The Lowly Lobster
In the 17th and 18th centuries, Homarus americanes, the North American lobster, was considered only worthwhile as fertilizer for fields or as food for servants. In fact, a law was passed forbidding feeding lobster to servants more than twice a week. Somewhere along the line, the lowly lobster became a culinary delight. I think it happened when they added butter.
Lobsters are arthropods, the largest phylum of creatures, 90% of which are insects. Lobsters are animals in the marine sub-phylum crustecea. They have an external skeleton which does not grow, so periodically, the lobster must “molt” when the skeleton grows too small. First they grow a soft under skeleton, and when they grow big enough to crack the exoskeleton, they crawl out of it. They are completely vulnerable in the soft exoskeleton until it hardens, so for about three months, they hide. If they’re caught at this stage, the fish market calls them “soft-shelled.”
Crustaceans have five pairs of appendages; the front pair are called chelipeds and have claws. The other four pairs are walking appendages. Lobsters are right or left clawed, even ambidextrous, in which claw they use to break the shells of snails and clams, and other choices of food they eat, including occasionally, each other.
Their body is made up of a thorax and an abdomen—commonly referred to as the tail. I only eat the chelipeds and the abdomen. Does that make you hungry? Some people eat the light green substance called tamali, which is akin to a liver, pancreas, and intestines. Consumers are advised to skip this delicacy because it may contain dioxin, since tamali filters contaminants as do our livers. Lobster roe is called “coral.” Lobsters have compound eyes that detect motion. They smell with their feet and chew with teeth in their stomachs. They can regenerate legs, claws, and antennae. They live for around 50 years.
Females may carry thousands of eggs attached to their swimmerets—under their tail—for up to a year before dropping them. About .1% of the eggs survive for six weeks.
Lets discuss the ongoing fear that lobsters feel pain. Some folks insist that they do, though neurophysiologists tell us lobsters have a decentralized nervous system that is too simple to process pain. They don’t have vocal cords, so the little screams people hear when the lobsters are dropped into boiling water is probably escaping air. Most likely.
A few more fun facts: Lobsters come in other colors than blue/green: blue, yellow, red, or white. They may travel 100 miles in a year. A true albino lobster won’t turn red in the pot. The largest lobster on record was found of the coast of Nova Scotia, Canada. It weighed 44.4 pounds, was between three and four feet long, and was estimated to be about one hundred years old.
If you come to Cape Cod in the summer, many fish markets and grocery stores sell lobsters and cook them for you (so you can’t hear them screaming). Though lobster populations are dropping, the last two summer catches were substantial enough that the price ran around $5.99, and as low as $3.99 a pound.
I hope this blog doesn’t diminish your appetite for lobster. Actually, lobsters, as scavengers and hunters, help clean up the ocean floor. So, tie on your bib and enjoy your chelipeds and abdomens.
The Massachusetts Department of Marine Fisheries is conducting a lobster project that may be of interest. on http://www.mass.gov/marinefisheries. Click on Lobster Project.