Lobster Massacre: How Do You Kill Yours?
Forgive me if the title of this post strikes you as tasteless. But if you had been in my kitchen last night, you would agree that any other descriptor would be a euphemism at the very least. Despite having covered my counter tops and floors with numerous sheets of old newspaper, lobster juices and guts and gore insinuated themselves into crooks and crevices that I didn’t even know existed. And that’s not even taking into account the macabre collection of cleavers, picks and mallets.
Taking a few days off in the Scottish highlands, I found myself the lucky recipient of a lobster windfall. A friend of an acquaintance had put me in touch with a retired sea captain near Elgin, a medieval town on the North Eastern coast of Scotland and about a two-hour drive from the isolated glen I was ensconced in. The wife of said retiree had bought him a lobster boat two years ago, fed up of having a full time husband. He now fishes for lobsters and crab in the summer months when these crustaceans bath in the seasonally warm waters of Moray Firth (Linne Mhoireibh in Gaelic), an inlet which covers a stretch of 500 miles of coastline.
When I received the four lobsters I’d ordered plus the two free ones the capt’n had given me “to try”, I prepared my make shift slaughterhouse. A word of advice to the seafood novice – never buy/accept or eat a “dead” raw lobster or crab. The reason being is that they start to decompose almost immediately upon death and become toxic due to high levels of ammonia produced in the process. Seeing as my “bugs” were very much alive and kicking beneath a thick blanket if sinewy seaweed in the roomy bucket they arrived in, I placed them in the freezer to relax. Now before you send that irate email my way – I assure you I am thoroughly researched up on humane killing methods – this certainly wasn’t the first time I was to stand eye to eye with a lobster with a cleaver in my hand.
Those familiar with David Foster Wallace’s protracted consideration of the fate of the lobster in Gourmet magazine, will probably have grappled with the moral implications of committing murder in one’s kitchen. I, however, have done no grappling, and this is precisely because I don’t believe that killing my own dinner (within reason) presents me with any moral dilemma. Unlike the many millions of Americans who order takeaways, cook up Tyson chickens or wolf down Big Macs aplenty, I knew my meal had as happy an existence as it was capable of in the wild – not stuck in a feedlot or excruciatingly cramped chicken shed. And now, I was going to know exactly how it was going to die.
As lobsters are cold-blooded creatures, their internal temperature acclimatizes to the environment around them. Placing them in the freezer for 20 – 30 minutes merely slows down their metabolism rendering them drowsy, less sensitive and therefore less likely to lurch at you menacingly. But it doesn’t harm them in any way. The most popular and certainly less hands-on way of killing lobsters is to throw them into boiling water. But I don’t do this. Admittedly the reason for this is only in part because of humane considerations. Rightly or wrongly, I suspect that some of the flavor from the lobsters leach out when they are suspended in a vat of boiling water and that their meat becomes waterlogged. Rather, I prefer to hold each lobster belly down on a chopping board with a hand firmly steadying its body then delve a large kitchen knife or cleaver directly into the cross where its heads meet its body and cut straight down to slice the head into two. Despite this gruesome description, the method causes lobsters the least amount of pain, well, depending on which report/ study you read. That’s if, of course, you get through the copious literature on whether or not lobsters acutally feel pain or not. (The Atlantic just last month summarized the debate succinctly, although not necessarily comprehensively).
The British are divided on the matter. A research team in the UK, in March of this year, published findings indicating that crabs do feel pain. But fellow Brit, Peter Fraser, disagrees in the New Scientist. New Zealanders are so convinced that crustaceans are receptive to pain that they are given protection under the country’s animal protection laws. As for the Italians, they too have a softer side. In 2005, the town of Reggio Emilia banned the boiling of lobsters alive. And in the US, scientists seems to have a more breezy attitude. The Wall Street Journal quotes Diana Cowan, senior scientist at the Lobster Conservancy in Maine as saying, “If something really bothers them (lobsters), they drop their parts. If you drop them in boiling water and they don’t drop their parts, maybe they don’t feel it.”
As far as I’m concerned, we should just assume that lobsters, like the pigs, chickens, cattle, deer etc that we readily consume, can feel pain and do our best to eliminate as much of it as we reasonably can. While it’s acknowledged by many that lobsters have a decentralized nervous systems and therefore register pain in isolated parts of their body, the method I’ve cited above deactivates most of the nerve ganglia and the lobster dies virtually instantly. I won’t lie to you; you will likely still see the legs and claws twitch even though the lobster is essentially halved. Think of a fly that you’ve swatted.
At any rate, it seems to me that the greatest injury one can commit against a living creature is to bring about its death in vain. By this argument, the ultimate monument to the life of a lobster is to entrust it with a mighty purpose in death. By this I mean you best cook up a damn fine feast. And I certainly did. Three of the lobsters were split, dotted with a herb, garlic and chili butter and broiled until cooked to succulent perfection. The remaining three were chopped up and turned into a flavorsome, fiery curry and a Cantonese style stir fry tossed with ginger, scallion, soy and sesame oil.
If the graveyard of licked-clean, naked shells I was left with isn’t reassurance enough that the lobsters were massacred with just purpose, I don’t know what is.