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 This blog is no longer active; it serves as an archive of Trevor's posts on lobsters from 2004-2006.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.)

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Lobster Boat Bottom Dollar Burns and Sinks Offshore; Jack Merrill Survives His Jump into the Frigid Sea

The lobstering community of Little Cranberry Island received a shock on Monday, December 12, when Jack Merrill's lobster boat went up in flames while he was fishing fifteen miles offshore. Jack and his sternman had to throw themselves into the frigid sea to avoid being burned alive.

Readers of THE SECRET LIFE OF LOBSTERS will know Jack Merrill well -- he is one of the book's main characters. A number of important scenes in the book occurred aboard Jack's boat the Bottom Dollar. It is sad, and strange, to think that the Bottom Dollar now rests at the bottom of the sea. But it's a relief that Jack and his sternman Les are safe.

The details of the dramatic fire and rescue were reported today in the local newspaper, the Mount Desert Islander. The article is below.


A Coast Guard crewman attempts to douse the flames erupting
from the burning lobster boat Bottom Dollar. Despite the efforts,
Jack Merrill's boat eventually sank in more than 200 feet of water.
Jack and his sternman were forced overboard before being rescued.
(photo: U.S. Coast Guard)

FAST FIRE SENDS MEN OVERBOARD

by Craig Crosby
Mount Desert Islander
(reproduced with permission)

December 15, 2005

MOUNT DESERT ROCK - Jack Merrill believed he and Bottom Dollar would fish together for as long as he continued to haul traps.

But under an overcast sky on Monday, between Great Duck Island and Mount Desert Rock, Mr. Merrill watched in stunned horror as the boat that had provided his livelihood for more than 20 years went up in smoke, taking Mr. Merrill's plans along with it.

"I thought it would be the boat I would fish out of the rest of my life," Mr. Merrill said. Now the 54-year-old Mount Desert lobster fishermen is looking to start over.


Jack Merrill, at a happier
moment. (photo: courtesy of
Commercial Fisheries News)
He is unsure what went wrong, and now that Bottom Dollar, a 40-foot boat designed by Young Brothers of Corea, is resting at the bottom of the ocean, he is unlikely to ever know. What he is sure of is that he just experienced some of the most frightening minutes of his life.

Mr. Merrill called fisherman Bruce Damon a little before 10 a.m. on Monday to report that his boat was having engine problems and that he was steaming for home. Moments later, while still approximately 15 miles off shore, Mr. Merrill noticed smoke rising from below and went down to investigate. The flames were already licking the underdecking. Mr. Merrill instructed the only other person on the boat, sternman Les Ricker of Mount Desert, to prepare the survival suits as Mr. Merrill emptied two new fire extinguishers, and then water, on the growing flames. Mr. Ricker also filled two lobster traps with buoys, which the men would later use for floatation.

The men had little time in which to work. Roughly 10 minutes elapsed from the time Mr. Merrill first noticed the smoke until he and Mr. Ricker were forced to don their survival suits and jump overboard into the 45-degree water. Worse still, the flames had knocked out Bottom Dollar's radio, leaving the men helpless to send a mayday alert.


Jack Merrill unloading lobsters
aboard the Bottom Dollar at the
Cranberry Isles Fishermen's Co-op
on Little Cranberry Island,
October 2004.
(photo: Sarah Corson)
"It caught on fire and I tried everything I could to put it out," Mr. Merrill said, sounding almost apologetic for the failure. "It's a pretty shocking thing to have happen."

About a mile and a half away, lobster fisherman Joey Wedge of Tremont and his sternman, Chris Curran of Cranberry Isles, working aboard the 38-foot Austin Marie, had heard Mr. Merrill's initial radio message about his engine trouble. Moments later the men began to see plumes of smoke and motored over in the Bottom Dollar's direction.

"We just saw a lot of smoke and stuff," Mr. Wedge said. "We thought he was having engine trouble. We thought we were going to tow him in. I was pretty scared once we realized he was on fire. You couldn't really see anything because there was so much smoke and stuff. I'd never seen anything like that before and I hope it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience."

Mr. Wedge's boat was the first on the scene and at first he couldn't spot Mr. Merrill or Mr. Ricker, who were on the opposite side of the burning boat.

"Within five minutes of being in the water the Austin Marie came alongside and pulled us out," Mr. Merrill said. "It was a quick response. I'm thankful for that."

Minutes later the Austin Marie was joined by nearly a dozen other fishing boats, all ready to lend a hand and make sure their fellow fishermen were safe.

"I want to thank the fleet for responding as quickly as they did," Mr. Merrill said.

At U.S. Coast Guard Station Southwest Harbor, crewmen aboard the fishing vessel Crazy Water reported Bottom Dollar's distress at 10:10 a.m. Coast Guard crews launched their 41-foot utility boat, but Mr. Merrill and Mr. Ricker had already been plucked from the water by the time the Coast Guard arrived.


Seaman Christopher Laramee (left)
and Boatswain Todd Chilton spray water
onto the burning Bottom Dollar from
a Coast Guard utility boat Monday about 15
miles southeast of Mount Desert Island.
(photo: U.S. Coast Guard)
"The boat was burning when the 41 got on scene," said Lt. J.G. Gerald Hewes. "The Coast Guard policy, normally, is we don't fight fires except to save life, but we knew the boat had 100 gallons of fuel on board. We tried to extinguish the fire, but the boat wound up sinking."

"[The Coast Guard crews] stayed with me and the boat until it went down," Mr. Merrill said. "They were very helpful."

Lt. Hewes believes the fuel will have a minimal effect. "Right now we're not super concerned about the environmental impact," he said. "It's a fairly small fuel spill."

The Coast Guard crew was forced to abandoned the fire-fighting effort when Bottom Dollar's emergency flares began exploding, said Southwest Harbor fisherman Glenn Gilley, who, with sternman Zack Damon, arrived on the scene aboard Mr. Gilley's Amy Sui. Monitoring another radio channel, Southwest Harbor fishermen believed the smoke was from a fire on Mount Desert Rock.

"I didn't go immediately because I knew he had already been picked up," Mr. Gilley said. "When I got there the black smoke had settled down. The whole cabin top was missing. Downwind, the flames had caught the outside of the hull on fire."


Jack Merrill shows his bottom
aboard the Bottom Dollar as he
adjusts safety equipment on the boat's
roof in the summer of 2003.
(photo: Trevor Corson)
Mr. Merrill had fished with Bottom Dollar since he had her built in 1980. The boat was insured, but that does not alleviate the uncertainty. Mr. Merrill has received calls from people offering boats, but right now he's unsure of his next step.

"I don't know my plans," he said. "I'll be up and fishing sometime soon hopefully. I'll be fine. It will just take awhile to get my head back."

Though Mr. Merrill and Mr. Ricker were in the water for just a few minutes, the outcome could have been much different had the men not been wearing survival suits. Fishermen commonly stow the suits below deck, but if Mr. Merrill had followed that practice he and Mr. Ricker would have gone into the water with just their clothes, unable to reach the suits. Instead, Mr. Merrill kept the suits at the cabin's aft end, on the port side, where they were readily accessible when the flames erupted.

"If I had a message for people, it would be to keep your survival suits in a place they can be readily accessed," Mr. Merrill said.

News of Mr. Merrill's close call rattled the fishing community. Bottom Dollar is the first boat lost out of Islesford [Little Cranberry Island], from where Mr. Merrill fished, since Roland Sprague and Freddy Fernald died in March roughly 47 years ago.

"It makes everyone a lot more aware of their safety stuff," Mr. Wedge said. "I think Jack and Les handled themselves very well to get in their suits. It definitely makes people think. It's something I'll never forget."

Friday, December 02, 2005

Where's Your "Maine" Lobster Really From?


November issue of
The Working Waterfront.
Some of you may have read John McPhee's article on the United Parcel Service in The New Yorker last spring. If you did, you'll remember the way the article opened, with a trademark McPhee description of how thousands of lobsters are sorted and held for shipment at a giant Clearwater Seafood processing facility in Nova Scotia, Canada.

In fact, most Maine lobster now comes to consumers via Canada. According to an article in last month's issue of The Working Waterfront, a monthly newspaper published by the Island Institute in Rockland, Maine, "as much as 70 percent of lobsters landed in Maine are heading to Canada, where they are being processed and shipped back to the U.S. as Canadian product." You can read this interesting article here.

Also, in the December issue of The Working Waterfront there is a follow-up article on Maine's efforts to combat the weakening of Maine's "lobster brand," including efforts to get Maine lobsters officially certified; you can read that article here.