Why Cheap Lobsters Aren’t a Bargain

When delicacies becomes commonplace, will we be less inclined to drop them in a boiling pot?

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A sign advertising live lobsters for sale is displayed on the side of the road on July 21, 2012 in Portland, Maine. Lobstermen hope to make at least $4 a pound to turn a profit but prices this year have been as low as $1.25 a pound.

Who says global warming doesn’t have an upside? One of the unpredictable effects of changing sea temperatures appears to be a radical rise in lobster populations. As a result the price of lobster has plummeted to around $2 a pound. Yes, lobster is now cheaper than chicken or hamburger. And now the lobster industry is in the unexpected position of having to aggressively market the things, after lo these many years of selling them at luxury prices. It changes the way we think about lobster, both for good and bad.

(MORE: Lobster Is Now Cheaper Than Deli Meat)

First, the good: as I suggested in last week’s column, expense impacts our experience of food as anybody knows who has ever had their tasting menu turn to ashes, dreading the massive bill to come. I find that lobster tastes much, much better when it’s cheap. For one thing, you can eat more of it; and lobster is something that you need to eat a lot of. By this, I don’t mean that you ought to order four-pound lobsters, of the kind that boozy stockbrokers buy in bad steakhouses. Lobsters, like most animals prized for their delicacy, get coarser as they get older and a four-pound lobster is by no means young.

In contrast, a good one-pound Maine lobster is a wonder, tender and ephemerally briny in the most delectable way. But it doesn’t explode with flavor, like caviar, or fill you up, like prime rib. It needs to be eaten in quantity, and with abandon, to really enjoy it. Spaghetti carelessly loaded with a ton of lobster meat in a spicy fra diavalo sauce, an overheaped lobster roll, or a half dozen tails broiled like shrimp on an outdoor grill: these, in my opinion, anyway, are much more satisfying ways to eat lobster than dipping each little tiny forkful into butter, one prissy bite at a time.

(MORE: Lobster Prices Are at Record Lows, But Only in New England)

The newly careless consumption of lobster isn’t merely a freak of warming waters, by the way: it harks back to the bounty of the virgin American coasts, when lobsters were so plentiful that they were considered garbage, fit only for prison grub and workhouse victuals. The truth is that we have all been brainwashed when it comes to lobster, conditioned to think of them as a luxury food — the oceanic side of surf and turf, a tidy tail positioned next to filet mignon on the signature dish of the American high life.

Of course, as with beef, one can never talk about lobster without bringing up the issue of how it lives and die — the dark side of the crustacean glut. One of the reasons we allow ourselves to boil this particular animal alive is that it’s a special treat, an occasional, celebratory splurge. But what if it isn’t? With lobster as cheap as chicken,  do we still really feel okay with torturing the things to death?

(MORE: Fourchu Lobster: The Little Crustacean That Could)

The late David Foster Wallace, in his classic essay about lobsters, “Consider the Lobster,” said it best: “after all the abstract intellection, there remain the facts of the frantically clanking lid, the pathetic clinging to the edge of the pot. Standing at the stove, it is hard to deny in any meaningful way that this is a living creature experiencing pain and wishing to avoid/escape the painful experience.” Dropping them in boiling water or, worse still, broiling or grilling them alive, which people do all the time, requires a deadening of compassion, or even the idea of compassion. This might be a false, anthropomorphic empathy. Maybe, as seafood chefs are so wont to say, they don’t feel a thing. Many food experts insist that if you chop lobsters in the head with a knife it kills them instantly. But lobsters don’t have the same kind of nervous system we do. Maybe the knife just immobilizes them. Who the hell knows?

There’s a reason that chickens and pigs tend to be the victims of some of the most lurid examples of  abuse. They’re cheap. It’s hard to make a profit on chicken, and some producers do everything they possibly can to cut costs, and almost never “consider the chicken” in the process. I wonder if the same thing won’t happen on the lobster side. Not that it would be easy to make their treatment much worse: the stress the creatures feel in those bubbly tanks is the reason they are restrained with rubber bands. Those bands are the lobster equivalent of a padded cell.

Of course, all this comes from me in my pensive mode. When I go to the store later, or to a good lobster house, I’ll be sure to eat twice as much as usual. After all, it’s only half price.

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