Lobster Lore 101
Two new monographs from a British publisher shed light on how little we know about Maine’s favorite crustacean.
- By: Edgar Allen Beem
Living in Maine, we have a chauvinistic tendency to think we know all there is to know about catching, cooking, and eating lobsters — and managing the lobster fishery so we can continue catching, cooking, and eating the succulent crustaceans in perpetuity.
Now come a pair of new monographs from a British publisher that should expand our provincial take on lobster. Richard J. King’s Lobster (Reaktion Books, London, England; paperback; 216 pages; $19.95) and Elisabeth Townsend’s Lobster: A Global History (Reaktion Books, London, England; hardcover; 144 pages; $15.95) strongly suggest that there is more to Lobster World than Homarus americanus.
Both books are engaging, idiosyncratic reads about all things lobsters, from their biology and natural history to lobsters in folklore and fine art (think surrealist Salvador Dali and contemporary schlock art master Jeff Koons). Quasi-academic (Lobster has footnotes; Lobster: A Global History does not), this odd couple are not companion volumes, yet they have been published simultaneously by Reaktion Books, a rather eccentric British art book press founded in 1985. These days, Reaktion Books also delves into such things as sports history, fashion, and animal studies.
Lobster is the latest in the Reaktion Animal Series that includes such monomial titles as Crow, Ant, Tortoise, Bear, Bee, Whale, Parrot, and Camel. Lobster: A Global History is the latest in an Edible Series that features such treats as Cake, Cheese, Chocolate, Dates, Milk, Pie, Soup, Sandwich, and Tea.
King, a lecturer in the literature of the sea at the Maritime Studies Program of Williams College and Mystic Seaport, originally approached Reaktion Books about writing a volume on his first love, cormorants, but the Brits were more interested in lobsters.
“I had actually worked as a sternman on a lobsterboat on Long Island Sound for a couple of summers and a couple of summers at a fish market,” says King, “so I said okay.”
(King’s treatise on cormorants is forthcoming from the University Press of New England.)
King did plenty of research on Lobster in Maine, particularly in Rockland, where he mined the Farnsworth Art Museum for images, and Bath, where he found the Maine Maritime Museum an important resource, but he actually wrote the book while he and his wife were on sabbatical in Santa Cruz, California.
“The big challenge of the book for me,” says King, “was to look outside of Maine.”
The good old American lobster is the star of Lobster, but King also treats the world of invertebrate imposters — spiny lobsters, European lobsters, Norway lobsters, and both southern and western rock lobsters. No crayfish or langostinos need apply, however.
King has nothing but praise for Maine’s management of its lobster fishery. “If anything there are actually too many lobsters in the waters of Maine and the Maritimes, at least in terms of the market.”
And he concludes that popular tales of indentured servants in colonial New England seeking laws limiting how often they could be forced to eat ubiquitous and undervalued lobster “seem greatly exaggerated, if not apocryphal.”
While surveying the natural and social history of his assigned subject, King is ultimately on a personal quest to answer a question that few Mainers have probably ever asked themselves. “Why is it, after all, that we so often associate the lobster with decadence, sex, and a lemon spritz of absurdity?”
Elisabeth Townsend, a food writer based in Concord, Massachusetts, met the editor of Reaktion’s Edible Series at a conference of culinary historians and was promptly recruited to take on the lobster book. Townsend considers the lobster largely from a gastronomic point of view, complete with historical recipes.
Given the common subject, there is surprisingly little overlap between Townsend’s book and King’s, save for a couple of photographs — one of Dali’s lobster telephone, the other of a Crustastun, a lobster stun gun machine.
Since lobsters are about the only animals the average consumer actually purchases live and kills themselves, the ethical dilemma over the most humane way to dispatch a lobster looms large in Townsend’s book (in King’s, not so much).
Elisabeth Townsend advocates for chilling lobsters to anesthetize them before boiling them red and ready. But when it comes to actually cooking the crustaceans, she confesses she has to get someone else to pop the bugs in the pot. “I can’t do it. I really can’t do it. I’ll fill up the pot with hot water, but I can’t put the lobsters in.”
King, on the other hand, has no such qualms. “Having worked on a lobsterboat,” he says, “it’s not a big deal to me to boil them.”
- By: Edgar Allen Beem