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Coming to Grips With Lobster

I ate my first lobster last night, and I have a lot of questions, people.For one: Who decided these things were not only edible, but a delicacy? I mean, the bits of meat I clumsily extracted tasted pretty good. But take a good look at a lobster: If you'd never seen one before, how would you guess s...

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I ate my first lobster last night, and I have a lot of questions, people.

Grilled Maine lobster, courtesy Flickr user Dana Moos

For one: Who decided these things were not only edible, but a delicacy? I mean, the bits of meat I clumsily extracted tasted pretty good. But take a good look at a lobster: If you'd never seen one before, how would you guess such a bug-like, intimidatingly clawed creature could be food? Wouldn't you have to be really poor and hungry to bother trying to catch, cook and crack it?

Well, yes, actually. According to the University of Maine's Lobster Institute, lobster was considered a "pauper's food" in early 17th-century New England, so undesirable that legend has it even indentured servants turned it down (some food historians doubt that). Though Europeans historically enjoyed eating these and other shellfish, there was more demand for lobster fertilizer than lobster thermidor among the early American colonists. But the taste grew on folks, apparently, because by the 1800s lobster meat was considered a delicacy, spawning a commercial lobster industry along New England's coastline. Now it's often the most expensive item on a restaurant's menu, the thing you jokingly threaten to order when someone else is paying. ("Oh, the meal's on you? Well, I'll have the lobster!")

My own lobster encounter took place rather accidentally, at a clambake. (Not a real one on a beach, but a nice affair involving a grill on a fine old D.C. restaurant's patio.) I was fully prepared to eat clams, and did, but I hadn't anticipated a grilled lobster landing on my plate for the next course of the set menu. If I had, I would have done some Googling first to find out the protocol. As it was, I was forced to admit that I—who had just been explaining how much I missed New England, where I lived for more than two decades—had never eaten a whole lobster. (Or any crustacean, for that matter, until my little crab tutorial in Baltimore last year.)

Which leads to my other questions: What, pray tell, is the black goo that poured out of the tail section when I pried it open? It looked like an oil spill on my plate, freckled with tiny spheres. Eggs, I presume? I always thought those were red or orange colored. The other people at my table were baffled, too, although the waiter didn't seem alarmed. I opted not to eat the black stuff, but was I missing out? Was the roe somehow blackened from being grilled? Or did it mean the lobster was undercooked, as someone suggested to me later?

Also, assuming that those were eggs, was it bad to be eating a female? Shouldn't she still be in the ocean, making more lobsters? I've read that in Maine, where my dinner originated, it's illegal to harvest an "egged female," but I'm not clear on what that means, exactly.

Lobster lovers, open your traps and enlighten me, please...
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About Amanda Bensen

Amanda Bensen is a former assistant editor at Smithsonian and is now a senior editor at the Nature Conservancy.

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