For more about author Trevor Corson and his work, please visit TrevorCorson.com
This is a pile of lobsters photographed on the coast of Maine around 1870. Lately the piles of lobsters being hauled in by Maine lobstermen are even bigger. That’s partly because lobsters are all that’s left in the Gulf of Maine for fishermen to catch—most of the cod, haddock, hake, and other fish have long since been wiped out from overfishing. This means that baby lobsters have few predators, which probably helps more of them survive. For now, that’s great news for lobstermen.
This causes a new problem, though. “Monoculture” is a word you often hear to describe farming methods that eliminate diversity by planting vast swaths of only one crop. The same thing can happen in the sea. The fishing industry in the Gulf of Maine now relies almost entirely on a monoculture of lobsters. This is dangerous because monocultures are often more susceptible to disease or ecological damage. Worse, if you lose your monoculture harvest, there’s nothing else to turn to—no diversity of alternative crops or sea creatures. And monocultures are very hard to change, because the farmers—or, in this case, fishermen—who depend on them for their livelihoods have developed a strong economic reliance on the way things are.
If you’ve read The Secret Life of Lobsters, you’ll probably remember the main biologist character in the book, the red-bearded renegade scientist Bob Steneck. Well, Bob is back in the news, having published a new paper in the journal Conservation Biology that warns of the dangers inherent in Maine’s over-reliance on lobsters. You can learn more about Bob’s latest concerns about the lobster fishery in this article in the New York Times.
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!
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.
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.
photo: Sarah Corson
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.
My exceptionally embarrassing interview with WNYC’s RadioLab has just been beamed around the world. The topic? The mysterious phenomenon of large lobster rescues. Here’s a sample from the conversation:
Robert Krulwich: “Was it its beauty?”
Trevor Corson: “I actually think that lobsters are very attractive.”
Robert Krulwich: “Do you always think that?”
Trevor Corson: “I have always thought a lobster is, ah, how can I say this appropriately for radio? They’re muscular and curvaceous, at the same time.”
Robert Kurlwich: [giggles]
Trevor Corson: “They’re like Popeye arms, those claws! And then there’s that nice curving tail.”
Robert Krulwich: “Do you like have a hunky lobster calendar? ‘Lobsters of 2008’?”
Trevor Corson: “I’m not talking about that on the radio.”
Jad Abumrad: “That’s just weird.”
I go on to wax somewhat more philosophical; the story also includes testimonials from lobster rescuers. Listen.
I am searching for the words that could describe this dog’s expression. Something that combines reproach with bewilderment at the human sense of humor.
Now here is a cure for the minivan blues—the “Crushstation,” a lobster-themed monster truck. Hell yeah.
Check out the video.
Then look no further than the new “Summer Issue” of New York magazine, which describes a lobster-sex-tape viewing session with yours truly. If you find that the least bit interesting, you’re probably a prime candidate for putting The Secret Life of Lobsters on your summer reading list. Here’s what the Associated Press had to say:
In passages befitting a beach scene in a steamy romance novel, Corson writes about the rough-and-tumble affair [of lobster mating]. … Who would have thought lobsters were such passionate lovers?
And here’s a sampling from the article in New York:
Lunch is winding down at Pearl Oyster Bar, and Trevor Corson, the Brooklyn-based author of the definitive pop-lobster book, The Secret Life of Lobsters, sets a MacBook on our table and cues up a video. Corson, 40, worked as a sternman on a Maine lobster boat for two years. Today, he has come to the West Village to talk lobsters and play me an unusual sex tape, featuring rare footage captured by a German documentary team. …
Owner Rebecca Charles comes out of the kitchen in chef’s whites, and Corson nods at his laptop: “Lobster porn. Want to see it?”
"Lobster porn?" Charles says, as she settles in for a viewing. "Nasty."
"If it weren’t for all these lobsters having all this sex," Corson says, in a game attempt to justify our gratuitous viewing, "we wouldn’t be having all these lobster rolls in New York."
In honor of “National Lobster Day,” here’s some lobster trivia from The Secret Life of Lobsters, as printed in a publication called “Out & About in Downeast Maine”:
• Maine fishermen catch and sell between 55 million and 60 million pounds of lobster a year.
• It takes the average lobster from five to seven years to reach legal size. In that time it will shed its shell between 25 and 27 times.
• A female lobster will bear between 6,000 and 100,000 eggs. Fishery conservation laws in Maine prevent fishermen from keeping egg-bearing females.
• There are more than 7,000 licensed lobster fishermen in Maine. Each year they put out more than 3 million traps.
• Lobsters are naturally a greenish, yellow color. Only cooked lobsters are red. The most rare color is blue. Only about one in 2 million lobsters are blue.
• The largest lobster ever caught was pulled up off Nova Scotia and weighed just over 44 pounds. lt was believed to be more than 100 years old.
• The only legal way to catch lobsters is with a licensed trap. The largest lobsters typically found in traps weigh 15 pounds, although ones that big must be thrown back for exceeding the maximum size.
• Despite the fact they have more than 20,000 “eyes” lobsters have terrible vision and communicate by smell and sensing movement with their antenna.
I’ve got even more surprising lobster facts here.
One of the great guilty pleasures of recent foodiedom was reading the legendary blog the Haphazard Gourmet Girls. High-placed L.A. illuminati took cues on matters gourmet from the “Hap Girls,” and to be featured on the blog, and subjected to the Girls’ searing intelligence and acerbic wit, was either an honor or a severe embarrassment, depending on whether or not they liked you.
Fortunately, they liked me. One of the great high points of my career to date has been the rollicking interview they posted with me about my books.
Sadly, Haphazard Gourmet Girls no longer exists—it’s since ceded ground to its reincarnation, the more focussed but masterful Obama Foodorama, where you’ll find the inside scoop on what’s happening in the White House in relation to all things edible, often before you’ll hear about it in the mainstream press.
But for posterity’s sake, I’ve reproduced the Hap Girls’ rather long interview with me in its entirety below.
[The dateline of my blog entry here is retroactively set to match the date of original publication.]
INTERVIEW WITH SUSHI SUPERMAN, TREVOR CORSON
Trevor Corson is a daring adventurer. He can discuss religion in three languages. He’s a sexpert who eats gonads for fun. He will make you question everything you’ve ever believed—at least about food.
Mr. Corson, who is possibly the world’s foremost expert on both lobsters and sushi, has a bio that reads like a document from another century: Boyhood summers on a small island, a first novel at age nine, educated at Princeton, a long stint in Asia living among Buddhist monks and searching for enlightenment (and getting plastered with said monks, and witnessing Tiananmen Square … ), then tossing it all to go to sea as a fisherman. And tossing it all yet again to become a writer. This was a terrific move, because Mr. Corson has written two of the best foodie books around, which have each won numerous awards: The Secret Life of Lobsters, and The Story of Sushi.
Both books are page-turners that skillfully meld Mr. Corson’s wild adventures and biting humor with an amazing understanding of science and the intricacies of foodie history. Mr. Corson reads like a hyper-contempo hipster hybrid of Emerson and Melville, with his seafaring tales and elegant musings on nature; throughout his work there’s a numinous insistence that our relationship to the creatures we hunt and eat informs our relationship to the wider world and to divinity.
In our Q&A, Mr. Corson chats about Why Sushi Is Like Dating, The Hurl Factor, Truth In Sushi, Toro As Garbagefish, Sustainability and Overfishing, Lobster Ethics, his own Secret Sushi Sauce, and whether or not looking at all those cold, wriggly little bits of fish for years now makes him prefer something big, flamin’ hot and hard…on his dinner plate.
Haphazard Gourmet Girls: Our blog is heavily into the whole idea of Slow Food, and “authentic” traditional cuisines, made “historically.” Sushi training in Japan is a years-long process. In the book, you don’t really editorialize on what you think of the rapid-fire training programs. Care to give an opinion?
Trevor Corson: Before I wrote this book I was a sushi fascist. I’d eat sushi only in Japan. Not only that, I’d only visit high-end sushi bars, and I’d only go with a Japanese friend who knew the chef, and could vouch for the chef’s skill and training. Is that the best way to get the very best sushi? Yes! But the thing is, as I researched the history of sushi for the book, I realized that there’s nothing historical about that approach at all. In fact, if we’re going to talk authenticity and history, sushi was traditionally a low-brow fast food served on the street—it was essentially the McDonald’s drive-thru of old Tokyo. Dudes would wander around the city with boxes of seafood and rice slung over their backs, and drunk samurai on their way home from the bathhouses would stop for a quick—and rather messy—bite to eat. Today, the high-end style of sushi is “nigiri” sushi—those little packs of rice with a topping, which the chef squeezes together with his fingers. Well, that style originated only because those sushi dudes on the street got too lazy to make proper sushi before they headed off to work. I don’t know if they were hungover themselves or what, but they got into the bad habit of just squeezing the sushi together on the spot with their hands. They were supposed to be preparing it in big wooden presses beforehand, and slicing it into pieces like a cake, but people loved the new version. So what’s authentic? And originally, sushi didn’t even start out possessing the caché of an urban fast food. In a sense, yes, it was slow food—very slow. It was a sort of emergency ration that peasants on the verge of starvation would make themselves and bury in the ground up to a year in advance in case they ran out of fresh food—unpleasant to eat, but necessary. In the book I get the entire history of sushi down, and it’s just one surprising, unexpected turn after another.
Now, in regard to your question about authenticity as it relates to the training of a chef, I decided just to let the story of the chefs’ training in the book speak for itself, and let readers draw their own conclusions. Indeed, I’ve received the whole range of reactions. I have had purists attack me for disrespecting the sushi tradition by writing about young American kids in L.A. who, as you say, undergo a rapid-fire schooling that’s not the least bit traditional. I have had others tell me they were impressed with how grueling and intense the training was. But I will say this: I made a very deliberate decision not to focus the book on the sort of old-school Japanese chef who would ooze authenticity but who would, in my opinion, simply reinforce our silly stereotypes about Japan as a land full of Yoda-like Zen masters. Instead, the primary Japanese chef character in the book, Toshi, is a self-taught maverick who started out as a hippy artist selling bananas, but who became a stickler for Japanese sushi authenticity in his own way. He also happens to be one of the key historical characters who introduced sushi to Americans, which is why he made such a great story. At one point in the book, Toshi encourages one of his Japanese apprentices in L.A., who is nearly 40 years old, to start working behind the sushi bar after only a few months of training—back in Tokyo this would have been sacrilege. “If you were in Japan,” Toshi tells his apprentice, shaking his head, “your life would be over before you got the chance to stand behind the sushi bar.”
Haphazard Gourmet Girls: You’ve eaten a ton of sushi. Tired of it? Worried that you have super powers from all the heavy metals? How about lobsters? Still eating them? Any opinions on the current FDA warning about tomalley?