I had the chance to visit Bun at Miya’s for dinner. Here we are, pictured above, as he studiously reads what he claims is one of his favorite books, The Secret Life of Lobsters — which was sitting on the sushi bar, with many other books, when I arrived. An example of Bun’s activist menu: we ate these tiny fried crabs, which he features because they are not just yummy, but a pesky invasive species. Now there’s a meal you can feel good about.