Trevor Corson's (old) Lobster Blog

This is the old Lobster Blog of Trevor Corson, author of the worldwide pop-science bestseller The Secret Life of Lobsters. This blog is no longer active; it serves as an archive of Trevor's posts on lobsters from 2004-2006. Visit Trevor at his new website, TrevorCorson.com.

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Name: Trevor Corson
Location: New York, NY, United States

Saturday, December 24, 2005

How to Kill a Lobster, Dedicated to David Foster Wallace

Since this post was written in December 2005, a lot has happened. David Foster Wallace committed suicide. And the way lobsters are sold, killed, and prepared is changing dramatically -- in How to Kill a Lobster, Redux, I discuss some of the freaky high-tech methods that have been devised for dispatching lobsters in the future. -Trevor

People don't like the idea of putting a live lobster in the pot. I am frequently asked about the most humane way to cook a lobster. I agree that lobsters shouldn't be boiled alive. That's why I'm going to explain how to kill the animal before you put it in the pot. And I'm going to show you photographs of how to do it properly.


Please note the lobster
on David's book appears
to have been boiled alive
-- it's red.
First I must mention the celebrated writer David Foster Wallace. Wallace has published a book of essays called Consider the Lobster. The book's title essay originally appeared in the August, 2004 issue of Gourmet magazine. Wallace can be a provocative and interesting writer, but this essay is rambling and factually inaccurate, and to my mind is little more than a cheap manipulation of the natural unease many people feel about killing and cooking lobsters (though it was an effective publicity stunt for Gourmet). I talked about the ethics of lobsters, and voiced a few criticisms of Wallace, in an interview with Salon last year.

Still, Wallace has a point: at least beef slaughterhouses make an effort to stun the cows before ripping them apart alive. That's why I advocate killing the lobster before cooking. Okay, now for the instructions I promised. Here is an illustrated demonstration, dedicated to David Foster Wallace. And yes, that's me in these pictures.

Step 1: Cool the lobster in the freezer for fifteen minutes or so. Lobsters are cold-blooded and their body temperature adapts to match the ambient temperature around them, with a corresponding slowing of their heart rate, metabolism, and neural functioning. Cooling the lobster prevents it from moving around while you're working, which is a lot safer, and results in some deadening of the animal's nervous system.

Step 2: Hold the lobster upside down and place the point of the knife between its hindmost legs.



Step 3: Thrust the knife straight down into the body.



Step 4: Slice down through the head, to split the front of the animal in half.



There you go, folks. That's the best -- and the most humane -- way to kill a lobster; this way, the animal will be dead before it hits the scalding water. (Wallace dismisses this knife technique, but like I said, it's what most of the pros do.)

A few additional pointers:

- You don't have to slice all the way through the last bit of shell to the cutting board -- leave the top of the lobster's shell intact for a more attractive presentation on the plate.

- If you execute the knife maneuver correctly, the claws and front legs should go instantly limp. But be aware that because lobsters have a decentralized nervous system, the tail and hind legs may continue to twitch. (If that bothers you, remember that this is an animal equivalent to a mosquito. If it still bothers you, you should probably consider eating mock lobster.)

- Immediately after you kill the lobster, put it in the pot to boil, as you would have with the live animal.

WARNING: Working with live animals and large knives can be tricky. Try this at your own risk. I make no claims to be a qualified instructor of culinary butchery, and I will not be responsible if you hurt yourself while attempting to replicate the techniques described here. If you're at all uncomfortable with the idea of implementing this technique, stick to the boiling alive, okay? Better that the lobster gets hurt than you.

On the other hand, for those of you who crave additional drama and heroism in your kitchen, there are, of course, even more exciting ways to kill a lobster:


Maxfield Parish, untitled, cover linings for Poems of Childhood
by Eugene Field, 1904.

Incidentally, the lobster being dispatched in the photos above was one of four enjoyed as Christmas Eve dinner with my family, during my annual trek home for the holidays. The lobsters were caught in the waters around Little Cranberry Island, perhaps even by some of the lobstermen described in my book, and they were delicious.


Prepared the humane way.
(photo: Trevor Corson)
What is really sad about David Foster Wallace's essay on lobsters from Gourmet is that he misses the point about lobsters as food. Live lobster is one of the last feasts still harvested in a sustainable fashion directly from nature by individuals, not corporations, and sold absolutely fresh, without processing.

Gourmet magazine . . . hello? Earth to Ruth Reichl?

P.S. For more of my thoughts on PETA and lobster pain, see my earlier blog entry on the subject. And don't take my word for all this. What follows is a statement prepared by Dr. Neville Gregory, who received an award from England's Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

(At the time Dr. Gregory prepared the following statement on lobsters, he worked in the Animal Welfare and Stress department of the New Zealand Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. New Zealand has a significant fishery for spiny lobsters.)
The Humane Way to Kill a Lobster
by Dr. Neville Gregory

The appropriate way to humanely kill a lobster is to chill it, then kill it by either splitting or spiking it.

Chefs using this method can be sure that they are killing the lobsters humanely, while preparing good quality lobster meat.

Any animal killed for meat consumption must be killed humanely. This means the animal must not be stressed when being handled, should be held at the place of slaughter for only a short time under appropriate conditions, and the killing method must not cause pain or distress prior to death.

Many seafood shops and restaurants and also private citizen chefs kill lobsters inhumanely.

Eight common procedures are used to kill lobsters, usually with two or more methods combined. These were chilling, drowning, spiking, chest spike, splitting, and tailing, freezing, and boiling (definitions listed below).

Freezing or boiling methods affect the quality of the meat. Boiling lobsters alive tends to make the meat chewy while freezing makes the meat lose its fresh appearance. Both are inhumane.

Lobsters need to be chilled before being killed.

Being cold blooded, chilling the lobster helps reduce nerve function and metabolic activity. When it is fully chilled, the lobster will stop moving and no longer responds to being handled.

After chilling a lobster, split it along its length where it has two chains of nerve ganglia, with interconnecting nerves along its body under the shell. Chilling beforehand prevents the lobster from moving which avoids mistakes during splitting -- otherwise it is hard to achieve a humane kill in an unchilled animal.
Comments? E-mail me.

Comments (2)

- A note to say thank you. I just executed 5 lobsters exactly as you suggested, and I now agree with you. Its a quick and efficient method. I tried a number of other methods, with spiking being the most gruesome by far, and this worked the quickest and cleanest. Grazie tante!

- I thought I'd send a note to tell you I enjoyed your post on humanely killing a lobster. I haven't fully explored your blog yet but I will bookmark it for sure. I LOVE lobster. I lived in lobster-land (boston) for 28 years, so. (They are on the level of mosquitos? I had no idea.)

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