It’s hard enough to live a virtuous life without this shit, I can tell you. Maybe I had better explain.
Shortly after Christmas, my family received a box marked “Open Immediately.” We usually get one or two of these every holiday season, and the legend advises us that something perishable is contained within, requiring refrigeration or some other intervention to prevent catastrophe.
This one contained four two pound lobsters, courtesy of my brother-in-law, so the shippers weren’t kidding around. They (the lobsters, not the shippers) were masterfully packed in styrofoam and icebags, but still wriggled a little, which was encouraging; dead lobsters are like dead men: don’t eat them. Further refrigeration of any duration was out of the question; these critters had to be consumed that night, for several reasons. First of all, they were unlikely to survive much longer. They had already endured a series of affronts sufficient to dismay even the least sentient of animals — plucked from their watery world, shoved into a tiny crate and then hurled to an altitude of 30,000 feet in the dark — it’s a kind of hell, really, and one can only wonder what effect going from 100 feet or more beneath the sea to five miles in the thin air would have on one, but intuition suggests that that it must be pretty beastly.
Second, no one wants to confront the notion that each time you open the refrigerator door, you will be addressed by dazed crustaceans waving their pincers at you in mute protest, or confront the possibility that they have clawed their way into the coleslaw and tried to make a meal of it.
Still, worse awaited. I had pretty much abandoned the whole idea of cooking lobsters about thirty years ago after a particularly horrible experience which left me deeply scarred. A friend and I, after our usual weekend round of golf, often stopped at a local market that sold lobsters at deeply discounted prices; there was some kind of lobster glut going on and we took full advantage of it, as we were poor as churchmice at the time. Usually we bought four small lobsters which we then dunked in boiling water for about twelve minutes and then scarfed down with corn on the cob, a gallon or so of butter, and several flagons of ice cold beer. This was for us a kind of luxury we generally could not access, as we subsisted mainly on chicken wings, Doritos and 2 liter bottles of Coke.
On this occasion, however, the market was out of small lobsters, but still retained a five pound monster that they were eager to get rid of. We happily snapped it up at some bargain price and retired to his kitchen, where I presided as lobster-cooker in chief. Immediately I realized that we had a problem.
This big boy was only barely smaller than the largest pot my friend could dig out from his collection of second-hand cookware. Normally, one can boil the water and plunge the lobsters in head first, which kills them very quickly and efficiently, but I sensed that this was going to be a different kettle of fish, literally. Sure enough, when I grabbed the Goliath of the seas and held him over the pot, he began gesticulating wildly with his forearms and claws, wriggling his antennae in a highly agitated manner, and generally making it clear that he wasn’t going without a struggle.
Nor did he. When I finally swallowed hard and jammed him head-first into the pot, he wedged his claws against the bottom and the sides, managing to keep his head out of the caldron for what seemed an eternity, until he finally weakened, allowing me to push him far enough down to get the lid on. Even then, a sudden thrash of his largish tail sent the lid flying across the kitchen, and, once I had retrieved and replaced it, I had to weigh it down with a substantial saucepan to keep it on. A kind of horrible thrashing accompanied all this, and I swore later that I heard shrieks.
From that day on, I determined that any further lobster I ate would be dispatched from this life by someone else, well out of my sight and hearing.
Actually, this was not the most horrible death of a crustacean I had ever witnessed. Some time later, I found myself in Hong Kong in the grand dining room of the Peninsula Hotel, which at the time was the only Peninsula Hotel in the world, and proud of its reputation as the most luxurious hostelry in all of Hong Kong, which sported several eye-popping examples of highest-end lodgings. The carpet joints of Las Vegas could not hold a candle to them for their level of personal service; labor was cheap in Hong Kong; and it sneered at the pretensions to comfort of that era’s crop of top-tier stops: the Dolder Grand and the Baur au Lac (Zurich), the Beverly Hills and the Bel Air (well…), The Danielli and Cipriani (Venice), the Connaught and Savoy ( London), the Plaza Athenee and the Meurice (Paris). While these places were great in their own way, they could not compare in perfection, as they all observed some notion of gentil restraint, which operated in Hong Kong the same way that charity did, which is to say, not at all.
Yet only in the hotels of Hong Kong could one get a bad meal. Real estate was so precious there (and still is) that no eatery, noble or mean, could long survive without a degree of excellence seldom achieved elsewhere, unless it had a captive audience, and most hotels could then count on a certain amount of occidental xenophobia that guaranteed their restaurants a reasonable clientele. The Peninsula was an exception; its dining room was one of the great temples to cuisine in the region, and I was privileged to witness one of its singular spectacles: Drunken Prawns.
My hosts had installed me at this Babylon in a suite of basketball-court proportions, with drapes that opened and shut at the touch of a button, an assortment of soaps that beggared a Paris apothecary, attendants to every need twenty-four hours a day, and what might have been a genuine Renoir sketch in my bathroom, which was larger than my New York apartment (the bathroom, not the sketch. We seem to be having trouble with misplaced clauses here).
My hosts decreed that we would dine in this Mecca of Oriental delight, and to this I went, astonished by a series of dishes that were beyond compare. I had never been in the Far East before, and was unaware of the skill that had been developed and applied after so many uninterrupted centuries of famine and plenty. Then they brought out the shrimp.
Briefly, what they do is this:
1. Pour several pounds of prawns a half a foot long that are so fresh they are still kicking into a big glass bowl. (The misplaced modifiers here have been edited several times already and still defy the laws of grammar; I give up. )
2. Fill bowl with very expensive cognac very quickly and slam a glass lid on top. Wow. Shrimp breathe through their gills. Immersing them in a metabolic poison of this severity, and compelling them to inhale and drown in it, until their equivalent of lungs have been seared raw, causes them to leap about in a most impressive manner, creating a kind of brandy-froth on the top of the bowl. When the acrobatics finally subside:
3. Feed them one at a time through a small aperture into a great brass steamer until they turn suitably pink. I think they’re dead once they go in, but who knows?
Talk about cruel food.
But here I was, compelled to deal with these four lobsters still weakly waving lobster semaphore at me, and nothing to do about it but press on. First of all, there was the question of how to cook them. Aficionados will advise us that the only way to cook a lobster is to steam it. I disagree. There are two acceptable ways, and one that is unacceptable, which is to do what I did thirty years earlier, and boil it. There is no reason to boil a lobster. It’s like boiling prime rib. It’s edible, but its not prime rib. But you can steam it, and then split it longitudinally, and then broil it. Some other time on this technique, whose salient benefit is that it allows you to stuff the cavity with buttered crab meat to produce a dish fit for an emperor, called Lobster Coleman, after the founder of the Philadelphia Bookbinder family.
I elected to steam the lobster. First ethical decision. If you steam the lobster without killing it first, it’s going to die horribly, or so people say. You can’t plunge its head into a pot of boiling water. You just drop it into the steamer, cover and let it suffer. Now, many concerned people insist that the lobster be killed first with a practice known as “pithing,” in which you plunge a wide sharp knife into the lobster directly where the tail meets the head. I do not know how to do this, and the whole idea brings back images of the botched beheading of Cromwell in “The Tudors.” I do not know that the lobster’s lot is improved in any way by stabbing it repeatedly in some hope that you will sever its spinal cord, nor do I feel much like playing D’Artagnan with a carving knife — so I conveniently leave what remains of my conscience in a cold dark room where this sort of thing is concerned.
With no mishaps, the lobster ultimately arrived at the table, ably accompanied by the traditional cole slaw, drawn butter, corn on the cob and iced beer. Nothing left to do but crack and, dip and chew. Without a doubt, between us and the lobster, we got the better of the deal, but I confess to some small twinge of guilt about the whole thing. In a world where baby veals are penned up in darkness, chickens jammed together in enormous wire drumstick factories and geese force-fed corn until their livers threaten to break through their skins, a little bit of lobster cruelty may not seem so heartless, but there is that whole karma thing, and — oh, to hell with it. Pass the corn. And thank you, Stephen.