A Lobster Tradition
By Jackie Leavitt
Logan swaggered from the crashing waves toward our small group standing on the beach edge of one of the Seven Brother islands off the Monte Cristi coast in the Dominican Republic. He clutched in one hand a long, yellow spear with three pointy prongs at the top, one of which with a bright blue-and-purple Caribbean lobster perfectly skewered from chest to tail. He held it aloft as he came closer, his victory prize from battling and vanquishing the ocean.
After the sun sank behind the horizon, we piled into our inflatable dinghy and motored slowly back to our 38-foot Beneteau sailboat, Bueller. The sky was still glowing gold and rose with inky purple clouds when we got to the back swimming ladder. As Travis boarded the boat, he twisted the sea creature in opposite directions until it separated in half. I mentally gasped in horror. As a born and (mostly) raised New Englander, I can tell you with certainty: That is not how you handle your lobster. Everyone (or so I thought) knows you boil that baby whole before dismemberment.
“That’s where all the meat is, because these lobsters don’t have claws,” Lars casually explains to my questioning. I hold back from informing him how incorrect he is — an extra half of the meat is in the front side. But the deed is done, and the head was already sinking down to the ocean bottom.
Unfortunately, we never even got to eat that poor lobster tail that night, and it withered away in our lukewarm fridge until we had to toss it back into the water, completing the cycle of ocean life and death. Instead, a couple days later, we bought two lobsters from a local fisherman for 250 pesos a pound: the first about half the size as the other. And when the boys on board began discussing cooking techniques, soon I convinced them to let me steam both lobsters whole in a pot with the promise to show them how to truly dismember the prickly beasts to get every last bit of meat, from tail to spiny legs to head.
You see, any true New Englander would scoff at the concept that the meat is only in the tail. That’s just where the easy stuff is. The more shell cracking, juice splattering and joint splintering, the greater the reward in both flesh and pride. Most coastal folk, especially from Maine or Cape Cod, would agree that it would be sacrilege to only eat a tail and claws. There have been several occasions where, after I finished my tail, claws, head and larger lobster leg knuckles — thinking to myself that it was a job well-done — my dad would survey my plate pooling in greenish juice and ask skeptically, “You’re done?”, before swiftly stealing my dish away to pick at the ribs and remaining leg knuckles. He might only get whispers of flavor and tissue, but it was the moral that mattered.
So here I am in Monte Cristi, with the two lobsters turned brownish-red from steaming, with my only towel tied around my neck, pliers and my Leatherman to my side like surgeon tools, and massive, black fishing gloves on my hands to protect them from the creatures’ spiny thorns that prick into my palms and fingers. Lars, Logan and Travis look on as I systematically and methodically move through the steps, taught to me by my dad, likely learned from his dad and his dad before him.
Hold the steamed lobster with both hands. Twist until it separates into tail and body. Set aside the head on a plate to catch the seeping salt water and green gut sludge (that some people eat — I don’t). Twist off the tail’s round fins, creating a hole at the shell’s smaller end. Push the meat with your thumb until it pops out of the shell in one gigantic and glorious piece. Devein. Move on to the body. Break off the legs at the body joints. Separate the knuckle joints on each leg. Use the pliers to crush each leg section to get the thin string of meat beneath. Use pliers to crack apart the head. Pluck the hunk of meat near the antennas …and so forth.
After an hour, I piled on a plate all the pillaged lobster meat, separating the white tails from the rest of the wispy red meat to prove my long, drawn-out point: Another tail’s worth of lobster resulted from the satisfying crunching of less-valued body parts. I pulled off my towel bib and washed my hands with lemon water to remove the lingering seafood smell. The job was done.
But I still felt a drop of dissatisfaction as I looked at the pile of shells, including a few of the tiniest knuckles left uncracked. I know deep down that my dad would have done better. But we all need to aspire to something greater, don’t we?