Friday, September 27, 2013

On Death and Lobster

There's a spectrum of emotional response to the how-and-when circumstances of a person's death. At one end, there's sad-but-peaceful acceptance of what many would see as a favorable death - i.e. age 82, while sleeping. At the opposite end of the spectrum is sorrow-induced rage caused by what most would agree as an untimely or unfair death - i.e. age 24, choking on food/brain tumor/auto accident.

We also care about the planned death of the animals we eat (putrid, nasty slaughterhouse at one end, state-of-the-art, clean slaughterhouse at the other?). The Humane Slaughter Act, first signed in 1958 by Dwight Eisenhower, requires requires meatpackers to anesthetize or stun livestock prior to killing, except in the case of kosher slaughter. Animals are meant to be rendered insensible to pain prior to killing so that they won't suffer. Interestingly, the Act doesn't protect poultry, fish, or rabbits, a fact not lost on proponents of animal rights. It doesn't protect lobsters, either, an omission which fuels the debate on the best way to kill them.

People who cook lobster fall into one of two categories: stabbers or boilers. Professional cooks are mostly stabbers, but I think that might speak more to a predisposition for using knives than concern for animal welfare. Stabbers like to say that their way is more humane, taking the position that swiftly stabbing the lobster in the back of the head is faster and more painless than death by boiling water. Most home cooks self-report as boilers.* A rarely-acknowledged third category includes rubes who accidentally kill their lobsters before cooking them. No one I know advocates drowning lobsters as a means of killing them. But then again, up until this summer, I wouldn't have guessed it was possible to drown an animal that LIVES IN THE OCEAN.

Ever since he published the recipe in June 2012, I've been wanting to make Mark Bittman's Singapore Chili Lobster. Since co-council was required for an undertaking of this magnitude, I enlisted help from a friend. The sauce really is the heart of this dish, and the saucier's cooking skills and palate matter tremendously. I can't take any credit for the sauce - Ari took care of that on his own. What I can take credit for is the procurement of four live lobsters, being brave enough to handle them, and being gauche enough to drown them.

What happened is that after allowing the live lobsters some time to frolic on our patio (which they declined to do, either because they knew what was coming and weren't going to give us the satisfaction, or because they were scared of the dog), I thought they looked a little sad and dry. We consulted the internet which said we could make them a seawater bath, and since I had a container of sea salt and a beverage tub, I thought: Groovy! We can make a lobster pool! I made the pool and explained the situation to the lobsters as I set them into it. The lobsters seemed to be enjoying themselves - they become a lot more active in the water than they were on the patio. But after about five-ten minutes, there was no more splashing around. I picked one up to see how he was doing and he was totally limp.

Horrified, I called Dirk's. Now, my husband and I are in disagreement about how often Dirk gets this call. My bet is that he gets it several times a summer. I'm going to call him sometime and ask. Anyway, Dirk said lobsters drown in freshwater, and city water plus sea salt does not equal sea water. [The official answer sounded like this: Something something salty blood osmosis toxic drowning.] Dirk said all that happy moving around they were doing in the lobster pool was actually their death throes. Whoops. He also said to just boil them immediately and they'd be fine, and they were. Whew!

I still feel so badly about it mainly because, and I hate that I'm saying this, but the lobsters totally knew what was up. That's what I took the time to explain it to them, that the pool was going to be fun. They knew otherwise. Next time I cook lobsters, I'm going to have to stab them, or secure co-council who will.

* This raises the possibility of validity problems in my survey, as respondents may have lied or exaggerated about their behavior in order to appear more humane, or under-report the severity or frequency of lobster-killing behavior in order to minimize their problems. In short, the author acknowledges the possibility that respondents claiming to be boilers may actually be stabbers.

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