Thursday, October 4, 2012

Caveman Delicacy

A local deli offers a lobster salad sandwich that looked too good to pass up today. So, as much as I like to fight for my lobster meat by assaulting chitinous carapaces, today I merely unwrapped a sandwich.

Our ancestors must have been very hungry to have discovered the sweet taste of lobster, because in truth the ugly critter doesn’t look especially appetizing. Nevertheless, excavations in a cave at Pinnacle Point, South Africa, show that early modern humans were cracking them and other shellfish open 164,000 years ago, tossing the shells aside – the (continuing) human careless way with garbage is a great boon to paleontologists. Neanderthal sites in coastal Europe 110,000 years old also reveal a taste for any and all shellfish.

Much more recently, the ancient Romans liked lobster. A Roman cookbook survives that often is attributed to Marcus Gavius Apicius, but is actually only named after him. Apicius, who lived in the first century AD, was a notorious gourmet; dinner at his house was definitely the invitation to wangle if you could. The anonymous authors of the cookbook describe how to make the meals he served up to guests. The recipe for lobster is as follows:

[399] Locustum Elixam cum Cuminato
Real boiled lobster is cooked with cumin sauce and, by right, throw in some whole [illegible], pepper, lovage, parsley, dry mint, a little more cumin, honey, vinegar, broth, and if you like, add some bay leaves and malobathron.

That sounds pretty spicy, even without the illegible mystery ingredient, but I suppose you don’t need a written recipe for “boil, crack open, dip in butter.” We don’t know if the Romans did that, too. If so, they didn’t mention it in any surviving manuscript.

Despite this long history on the menu, until modern refrigeration and handling in the 20th century, lobster was a purely coastal dish, because it doesn’t travel well. Without being cooked or frozen, lobster becomes inedible very quickly after it dies, and it dies very easily in transport. Accordingly, while the dish wasn’t found inland for most of history, lobsters were dirt cheap at the shoreline – literally dirt cheap: Native Americans fertilized crops with them.  Early 19th century New England employment contracts for household servants specified that they would be fed the lowly dish lobster no more than twice per week. All that turned around when long-distance transport became possible but expensive – cost always gives panache to a product.

For the past century, lobster has been a delicacy, and, as human populations grow while lobster yields don’t, it only can get more expensive in the future. Because lobsters are cannibals – they eat each other insouciantly – attempts at farming them (aquaculture) haven’t been commercially successful. So, their numbers seem likely to remain limited to about their current level.

Though in general there is little particularly enviable about being a lobster, they do have one intriguing characteristic. As far as we know, lobsters are immortal. Oh, they can and do die – our chefs often see to that – but they don’t senesce.  80-year-old lobsters are as vital, healthy, and fertile as two-year-old ones; they are just larger. Lobsters keep growing for as long as they live. The largest on record was caught off Nova Scotia. It was 106 centimeters (41 inches), 20.15 kilos (44.4 pounds), and more than 100 years old, maybe 200. No doubt there are bigger ones down there. Presumably, disease, parasites, accidents, and top-line predators (sharks, squids) catch up with them eventually, but they don’t age in the usual sense.

As previously mentioned, I enjoy battling with the shell for the meat inside, though this can lead to awkward moments. Take one example. There is a local restaurant called Sammy’s that, true to its secretive origins as a speakeasy, has no sign or any exterior indication it is a restaurant other than the cars parked in the lot. Its specialties are steak and lobster. Some years ago there, my sister squeezed at the base of a lobster claw with the cracker. The claw popped off, sailed across the room, and dropped perfectly into the coat pocket of another diner, who didn’t notice. She spent the rest of the meal trying to decide whether to tell him. (She didn’t.) I’ll leave the various ways this might have played out later with the owner of the coat to the imagination of the reader.

The sandwich is now several hours gone, but the image of Neanderthals enjoying a lobster and clam bake lingers. It is somehow pleasing.

Teenagers from Outer Space Plan to Use the Earth to Grow Giant Lobsters. (Wisely, studio marketers left the big crustacean out of the trailer.)

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