The lobster lay on my cutting board, beady eyes staring blankly, long antennae flicking lazily. I stood over him in my steam-filled kitchen, my stomach in knots, my palms sweating, trying to work up some courage. I took a deep breath.
Summer is my favorite time to eat shellfish. Nothing beats bellying up to a picnic table covered in brown paper and tearing into a few lobsters or a heap of hardshell crabs. Round out the evening with a couple of good friends, some ears of corn and a pitcher of ice cold beer … ahhh, paradise.
When my husband and I lived in the DC area after college (about 35 miles from the Chesapeake Bay), we ate hardshell crabs often, and once brought a few home to cook ourselves. They were nasty and aggressive in the bushel, but sweet and delicious after a dip in the boiling pot.
Since we moved back home to Philadelphia, I attended culinary school, had a restaurant internship and worked as a private chef.
But somehow, despite all of this, I am embarrassed to admit that before embarking on this article, I had never cooked a live lobster. And not because I was squeamish, although I was, but because I had simply never been given the opportunity. Lobster is pricey, and not exactly my picky children’s first choice for dinner.
Not having this experience in my repertoire was ridiculous, though, and that needed to change. I am a chef, after all. Once I resolved to do it, we needed to have lobsters for dinner immediately! That night! Before I lost my nerve.
A few hundred years ago, if you wanted meat for dinner, you had to kill it yourself. These days, meat comes long dead and fully prepped from the grocery store, not your own forest or farm, with little resemblance to its source. It is easy to ignore that a steak, drumstick, chop or fish fillet was actually a part of a living, breathing being whose life was taken for your nourishment.
Lobsters, clams, mussels and oysters are the exception to this rule, but most grocery stores that sell live shellfish will steam them for you at no extra charge.
When we approached the fish department at the Willow Grove Giant to get our lobsters, the nice young man behind counter offered to do just this. More than once, I think.
I was tempted, but after I peppered him with about a million questions, I reconfirmed to myself and him that I could, and would, slay the beasts myself later that evening. He fished two beauties out of the clear tank. They waved their rubber-banded claws menacingly in the air and flapped their strong tails at me before being packed into a box for transport home.
Despite the headline in last week’s Daily News saying “Claws for Joy: Lobster Prices are Down,” I paid $14.99 per pound, totaling $35.53 for both of them. (See? Expensive.)
I also picked up some hard shell crabs, which had already been steamed, for $3.49 each, and a few ears of corn at five for $2.
Once back in my kitchen, I knew my sympathies would get the better of me if I wasn’t sure of the most humane way to kill the lobsters. If I was going to do this, I wanted to be as quick and kind as possible, for my well-being as well as the lobsters’.
I placed the live lobsters in the fridge to keep them fresh, and because this supposedly sedates them a little, and started my research. There seemed to be no consensus in my cookbooks or culinary textbooks as to the most humane way of killing a lobster. Most classic recipes instruct that you simply plunge them into boiling water or a steamer pot, close the lid tight, and wait for them to die during the cooking process.
More modern cookbooks advocate killing them before placing them in the pot to avoid prolonged suffering.
This is accomplished in a few different ways, but the most prevalent is to place the tip of a chef's knife a half inch behind the eyes perpendicular to the lobster, pierce the head in a downward motion and then bring the knife blade quickly down 90 degrees until it rests on the cutting board. This hits the lobster’s brain and kills it instantly.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) say that no manner of killing a lobster is acceptable, and one should simply adopt a vegan diet instead. This is not especially helpful when the creatures are squirming in my fridge and my stomach is growling.
Before making my decision on the method of execution, I stalled a bit by clarifying the butter for dipping (melting it in a double boiler and scooping off the white milk solids as they rise to the top), shucking and cooking the corn, and bringing the water in the steamer to a boil. I knew the lobsters needed to ultimately go into the pot, and it was important to have the water ready for the moment I got that final surge of courage.
So there we were, the lobsters and I, in the steamy kitchen, with nothing left to do but the dastardly deed. I decided that, although more brutal and hands-on, it was more humane to use my chef’s knife and end it quickly.
The second lobster put up more of a fight than the first, but I will spare the gory details out of respect for the lobsters. Despite it being over in a matter of seconds, it may have been as hard on me as it was on them. I am still here to tell you about it, though, so maybe not.
Poor lobsters. Poor, poor, delicious lobsters.
Hands still shaking, I put them into the steamer pot, placed a lid on tightly and cooked them. Steaming takes about the same time as boiling, but doesn’t waterlog the shell, which makes for less mess when you crack them open.
After about 15 minutes, the lobsters turned that signature bright red, and with a few extra minutes on a separate plate to drain and cool, they were ready to eat. I covered the crabs with a damp paper towel, microwaved them for a minute to reheat, and then served them alongside the lobsters and corn.
The art of cracking and eating a whole lobster or crab is an intricate hands-on experience requiring lots of Old Bay seasoning, clarified butter and napkins.
I’d be happy to demonstrate. Come on over any time this summer. You bring the shellfish; I now have the confidence to do the rest. And don’t forget that pitcher of beer!