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23 september 2011

I've eaten lobster once in the last five years. It was an obligatory part of my last trip to Maine. As so often with lobster, it was a fairly humbling, if not humiliating, experience. Somebody tied a plastic bib around my neck and invited me to eat with my fingers, like a toddler. And then, of course, I had no idea how to get at the edible part of the lobster. Even picking the thing up was a challenge; drawn butter seems to turn lobstershell into the world's slickest substance. After trying to apply a cracker that wouldn't pose a serious threat to a roasted peanut, I gave up and looked down at my little companion dolefully, until somebody took pity, handed my plate up the table to an old Maine hand, and delivered it back to me in edible condition.

Elisabeth Townsend's entertaining Lobster: A Global History marks an unusual venture by Reaktion books, which paired it in publication with the Animal series Lobster by Richard King. As an Edible book, Townsend's Lobster reduces the crustacean to the condition my friend delivered it back to me in: fork-ready and luscious. And sometimes even beyond, as Townsend delves into lobster salads, sauces, and bisques, where the nobly-armored creature disappears into puréed form.

Humans have eaten lobsters for most of our history; the South African coastal communities which are among the best-studied dwellings of early homo sapiens contain lobster remains. But for most of human/lobster history, you had to be near the coastline to eat lobster, and you had to eat it quickly once you'd caught it. Smoked, and later canned, lobster has had local and temporary appeal. But the lobsterization of American cuisine came after widespread electric power and fast shipping networks enabled live lobsters from Maine to swim out their last days in supermarket tanks in Dubuque.

Such tanks are getting rarer. Heightened consciousness of food-safety and environmental issues has reduced mass consumption of lobster once more. Plus, Townsend observes that the lobster is the only food that Americans still buy live in stores and kill at home. (Or, one should say, the only such food with limbs and eyes; few people are worried about steaming clams.) The trauma of ending your dinner's life within sight of the table has led many consumers in this sympathetic age to eschew lobsters.

Or to find the most painless ways to kill them. Townsend surveys techniques and suggests that a trip to the freezer, followed by a sharp knife up and down the body cavity, is probably the most humane way to despatch a lobster. The old-fashioned toss-them-in-a-boiling-pot method, frankly, kills them almost as instantly. But it may involve a moment of unimaginable pain: after all, being tossed into a tall kettle of boiling water would kill you too, pretty fast, but it's not something you'd opt for if given a choice of deaths. Half-freezing a lobster anaesthetizes it, and the knife, if wielded quickly, kills it before it can feel a thing.

Is all the killing worth it? Lobsters remain one of the great delicacies of the Western tradition, whether processed into elaborate recipes or tossed on your table whole. I'm a little ambivalent about the lobster. I have always enjoyed it, but it's a blander, more nuanced seafood than clams or mussels. I prefer shrimp. At their larger ends, huge shrimp run together with tiny lobsters in the form of scampi, Dublin Bay prawns, or langoustes. They are foods I enjoy more and more the larger they are, till a certain threshold is passed and I enjoy them less. I think a jumbo butterflied shrimp is probably the golden mean.

Townsend, Elisabeth. Lobster: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2011.