Kinky sex secrets of the lobster

They're stupid, hyper-aggressive, and they turn each other on by urinating out of bladders in their heads. And David Foster Wallace got everything about them wrong.

Topics: Nonfiction, Author Interviews, David Foster Wallace, Books,

Kinky sex secrets of the lobster

It might be tough to imagine this, but centuries ago American Indians along the New England coast used the masses of lobsters they found on their shores for field fertilizer. As recently as the early part of the 20th century, lobster remained a meal that people in Maine ate reluctantly, if there was nothing else around. But over the past 75 years, the Homarus americanus has gotten an extreme makeover.

During the fishing season that culminates in the fall, more than 60 million pounds of lobster are pulled out of Maine waters. It’s a catch that supports hundreds of lobstering communities and thousands of boats all over the Gulf of Maine. Maine lobster is known around the world and has become one the most distinct delicacies in our national cuisine. During the Christmas season, thousands of lobsters are stuffed into 747s and flown to France, where the crustacean is a popular holiday meal.

Lobster is unique in our cuisine for another reason. It is pretty much the only remaining animal we kill in the kitchen before eating. Many people are understandably squeamish about plunging a live fellow creature into a pot of boiling water — even if it looks like a giant bug — and the ethics of this practice have been disputed for decades.

You might feel pity for the clawed creatures when you see them floating somnolent in restaurant tanks, a claustrophobic’s worst nightmare. But then again, after reading Trevor Corson’s “The Secret Life of Lobsters,” you might not. Corson describes lobster life as an endless round of ruthless, ritualized violence and kinky, territorial sex practices that would make a porn star blush. Real lobsters, he maintains, bear no similarity to the friendly animated creatures seen in movies and on TV, or to the caricature presented by activists like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Lobster existence is like an underwater version of the movie “Boogie Nights,” combined with a never-ending Ultimate Fighting Championship.

Corson’s book is more than just a litany of crustacean factoids — he has lived the lobsterman’s life. After spending five years studying Asian culture in China and Japan, Corson came back to the small Maine island where his family vacationed when he was a child. He became a lobsterman for the next two years and then spent a year interviewing lobster scientists about the complicated, brutal conduct of lobsters at love and war. His book also addresses a crucial ecological quandary, the question of what accounts for the recent boom in Maine lobster fishing, whether the industry is as healthy as it appears to be, and whether lobstermen and scientists can make the age of gourmet plenty last.



How did a Princeton graduate with a specialty in Asian subjects get into lobstering?

Lobsters do seem like an unlikely obsession, and it’s not something that I would have predicted for myself. I was a summer kid in Maine, on Little Cranberry Island, which is described in the book. Of course, being a summer kid in Maine doesn’t confer any sort of status at all. The relationship between the locals and the summer people is often fraught at best. But I used to go down to the wharf and watch the fishermen come in and unload their catch and that was very exciting. These guys were like superheroes, with these big beautiful boats coming in from the distant ocean, battling nature and everything.

At the age of 5 I built my own cardboard lobster boat that I could stand inside. I painted it red and I would drive it around the island. I even got my cousin to dress up as a lobster and covered him with cardboard body armor. I thought a lobster should be painted red, but my parents convinced me that live lobsters are really brownish green, so I painted him green. We didn’t want him to be dead, because then it wouldn’t be any fun to catch him.

Isn’t the lobster depicted in PETA’s literature red? So it looks like he’s dead already?

Their logo was red. It may have been a strategic decision to attract attention, because generally lobsters aren’t depicted as red, but I thought it was an interesting choice for them.

Maybe someone screwed up.

Yeah, it’s really kind of dumb. In the past they’ve said some completely ridiculous and untrue things about lobsters, like that they mate for life and they walk hand in hand along the bottom of the ocean and that they raise their young. All of that is completely absurd and gives the impression that lobsters are kind and nurturing to each other. Lobsters despise each other. They socialize a lot but in a hateful way. They do in fact walk hand in hand along the bottom of the ocean, but that’s a deadly game of chicken called “claw lock.” When other forms of pushing and shoving haven’t settled a fight, the two lobsters reach across like they’re shaking hands and put their two crusher claws together to see who chickens out first. That’s the one time they hold hands, and it’s a very dangerous, aggressive situation.

What’s the misconception about lobsters you hear most?

A lot of people think they mate for life, which couldn’t be further from the truth. When people hear these mythical factoids, they’re often taken as a reason not to eat lobsters. After studying them, what I realized is that they’re really primitive and their reactions are automated responses to chemical stimuli to achieve certain outcomes. It’s not as though lobsters are doing a lot of thinking down there.

What distinguishes the Maine lobster from other crustaceans?

Stupidity and claws. The only close cousin is the European lobster, which is almost identical but is bluish in color. They catch those in Ireland but in much smaller numbers. There’s another small Norwegian lobster that’s also related, but that’s about it. There are other clawed lobsters around the world, but not in very big numbers. Caribbean lobsters, the Australian and New Zealand lobster, and the Hawaiian lobster are all spiny, or rock, lobsters. And none of those have claws. In terms of evolution, they’re much more sophisticated. They migrate in clans, they’re much more cooperative in social situations.

Maine lobsters have this complex, interesting social life, but they’re very predictable. It’s hard-wired behavior. Scientists built these little neighborhoods for lobsters and if they spaced the habitats too close together, the lobsters wouldn’t stop fighting. Even if there were little lobsters that posed no threat, the bigger lobsters were hard-wired to just keep fighting and couldn’t stop. Another example is what happened during a mating experiment that increased the ratio of females to males in a tank. The males become unbelievably belligerent and keep on fighting because they can’t let it go, they have to decide who is dominant. In a tank they’re stuck together and there’s nowhere to hide, so it can get brutal. In one case there was a male who was dragging himself around by his lips because he’d lost all his other appendages in fights. Clearly he was losing, but he couldn’t figure that out because he was hard-wired to keep going. It’s not like lobsters are sophisticated enough to say, “Geez, the circumstances aren’t in my favor, I’m going to back down.”

Actually, there’s a third distinguishing thing: incredible population density. There is no lobster density like on the Maine coast, especially right now.

How did lobster become a delicacy?

It’s really changed since the time they were considered junk food that Mainers would try to avoid if they could. In the early 20th century, Mainers would only eat lobsters because the fish they caught was too valuable to eat themselves. At the turn of the century wealthy people like the Rockefellers started going to New England in search of the calm, quiet, rural life. They were called “rusticators.” They had an elitist appreciation for the simple rural coast of Maine, the unspoiled land that wasn’t filled with all those annoying immigrants in the city. So culturally the simple boiled lobster dinner achieved its status during that period. Those people popularized it as a luxury.

People in Maine should be thanking them for that.

Yes and no. The rest of the world thinks of lobster as a symbol of Maine, but for people in Maine it’s a very fraught item. For a lot of people, especially those who don’t live on the coast, they can’t afford to eat lobster. At one point the state decided to make lobster the official license plate symbol, and one Maine writer pointed out: “If you wanted to pick something representative of Maine, how about macaroni and cheese?” So for many Mainers it’s an annoying example of how wealthy outsiders have turned the state into their personal playground and made it inaccessible to them. Most people in Maine can’t afford waterfront property anymore, the lobstermen can’t afford the space for their equipment on shore because coastal property has become so expensive. A lot of lobstermen live significantly inland from where their boats are.

Is there any corporate lobstering? Or is it all individual fishermen?

That’s the really neat and interesting thing about the Maine lobster industry. One of the reasons it’s been so exemplary is that it remains almost completely uncorporatized. A lot of that has to do with the fact that 80 percent of the fishing takes place within 3 miles of land. It’s a seasonal fishery that’s based on catching the lobsters when they come into shallow waters. So it’s very territorial and there are lobstering communities that control certain territories. It’s an informal system that developed over decades. Over the past 20 years the state and even the federal government have imposed more regulations, so the struggle has been to figure out how to codify these informal regulations. In the past it was an open frontier where the lobstermen were the law and they’d police their own boundaries. If someone was pushing into their territory they would launch a defense. There are all sorts of tricks to discourage someone from setting traps in your area.

Like what?

Usually it starts out fairly innocently, like you would take an unfamiliar buoy and tie the rope about it so that the buoy’s backwards. It’s called “back tying.” That’s just a warning and next time the encroacher hauls up his traps he’s going to see that the locals have taken note and that they don’t want him there. And he faces escalation if he doesn’t leave. The next step is usually to haul up the traps and take out the bait bag and any lobsters and put it back, so he’ll know the traps have been tampered with. Now, none of this is legal and I’m not saying anyone has done it.

These are tough guys, aren’t they? Do they start punching each other at some point?

They are very tough guys and there are definitely stories of guns on boats and whatnot. They’re very tough and the communities are very tight and they really look out for one another. It’s partly for safety, because it’s a dangerous job. There were two guys at Little Cranberry Island who were killed in a storm at sea and one of my fellow stern men was dragged overboard while I was working there, though fortunately nothing happened. Almost all these guys have a story of getting a foot tangled in a rope and nearly being dragged overboard.

There’s a variety of lobstering subcultures along the coast. Different areas have different mentalities and practices, but what really impressed me about the guys on Little Cranberry Island is that they were serious about basic conservation, such as V-notching, which is a peculiar practice. It came about because you can’t sell a lobster with eggs; it’s illegal. But there’s a terrible history during the 19th century of lobstermen scraping the eggs off female lobsters and selling them. So at one point the state started offering to buy those egg lobsters and release them in order to protect them, which was a good idea, but then the lobstermen would just catch the same ones and keep getting paid for them, so the state said, “Hey, wait a minute.”

So they came up with the idea of notching the flipper. Then in the 1920s there was kind of a bust, probably due to overfishing and the Depression, and something like a third of the fishermen left the business. When the next generation came back after World War II they were aware of this bust and realized that they needed to do more to protect the industry and decided to do self-imposed notching. Especially the previous generation, they were very serious about it. And the current generation, at least on Little Cranberry Island, was inculcated into those practices and they’re very serious about it.

What did you do on the boat as a stern man? I went out with a friend once who used to lobster on the weekends, though I wasn’t able to help much. I couldn’t get over the smell and the rocking boat. So assuming someone isn’t useless like I was, what do you actually do?

When you become a stern man you’re under the wing of the captain, but economically you are also technically self-employed. You get paid a share of the catch at the captain’s discretion. So if you go out for the day and you don’t catch anything, you don’t get paid. There were slow days where if I computed my hourly wage it would have been a dollar an hour or something abysmal.

Most lobster boats function with two people. The captain runs the boat and owns everything and figures out where to put traps and when. He’s the brains of the operation, and there are a lot of brains involved. These guys are very aware of the weather and the tides and how the boat interacts with the ocean. They also know where the lobsters are going to be at what time of year, what they’re doing, how they’re running. It’s a family thing. Bruce Fernald, the guy who hired me, is a fifth-generation fisherman on this little island.

The stern man is mostly in charge of the bait, which is crucial and totally disgusting. My job was to stuff these little mesh bags the size of a grapefruit with bait and I have only a few seconds between traps to do that. Some lobstermen claim to like the smell, but it’s certainly nasty. I spent 8 to 10 hours a day hunched over a bin the size of a kitchen table full of rotting herring. It’s not intended to be ripe — people have a misconception that rotten fish attracts lobsters — it’s just the nature of storing raw fish. You throw it in a barrel with a bunch of salt and make do.

Meanwhile the boat is constantly swinging and bucking. The height of fish season is the fall and the weather sucks in fall because it’s kind of windy. When the sun’s up people on land are happy, but on the ocean you don’t care about the sun at all, the wind is your nemesis. An overcast rainy day with no wind is far preferable to a sunny day with a breeze. So if there’s any breeze at all, and there usually is in the fall when you’re fishing really hard, the spray is flying, the deck is constantly heaving. It’s totally draining and exhausting.

The other part of my job is to help the captain sort through whatever comes up with the trap. When he throws open the top, and it’s full of gunk, there are tons of things in there. Sea urchins, which ended up cutting through my gloves a few times, and a piece of embedded spine landed me in the emergency room with blood poisoning. These nasty, nasty spiny fish called skultons, which we kill and then slice open and use as additional bait. There are snails and little crabs, and hopefully some lobsters.

How much of the catch can you keep?

The majority of the catch actually goes back overboard. You have undersize lobsters and oversize lobsters and females with eggs that have to be thrown back, so you’re sorting through all these and measuring and putting rubber bands on their claws with little pliers. The borderline lobsters you throw in a bin to sort later on and the obvious ones you throw back overboard. The minimum size is 3-1/4 inches on the body shell and you can’t keep any with a body shell larger than 5 inches. The maximum is because if they’ve avoided the lobstermen and managed to make it through the gauntlet, they deserve their retirement. It’s also so there will be more mating lobsters. So it’s like populating a big sex club for retirees.

What did you and the other lobstermen do to blow off steam?

Well, there are a lot of practical jokes. People were always putting stuff in each other’s traps. A can of Spam, stuff like that. There was one guy who had little kids and he kept tripping over his kids’ toys in the morning when it was dark. So he started taking whatever toy he tripped over and later put it in one of his friends’ traps, so one day someone would haul up a little frog in his trap or a stuffed bear. One fellow tied a small fridge onto a trap so when his friend pulled up the trap he pulled up a refrigerator. Silly stuff like that.

One time, my friend was looking for a practical joke to play. He went to a Barbie doll outlet on the mainland and he got a skirt, blouse and high-heeled shoes on one of the V-notch lobsters and stuck it in this guy’s trap. When he hauled it up it was very funny and it was a big joke and everyone was talking about it on the marine radio. But then the guy throws her back into the water to see if she would show up in any other traps, because these females migrate in and offshore during the season. She showed up in trap after trap. Bruce caught her at one point; one of his brothers caught her. She was walking several miles in high heels between each trapping and gradually losing pieces of clothing along the way until she finally lost it all and returned to her unclothed dignity.

How much money is there in lobstering? Do these guys get paid well for all this hard work?

In the past 15 years the lobster catch in Maine has tripled, so lobstermen have been doing extremely well lately.

What caused that kind of increase? Most of the other fisheries I’ve read about have had the exact opposite dynamic.

Nobody is really quite certain and this is one of the scientific mysteries of the book. Of course, for the management folks in government, this is a disaster. Basically they’re seeing a replay of the cod fisheries where the size of the catch increased exponentially and then the whole industry crashed. So they’ve had an almost knee-jerk reaction, which is totally understandable, by saying, “Oh, my god, we have to get this under control before something disastrous happens.” But the situation is more complicated because while the number of traps has increased dramatically, a big increase occurred a number of years before the catch went up. So there’s no evidence that just putting more traps in the water means you’ll catch more lobsters.

One of the key things the scientists in the book try to figure out is the relationship between the size of the lobster population and their habitat. They’re beginning to think that the size of the lobster population is actually controlled by environmental factors. What appears to have happened is that environmental conditions and other favorable factors, such as other types of predatory fish like the cod being caught up, caused the lobster population to expand, which is totally the opposite of what happened in the cod fisheries. The cod population was diminishing and technology was improving so they were catching more and more until it was gone.

With lobsters, at some point in the mid-’80s the population started to expand, but it didn’t show up in the catch until the early ’90s. So the ’90s was a story of lobstermen ratcheting up their efforts with an increasing supply of lobsters. That’s what the evidence suggests, and that is totally contrary to every other commercial fishery story out there. So in a sense, the lobster fishery is a great success story and lobstermen in Maine take a lot of credit for it. They say, “Well, we’ve been protecting the little lobsters, the egg lobsters, the big lobsters, so the resource is doing well.”

But the problem is, if environmental factors change again, we now have more lobstermen, more traps, and they’ve all been doing really well. For the previous generation, they didn’t make a lot of money, but they had a good life and they made enough to get by and they didn’t have a lot of expenses. Bruce’s father took out one loan his entire life and paid it back in six months, but now people are taking out $200,000 and $300,000 loans just for new boats, so there’s a big problem with overcapitalization in the industry and banks loaning way too much money.

You got the complete view of the Maine lobster, first from two years on a lobster boat, then you spent a year interviewing lobster scientists in their laboratories on the Maine coast and at Woods Hole, Mass. You even went on a research ship where they were using submarines and underwater robots. Did you find out more from the scientists than you expected?

After two years of working on a lobster boat I thought I knew a lot about lobsters, but when I started researching the book and talking to the scientists who study lobsters for a living, I had no idea.

The most amazing thing is how the lobsters socialize, communicate, and their mating ritual. It turns out that lobsters do most of their interpretation of the world and their socializing through their sense of smell. Their nose is actually a pair of little flickable antennules, or mini-antennae. They’re packed with chemo receptors and they flick them in the water to detect odors, like sniffing, and if they’re in a good current they can hold them up like rabbit ears and pick up all the chemicals in the water.

They also have this little interesting feature of their anatomy where they have a big bladder in their head and they piss out the front of their head. So they’re constantly pissing in each other’s faces. When a female wants to seduce a male, she comes by the door of his apartment and he sits inside and pisses out the door at her. If she likes the smell she comes by and sticks her head inside his apartment and pisses back at him.

Um, when you say apartment …?

They live inside little rock hollows, basically, and they’re very attached to their homes. That’s not to say that they don’t move from one to the next, but they’re very defensive creatures despite all the armor. They really like to hunker down and they have a strong preference for backing into tight places with their claws out and ready so they can defend themselves.

So when scientists started studying the mating habits, there was very little information about crustacean mating and how it worked. The anatomy had been investigated for a long time. At first the scientists couldn’t figure out how lobsters mated and no one was sure if the male lobster had a penis at all, and then it turned out that it had two.

That’s real vindication.

Yeah, so they knew the anatomy, but they still couldn’t figure out how the social part worked. Normally lobsters hate each other. If you put a male and female lobster in a tank with each other they start fighting right away and try to kill each other. In nature they have a pretty complicated set of procedures for interacting with each other that are designed to actually avoid real injury, so that a smaller lobster can immediately tell that a bigger lobster is dominant and get out of the way. But if the lobsters are evenly matched in a tank they just continue fighting and the whole thing escalates.

So one of the scientists I write about, Jella Atema, thought the female lobster might be emitting a pheromone to attract the male but it turns out to be exactly the opposite. They did these experiments where they set up a social situation in a 20-foot tank. The males would fight with each other to figure out who the dominant male was, and once he was proven dominant he would go around and beat up all the other lobsters every night. All the lobsters in the neighborhood would be dealt a daily dose of humiliation, both males and females. He’d kick them around and then go back and hang around his shelter, which was the best shelter in the tank, of course.

What happened then is that the females started to take up residence nearby and they would come by his shelter. Then one of them began an elaborate social ritual where she’d come calling to the door every day and eventually he would let her inside the shelter. Then she actually moved in, and it turns out she was ready to shed her shell at that time. So within 15 or 30 minutes of her molting the male approaches and turns her over and they copulate while she’s soft. Then after about a week, once her shell has hardened up again, she leaves without a backward glance. So they’ve pair-bonded for about two weeks. And then? The next female lobster shows up and moves in with the dominant male. And this goes on in sequence. The female lobsters are keeping tabs on each other to figure out who’s mating with the dominant male, and they wait until one of their sisters has done her business and then the next moves in. So they all take turns. It’s called serial monogamy.

It’s funny, sometimes people use specific mating habits of animals to prove a certain point about human sexuality, though I can’t imagine what group would claim lobsters as their example.

The Mormons might like it. But it’s not all at once. It’s in sequence, you wouldn’t be able to keep a harem going. The male just waits at home once he’s proven his dominance by beating up everyone every night, which really arouses the females. And it turns out they’re recognizing his smell, because he’s pissing in their faces all the time while they’re fighting.

They’re violent little creatures. What’s with all the aggression? And the pissing? They look so passive and harmless floating in those restaurant tanks.

Jella Atema set up a boxing ring in order to study lobster fights, and when he staged rematches on consecutive nights, the loser immediately recognized his former opponent and backed down, forfeiting the fight. It wasn’t that lobsters had become cowards — if the loser was paired with another lobster he would fight aggressively again. So something was going on and the lobsters were recognizing individual opponents that had beaten them before. Blindfolding the lobsters didn’t make any difference. So the scientists catheterized some lobsters, put these little tubes over their urine slots on their face and made a little urine bottle and measured outflow.

It turns out that the lobsters were accompanying their most punishing blows with intense squirts of piss in each other’s faces. The scientists actually charted the results, so clearly the smell is what they pick up on. The funny thing is that the winner was almost always the lobster that pissed first, the first one off the draw, like down at the OK Corral, but in this case whoever pissed first wins.

They realized that this pissing was going on in the bedroom, too. When the male lobster was fighting with everyone in the tank he was pissing in everyone’s face and when the females would come by they would piss in his face. The scientists think that the females were also pissing a drug at the male when they’re getting ready to molt. So after the females are satisfied that he’s the toughest one they would drug him to tone down his aggression, which puts him in the mood for courtship and then the females convince him to mate. So the males are out there fighting, but the females really choose which one they mate with. They’re in charge and they have this sisterhood deal where they’re basically cooperating so they all get to nail this one lobster who they’ve chosen.

In terms of simple outright aggression, lobsters are brutal. One guy in New Hampshire did an experiment to see if lobsters preyed on each other. He tethered a juvenile lobster to the bottom of the shallows so he couldn’t get away. Very quickly big lobsters showed up, and when they figured out that he was helpless, they attacked the young lobster, crushed him, and then ate him.

That’s not exactly the “Finding Nemo” version of lobster life. Talk about the arguments that organizations like PETA have put forth against killing and eating lobster.

PETA protests lobster fishing at various times, it’s one of their favorite little sideline things. I think a lot of what PETA does is worthwhile, because they’re opposed to the industrialized slaughter of animals. I also think there’s a coherent case to be made for vegetarianism. But if you’re going to eat meat, protesting against eating lobster is the last thing you should be doing. I mean, put it in perspective. If people could see how cows were being produced and dying for those burgers at McDonald’s, the lobster going in the pot would be a glorious example of humanely and appropriately prepared food.

Lobster is the perfect example of how meat should be produced and eaten. It’s the ultimate free-range, sustainably harvested and locally produced meat. And it’s healthier, as long as you don’t eat it with too much melted butter.

There’s been a lot of lobster writing this past summer. I didn’t see the piece, but apparently the novelist David Foster Wallace wrote a long feature about lobsters in the August issue of Gourmet magazine. Some of the quotes I saw indicated that he might not agree with your assessment.

I have to say, having read that piece, it made me wonder where his reputation for brilliance comes from. As far as I could tell, he got almost everything wrong he could about lobsters and lobstering. And he misses very interesting points, sometimes stumbling over them. He also just comes across as an arrogant snob. I guess he has a reputation as being a smart aleck, but I was just appalled.

He was assigned to write about the Maine lobster festival and most of the article is a big put-down. I mean, it’s true, the festival is kind of tacky. I’ve been there a few times. There are silly carnival rides and people eat fried dough and buy trinkets, but I mean it’s a festival. Lighten up! There are also fun things, like eating fresh lobster down by the sea, which your average tourist might not have another opportunity to do. There are cooking demonstrations; they have this cute parade down Main Street. Local people work hard to build floats for the parade. But David Foster Wallace is so busy being snooty, he writes, “These homemade floats in the parade are cheesy and boring.” Those are his exact words. I mean, of course they’re cheesy. They’re homemade!

And a lot of his facts are completely wrong. Like he says that lobstering is a warm-weather business — excuse me while I laugh very hard with a touch of bitterness in my voice while I remember the fact that half our catch was caught in nasty fall weather starting in October and November and the many days I spent in December and January and March in freezing cold conditions. Most Canadian lobstermen and a few Maine lobstermen only fish in winter. So he has no idea what he’s talking about. He basically can’t be bothered to find anything out, which is really kind of annoying.

But most of all he’s trying to earn all these big moral points by taking this stance about cruelty to lobsters. That view represents a misallocation of moral concern. People put all this worry on lobsters because they see them going in the pot. But these other meats we don’t see are treated much, much worse. He’s got this big spread in Gourmet magazine and he picks lobsters to write about and he’s capitalizing on our squeamishness and he doesn’t take the next step and say let’s consider what that means, which is that all animals that we eat die. He doesn’t consider that there is a spectrum of morality in the issue. It seems like a lazy and cowardly thing to do as a writer.

It’s the boiling alive part that gets a lot of people upset.

Well, there’s the ethics of actually killing the lobster, which is a separate issue. But scientists have studied lobsters pretty extensively and we know that lobsters don’t have the sort of pain receptors that mammals have, so we don’t even know if lobsters feel pain. If you’ve seen lobsters engaged in combat, they don’t exhibit pain behavior at times that you’d expect them to, like after losing a limb. And the movement of the lobster while in a pot of boiling water could be a standard stress response, the sort of escape reaction that occurs when they’re approached by a predator or see something above them in the water. They sense something’s wrong, and they try to get out of there. The movement itself is no proof whatsoever of pain, let’s put it that way.

Now, none of this is to say that there aren’t other neurological receptors that cause something akin to pain in lobsters. But even if they do feel pain, their nervous system is the equivalent of a mosquito or a housefly. And any meat you eat — especially most of the kinds of meat we eat — the question is not whether they feel pain or not, because you’re not going to find an animal that doesn’t have a self-protective neurological mechanism, so you’ve got to face this with everything.

The funny thing is that PETA often quotes Jella Atema saying, “I believe lobsters probably do feel pain.” But the rest of that quote, the quote in full, is “When we kill them for food we should do so quickly, but we should also honor them with thoughtful appreciation for what they have done for us. We should strive for this in all corners of our lives.” He eats lobster, he loves to eat lobster. PETA never points out that the man they’re quoting in defense of lobster liberation loves to eat lobster. Almost without exception the scientists I write about in the book, who spend hours and hours with lobsters, love to eat lobsters.

I think there’s a spiritual dimension in there about cooking lobster, believe it or not. To me, it’s an opportunity for us to reconnect with the web of life that sustains us, not that everyone’s going to want to take that opportunity. But that puts it into a different perspective than the way we usually think about cooking lobster.

How about ending up with a little practical advice? What’s the most humane way to kill a lobster?

You turn it upside down on a cutting board and take the largest kitchen knife you can find and plunge it straight into the bottom of its head and then quickly slap the knife down so it cuts through the middle of the head, through the nose and between the eyes. That’s the way Julia Child killed her lobsters and that’s how professional chefs kill their lobsters. It seems more gruesome but it’s very quick.

For people who don’t want to do that, there’s a more humane way to boil. You put the lobster in the freezer for 10 to 15 minutes before you boil them. It slows their metabolism way down and their reaction to being in the pot is much shorter. So that’s a good way for people who are a bit squeamish.

Christopher Dreher is a writer living in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

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