"There's something moving in here, boss," said Benny, my FedEx guy, who calls everybody boss, as he dumped six cartons at the foot of the stairs leading up to my apartment.
As I wrestled each protesting lobster from its package, and as it became clear that I was ill-equipped to maintain discipline among this unruly brood, I started to panic. Sure, ordering the monsters had been easy: Just click on the little Java-script animated crustacean, enter a credit card number and go back to playing Minesweeper. But what was I actually going to do with the wriggling lobsters that now covered my entire kitchen table -- which in Manhattan is a euphemism for "the one table in the middle of my apartment that serves as kitchen, dining room, office and lobster-execution table."
These days, few animals are slaughtered in the home (my home, at least). We buy most of our meat dead and butchered, wrapped in plastic on little Styrofoam trays that leave no evidence that this was ever an animal.
But a lobster must be alive at the time of cooking because shellfish meat decomposes rapidly once dead and therefore must be killed by the cook. It brings us face-to-face with what we 're doing; there is no middleman to insulate us.
Happily enough for us lobster-lovers, it is now possible, on less than 24 hours notice, to have live lobsters shipped from the fishing villages of New England to anywhere in America. There are already more than 30 purveyors of online lobsters, ranging from the tony Dean & Deluca food emporium in New York to The Lobster Guy in Port Judith, R.I. Even with FedEx shipping factored in, mail-order lobster prices are surprisingly low (by lobster standards, that is), thanks to the intense competition. Prices change daily, but today you can expect to get four 1.5-pound lobsters delivered for as little as $70. (Prices are even lower in summer when lobsters are more plentiful.)
What better way to celebrate New Year's than with lobster? I hate turkey -- to the extent that it's possible to hate something that has no taste -- and I hate crowds. So forget Times Square, I'll kill a crustacean instead.
All of the purveyors reviewed here can deliver lobsters before New Year's Eve if orders are placed on or before Dec. 29 (for delivery on the 30th). FedEx doesn't deliver on the 31st, so you'll have to baby-sit the lobster for an extra day if you want it to join you at your New Year's party.
As I trolled cyberspace for the perfect lobster, I could barely keep the names of the companies straight: Lobster Stuff, Lobsters Online, Lobster Net, Lobster Gram, Lobster Direct, Lobster Express, Lively Lobsters. I was concerned primarily with freshness and flavor, but I also considered customer service and packing-and-shipping procedures.
To narrow the field, I spoke to trusted sources in the fish business, solicited customer recommendations and eliminated any company that was merely a reseller of someone else's lobsters (all the major gourmet online food shops offer beautiful lobsters -- but you'll pay double what a New England supplier charges for the same item without the fancy packaging).
There are limits to how much lobster even The Fat Guy can eat, so I called for backup. Matt Seeber, the only professional chef who regularly returns my calls, was over within the hour armed with a 10-inch chef's knife and a goofy smile. "Boil some water, and lots of it," he commanded.
While the water was boiling, Matt and I tried to generate a list of objective criteria for judging and comparing the lobsters. My wife joked, "How about a lobster race?" Then, quickly realizing that nothing was sacred to us, she tried to retract the suggestion.
For a little professional background, I called Robert Steneck of the University of Maine and learned that there is much to love about my lobsters, from their highly stylized mating rituals (yes, lobsters engage in courtship and actual belly-to-belly intercourse) to their bizarre habit of "throwing a claw" when attacked.
Then it was time to kill them.
I held a struggling lobster above the bubbling cauldron. He clicked and squeaked. I hesitated. "Just drop him in," said Matt. "You've got to do him yourself, man. If you can't kill him, you've got no right to eat him."
So I called Steneck again. "Please tell me lobsters don't feel pain," I pleaded.
"I don't know if that's knowable," he explained patiently, "but certainly lobsters are unlike humans. They don't have centralized brains, they don't remember much and while they definitely feel stimuli and respond to them, like when the lights come on and you squint your eyes, it's not clear that they experience pain in the way we think of it."
Armed with that ambiguous answer, I steeled myself and again held the lobster over the pot. The lobster's cries for help (it not only squeaked but also vibrated) were the last thing holding me back, so Matt popped a Neil Diamond CD into the stereo. As the Jewish Elvis sang "Far, we've been traveling far," I plunged the lobster to its death.
It was delicious, as were all the lobsters I ordered. The variation from lobster to lobster was minor. The same species (Homarus Americanus) is harvested from Nova Scotia to North Carolina, and there's no way to tell the difference unless you're a marine biologist. So even though Lobsters-Online.com, for example, sells highly touted Maine lobsters, they are not appreciably better than the slightly less expensive lobsters I got from farther south.
The most reasonably priced lobsters came from The Lobster Guy and Lively Lobsters. If I had to pick a favorite, I'd give a slight subjective edge to the lobsters from The Lobster Guy. Full of life and character, these lobsters tasted the same as all the others but had the baddest attitudes -- a strong indicator of freshness.
Lively Lobsters, in its favor, has truly exceptional customer service (I made several anonymous phone calls to every vendor, wherein I asked stupid questions like "Will the lobsters get along with my dog?"). But ultimately, I suggest you get up-to-the-minute pricing and choose that way (remember to consider the cost of shipping, though, so you don't wind up paying more for a $15 lobster than for a $17 one).
There was likewise no taste difference between male and female; although adult males have bigger claws, only the females, of course, have roe inside, which some consider a delicacy. And contrary to popular belief, the smaller ones taste exactly the same as the larger ones.
Every company shipped via FedEx in similar packaging: a cardboard box insulated with Styrofoam, lobsters nestled in with frozen gel-packs and sometimes seaweed. All the lobsters arrived alive and most mail-order companies guarantee live arrival. They're sturdy beasts -- at one point, one of them made a run for the border, dove off the table and crashed onto the hard floor. He was undamaged, albeit confused.
Are these direct-to-consumer lobsters better than the lobsters you'd get at a fish store or supermarket? To find out, I bought two lobsters in New York, one from a top Manhattan fish market and another out of a tank at a neighborhood supermarket. The fish market lobster was of high quality. It was perhaps not quite as lively as the online lobsters, but there was no noticeable difference in flavor. The price was similar, even factoring in the FedEx shipping costs. But remember, New York is a major Northeastern city -- you'd have trouble finding lobsters this good at even the best fish market in a Midwestern city.
The supermarket lobster, however, was an inferior specimen. If I hadn't put it out of its misery, it probably would have expired within the hour anyway. Judging from its tough, constricted meat, it had been starving and feeding off its own tissue for days. It didn't taste like much of anything.
There's also the question of convenience. On the plus side, online-ordered lobsters get delivered right to your door. On the minus side, someone has to wait for the FedEx guy to show up and you have to plan your meal a day or two in advance.
Overall, I preferred the online lobsters because I liked knowing exactly where my lobsters came from. I don't want lobsters that have been penned up and subjected to the maritime equivalent of factory farming. I want to buy lobsters from a guy with a ratty old boat and a damp cigarette hanging out of his mouth, who calls everybody "Captain" and pronounces yes as "aye."
I was hoping Capt. Tim Hadrigan, aka the Lobster Guy, would be that man, but his boat is new and clean ("I'm a pisser for cleanliness on my boat," as he put it). He insisted on calling me "Mr. Shaw," and he doesn't even smoke.
Nonetheless, he does personally go out on a boat and catch lobsters, and he is a Red Sox fan who hates the Yankees and applies guilt by association to all New Yorkers. His boat, the Courtney Elizabeth, sails for three or four days at a time, accumulating lobsters in a saltwater tank through which 2,000 gallons of seawater are pumped every minute.
Capt. Tim is a second-generation lobsterman -- his father has been in the business for 40 years -- and he is therefore full of stories. He told me that when he was a boy and his family was poor and on food stamps, the other kids at school had peanut butter and jelly sandwiches while Capt. Tim had to eat lobster because PB&J was too expensive.
In addition to plain old live lobsters, there are several other lobster purchase options. One of the most interesting ways to get them is as part of a prepackaged clambake. The Lobster Guy, for example, sells a clambake that comes in its own pot ready to steam. It includes two live lobsters, a couple of pounds of live steamer clams, delicious pork sausage wrapped in flounder filets, corn, potatoes and onions. Just add water and steam for about an hour. You can even order lobster bibs and a cool lobster-patterned tablecloth.
If you're just too squeamish, you can get your lobsters pre-killed and cooked, shipped frozen from MaineLobsters. Although the frozen meat is not quite as tender as the fresh-cooked meat of a live lobster, it's still very good. And if you're using the meat in a chowder or lobster salad or other recipe, the difference is hard to notice.
For the truly convenience minded, there's also the option of purchasing a whole stuffed lobster from Lobster Stuff. These beautiful lobsters come split, with the claws cracked, and filled with a lobster-and-crumb stuffing. You just stick them in the oven and bake for half an hour.
To cook live lobsters, the simplest method is boiling. Use the largest stockpot you own, it should be big enough to accommodate several whole lobsters. Ryan Bartholomew of Lively Lobsters recommends cooking a 1.5-pound lobster (the most common online-order size) for 12 minutes. To test for doneness, Julia Child suggests, "Pull off one of the little legs, and suck out the meat -- if it's done, the lobster's done."
Lobsters aren't cheap, so it pays to use every bit of the animal when cooking. Matt's recipe for lobster chowder uses the claws for meat and the bodies for stock while allowing for separate consumption of the tails. Sure, there's some meat in the body as well, but as Leslie Land, author of the "Yankee New England Cookbook," writes, "It is almost impossible to pick out enough lobster body meat to get fat on before you die of boredom."
Chef Matt's "Fat Guy" Lobster Chowder
(Makes enough for two fat guys as a meal, or for four as an appetizer.)
Separate the tails and claws from four live 1.5-pound lobsters. Boil them until the meat is just cooked, approximately four minutes for the tails and eight minutes for the claws (measured from the time the water comes back up to the boil). Serve the lobster tails immediately, or refrigerate for use in lobster salads or other recipes. Remove and chop the claw meat, and refrigerate for use in the chowder.
Remove all innards from the lobster body, setting aside the roe if the lobster is a female. Rinse the bodies thoroughly.
In a 4-quart or bigger pot, place the bodies, a peeled and quartered onion, a peeled and roughly chopped carrot, a chopped celery stalk, and, if available, half a small fennel bulb. Cover with approximately 2 quarts of the cooking water from the claws and tails (or use plain water). Do not add salt (lobster is naturally salty). Bring to a boil and simmer for three hours.
Strain the stock, discard the solids, and place the liquid back on high heat. Reduce until you have about two cups of thick, rich lobster stock.
Add an equal amount of heavy cream, two diced boiled potatoes and the lobster claw meat. Bring back to the boil, heat through and serve.