This article first appeared in the Boston Phoenix on June 19, 1979.
Let’s face it -- that is, assuming that you can stand to face something that looks as though it ought to be using John Agar to clean pieces of Tucson out of its teeth. The lobster is one bad-looking animal. And it isn’t even bad-looking in the quaint sense that the platypus is bad-looking, waddling edgily toward the intersection of repulsive, bizarre and cute. This animal tumbled out of the upper reaches of the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down.
Its eyes google up at you from the ends of little stalks. Above them wave antennae too ridiculously long for this creature. With the floating eyes and the waving antennae, the thing’s face looks as though it is residing on a dimensional place other than the one allotted to the rest of the body.
Its arms end in boxing gloves and its feet in tiny pincers. It appears to be hinged just above the tail, right where the designer apparently ran out of the original material and just bolted on whatever was handy in the shop. If presented to the same committee of people who did so badly with the elephant, it would be identified as a hedge clipper, an untied construction boot, and the world’s largest domesticated cockroach.
On top of all that, the animal is cannibalistic. It eats its own children, provided that those children have not eaten each other. And its sex life is lacking in innovation. It perfected the missionary position millions of years before there were missionaries and has brooked no change since.
The collective American taste bud, however, has surrendered its objectivity to this ugly little child-eating bluenose as it has to virtually no other food. “It’s the king of the seafood,”says one provincial lobstermonger. “There’s nothing in the world that compares to the taste of New England lobster.”
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As popular as it is here, lobster is demanded inland like nothing else from New England, with the possible exception of Ted Kennedy. (Demanded, perhaps, but not always understood. On one occasion in a Midwestern restaurant I found myself explaining to my dinner companion that her meal had indeed once been alive, and that the bothersome shell was not merely another of those ornate packing techniques devised by small companies in New Jersey.) “When we ship lobsters to restaurants all over the country,”says Jack Daigle of the Neptune Seafood Company in Boston, “we supply them with bibs, placemats, and even cooking instructions.”
One suspects, however, that it is not merely the taste that causes the crustacean sensation to sweep the nation. Lobster is one of our few ritual foods, in much the same way that tequila is a ritual drink. Half the point in drinking tequila for many people is the whole wrist-licking, lemon-sucking routine that makes them feel like banditos, even if their killer glare is undermined by the vibration of their eyeballs as the drink goes down. Lobster-eating’s rituals are just as important (although hardly the same; it’s generally difficult to play Pancho Villa while wearing a bib).