Relay: Lobster, Seafood’s New Everyman

I was 18, and reared on the idea that lobster was special, kind of like the champagne of seafood

When I was growing up in Pittsburgh I worked one college summer as a waitress at an enormous restaurant on the New Jersey shore called Zaberer’s, which was run by a seriously tanned man who grandly called himself “The Host of the Coast.” The main attractions there were lobster — steamed lobster, stuffed lobster, lobsters everywhere — and “Zaber-ized” cocktails served in glasses the size of bathroom sinks. I was 18, and reared on the idea that lobster was special, kind of like the champagne of seafood, second only to caviar, and watching those people come from near and far to strap on a plastic bib and eat these things only underscored the thought.

They’d probe every corner of the shell and literally suck every teeny tiny bit of meat out of every single delicate leg, grabbing my hand if I tried to take away their plate because I mistakenly thought they were done. They’d pull the meat out of the claws and pull the cracked shell apart and peer inside so intently I wanted to hand them a loupe. They’d pull off the top of the main shell like they were lifting the hood of a car and then raise the lobster’s exposed innards to their mouth as I looked on, thinking, “Oh no. . . . You’re not going to . . . oh boy . . . eat that greenish-yellow stuff too, are you?”

After that, I needed a cocktail. Zaber-ized.

I only mention this because I’m not sure if you’ve seen the price of lobster lately at the store, but the prices suggest it has turned into the Everyman of seafood. Restaurants will still gouge you for one. But a sign I pass on my drive to work brags “Lobster 4 for $58.” The price at Citarella Monday was $14.99 a pound, or $5 cheaper than some shrimp, $10 to $15 cheaper than fresh tuna or halibut or some steaks, and just a few dollars more than a pound of sliced turkey meat will set you back at the deli. Seeing all this reminded me of a magazine colleague who flew to Bali on the spur of the moment once because he saw the Ritz-Carlton there was offering $99 rooms and, he later told me, he realized “I can’t afford to stay home!”

If lobster is this cheap compared to other fresh food, the question is not whether we should be eating more lobster. The question is how can we afford not to?

It seems crazy. And I’m not sure why or when this happened. A once-homely vegetable like kale is having a renaissance. Avocado toast is showing up everywhere though it’s also messy to make. I swear to God, I have tried to like chia seeds. I really have. But it’s like eating sand.

Lobster, on the other hand, is totally delicious. It’s also easy to cook. It can be boiled, broiled, steamed, grilled, poached in butter, even microwaved, which I did not know until recently. (The instructions say be sure to poke some air holes in the carapace or that yellow stuff will explode all over your . . . never mind.) There’s lobster rolls, lobster quesadillas, lobster ravioli, lobster earrings (kidding). Literally 100 uses for lobster.

But the mechanics and ethos of eating lobster are, well . . . complicated. That’s the answer that came up in conversation with a couple of seafood shop workers I talked to over the weekend. One grocer told me some people seem to think serving lobster at dinner parties is a quick way to get friends to hate you, because it still seems posh to some. Another fish seller blamed lobster’s unpopularity compared to other seafood he sells on people’s ever-shortening attention spans. Lobster, he said, is too much work to eat.

The other thing, of course, is something David Foster Wallace touched on in his famous essay “Consider the Lobster”: People struggle with killing a lobster themselves, or even feeling directly responsible for their deaths. And for whatever reason, that’s a moral dilemma they don’t feel when they’re chowing on a burger or picking up their fresh slaughtered chickens at Iacono’s, though you can see the chickens right there, running all around the yard.

Which reminds me of another story another friend told me once about how he and a girlfriend actually broke up because of a lobster.

He was a sportswriter and she flew with him to Australia for a vacation before the Sydney Olympics. My pal really liked this woman and paid for their first-class flights, the whole trip, hoping to have a romantic getaway. Once in Sydney, they decided on their first night to go to a fancy restaurant on the harbor and passed a big lobster tank as they walked to their seats. My friend said he was already in a sort of reverie even before he cracked open the menu he’d just been given.

“I think I’m going to have the lobster!” he said, eyes bright.

“Oh no you’re not,” she replied.

He knew she was into cat and dog rescues. But lobsters? Come on.

“Don’t do this to me,” he said. “I want the lobster! I’m going to have the lobster. Why can’t I have the lobster?”

“Because” she shot back, “I made eye contact with them!”

Johnette Howard is a reporter for The Star.