8:11 am Jul. 30, 2010
Every day, Ed McFarland kills 400 pounds of live lobster. Starting at 8:30 a.m., white vans with bright-red lobster illustrations on the side roll up outside his restaurant, Ed’s Lobster Bar on Lafayette Street in SoHo.
Drivers drop off 50-pound cardboard boxes filled with lobsters, which are snoozing on beds of ice after an overnight flight from Maine or Nova Scotia and a long drive from one of McFarland’s two distributors, Two Cousins in Freeport and Jordan Lobster Farms in Island Park. Most of the lobsters were hauled up from the ocean about a week or so earlier, lured by herring bait in traps. Then they were taken to processing plants, where they milled around plastic holding tanks filled with salt water, waiting to be wrapped in newspaper and stacked into portable refrigerators for the trip to New York. “They’ve got to be live when they come in,” McFarland said, “otherwise they’re not going to be any good.”
McFarland, a gregarious guy with sun-tanned skin, sleeve tattoos, bright blue eyes and a native Staten Island accent, is squatting in his walk-in freezer. He keeps a bucket of live lobsters on the bottom shelf for the bar's a la carte orders. He is digging around, grabbing the lobsters by their insect-like shells and holding them up to me. They wriggle their spiny legs. “If they’re already dead, we sort them out and send them back the next day.”
McFarland has worked with lobster for a decade. He staffed pizza joints on Staten Island until he landed his first restaurant job in New York City in 1995 at Terrance Brennan's Picholine on 64th Street. “I bounced around New York City but every place I worked in served lobster, even in small places in bistros,” he said. “That’s good experience but I always did lobster dishes. You learn a lot about what not to do in the business.”
He started working at Pearl Oyster Bar in 2000 and eventually opened his own place, a modest-sized restaurant with a long marble bar and a nautical, black and white awning over its narrow doorway, in March 2007.
“Lobster comprises about 60 percent of my menu here and everything else on my menu is kind of like an amenity,” McFarland said. At Ed's Lobster Bar, he offers lobster rolls, lobster meatballs, lobster ravioli (his personal favorite), and other lobster-related dishes. “I serve scallops and fillet fish—it’s a seafood restaurant so people have a choice," he said. "But, you know, 70 percent of what I sell is lobster.”
His lobster rolls became so popular that he opened a kiosk in front of 2 World Financial Center on Vesey Street, offering lobster rolls for $27 a piece to the Wall Street suits.
LOBSTER WAS ONCE A POOR-MAN'S FOOD. In the early 20th century, the crustacean was so common on New England coastlines that Pilgrims ground them up and sprinkled their body parts as fertilizer. But at the turn of the century, once wealthy New Yorkers started summering upstate and bringing their city palates with them, the humble boiled lobster dinner became a delicacy.
Mainers grumble about rich southerners from Massachusetts and New York driving up shoreline property values and pushing out lobstermen, who can no longer afford to rent out or buy property for their equipment. So New Yorkers like McFarland aren’t necessarily welcomed with bear hugs by the shoremen who harvest his most important ingredient.
“Lobstermen tend to be very territorial—the local guys,” he said. “They always feel like somebody is trying to take advantage of them. So it’s very hard to get in with them.”
So McFarland worked his way in. He spent time out on the docks talking to the lobstermen, watching their process and asking questions. He learned about their gentlemen's rules to keep lobster sustainable (like knifing a small v into the fin of pregnant females, and throwing them back into the ocean until their babies are born).
McFarland also takes trips up to the Lobster Institute, a research and education program about the lobster industry at the University of Maine, and learns from scientists about lobster anatomy, biology and social life.
There are all kinds of lobsters. There’s hunchback locust lobster, a regal slipper lobster, marbled mitten lobster, velvet fan lobster, even a unicorn lobster. But the ones McFarland buys are called the American Lobster. They can be harvested as far south as the Carolinas, but the commercial goldmine of American Lobster truly begins by Long Island Sound and stretches to Newfoundland in Canada.
“People from all different parts of Nova Scotia and Maine will say their lobster is the best, but ultimately a clam or an oyster or a lobster tastes like the water it’s pulled out of if you walked onto the dock and ate it on the shore,” McFarland said. “Once it’s shipped, it all tastes the same.”
However, there are exceptions.
Younger lobsters taste sweeter. But Maine laws call for fishermen to throw back lobsters that don’t meet the minimum size requirements, which is 3-1/4 inches on the body shell. The good news is that lobsters are always growing. They molt their shells about 25 times during their first five years and, once they finish growing into a bigger shell, they are about 15 percent longer and balloon up to about 50 percent more in volume. They are usually harvested by the time they are adolescents.
Timing is everything when it comes to catching lobsters in the right stage of their molting cycle. “The yield is better from a hard-shell lobster than from a shedding lobster,” McFarland told me. “What happens is they put this new shell on and they grow to fit the shell. So when a lobster first sheds its shell, if you break the claw open, you’ll have this enormous claw and this little meat in there cause the meat shrinks more and obviously hasn’t grown to fill the shell yet.”
Even though there is less meat in soft-shells than in hard-shells, many people prefer the taste of the "shedders," which tend to be juicier, tenderer, and less expensive per pound. But “shedders” don’t travel.
“Their shell is soft so they can’t be transported and they die very quickly,” McFarland said. “The Canadians, I don’t know exactly how they do it, but they have Canadian hard shells all year.” Warm waters are one of the cues that make lobsters molt, so Canada’s colder shores tend to make lobsters shed less often. A hard shell lobster is busting with meat that has a drier, tougher taste, and costs more per pound.
“You pay premium for them,” McFarland said.
Earlier this year, McFarland talked about retail pricing at a conference in Maine where lobstermen, lawmakers and scientists gathered to discuss the industry. “You know, people were surprised to see me up there and at first they were taken aback,” he said. “Most of them didn’t understand why the price is the price we charge in a restaurant. They can’t understand why, you know, they get $3.50 a pound and in a restaurant you get $20 or $30 or in New York City, $40 for a lobster.”
A whole broiled lobster dinner at Ed’s Lobster Bar currently costs $28.
“They didn’t realize that I’m paying, you know, $7 [per pound] sometimes, or even more depending on the time of year,” he said. “So, it’s not like I’m paying the same price as them, I’m paying two or three times more than what you get off the boat. Because the guy at the wharf has to get paid, the trucker has to get paid, the guy who delivers it to me has to get paid. And then I have costs associated with doing business. So there’s insurance, there’s payroll, there’s gas, electric, and in New York City, there’s rent and real estate tax, which is expensive. So I think I opened up their eyes up and some of them said, well, you’re paying too much for your lobster. That was nice.”
AFTER THE EARLY-MORNING DELIVERY, PREP chefs line up the boxes of lobster on a long steel table. Lobsters only last for about 12 to 18 hours in a refrigerator, and about 20 hours when packed in ice. So as soon as they arrive at Ed’s, most of the day’s delivery needs to be boiled within a few hours for lobster-roll meat.
The lobsters lie quietly in the boxes, with elastic bandages constricting their claws imprinted with the words “Wild Product Lobster.” The cool temperature keeps their metabolism down, which makes them lethargic. Occasionally, a lobster flicks an antennae, or a particularly aggressive lobster lobs about, trying to maneuver into a more comfortable position.
Lobsters don’t like each other when they are in close quarters. In the ocean, males spend most of their lives fighting, protecting their homes in rocky nooks. Lobsters have been known to attack each other, trying to prove their dominance, until they lose all of their limbs. None of them are fighting now.
Sous chef Zee Aziz prepares for the boil. She lines up four steel buckets—about nine inches deep and two feet long—and fills them about half-way with water. “No need for salt, the lobsters are already salty,” she tells me. She fires up bright blue flames under each bucket.
As we wait for the water to boil, Aziz; a petite, sassy chef; opens several cartons of cream and pours the thick liquid into a pot to make lobster chowder.
“Some people put the lobsters in the freezer to make them calmer, it’s supposedly more humane,” she said, adding a mocking tone to “humane” as if it was a silly notion. But freezing a lobster can give the meat a more gummy, chalky texture and a "refrigerator taste," if it’s left in there too long. Plus, “I don’t have time for that,” Aziz said.
She also does not have time to plunge a knife into each lobster’s head, the Julia Child-approved way of killing the creature, before it’s dunked into its bath either. As David Foster Wallace put it in "Consider the Lobster,” “the idea is that it’s more violent but ultimately more merciful, plus that a willingness to exert personal agency and accept responsibility for stabbing the lobster’s head honors the lobster somehow and entitles one to eat it. (There’s often a vague sort of Native American spirituality-of-the-hunt flavor to pro-knife arguments.)”
Aziz said, taste-wise, it makes no difference if she kills the lobster with a knife or boils it live. Her main concern is saving time.
Once the water is boiling, Aziz grabs the lobsters one by one and tosses them into the pans. They make a splash when they land in the bucket. Yes, she said, sometimes they nip her before heading into the boiling water. “And it hurts,” Aziz said.
Some of the lobsters seem to accept their fate. When Aziz picks them up, they curl into a kind of fetal position, and cannonball into the pan. Others squirm as soon as they hit the water, flailing their claws and making a clanging sound against the pan.
There is no screaming.
“If they screamed, I would not do this,” Aziz said.
If there is a sound from the lobsters, it’s air released from their stomachs through their mouth parts. But we can’t hear any of that over the din of the kitchen. One prep chef is churning spinach in a giant salad spinner. Another is shucking oysters.
Aziz piles the lobsters on top of each other in the water until the pan is full. About a dozen of them are in there together, surrounded by their in-the-wild enemies as they die.
The lobsters stop stirring within minutes.
They emit a sweet, kind of metallic smell as they cook. Their shells turn their signature bright pink-red color, a result of the shape of a color molecule called astaxanthin getting twisted in the lobster shell protein. The meat swells under the armor, puffing out from the cracks.
After about five minutes, Aziz takes a pair of tongs and flips each lobster over. Aziz knows they are cooked once they are pink all over and begin to float. She takes each one out with a pair of tongs and throws the carcasses into a bucket on the floor.
Hunks of pale lobster flesh float in the water in the empty pans.
A prep chef dumps the lobsters in a sink. He pours a bucket of ice over the pile and splashes cold water over them. This helps chill the meat immediately, and makes it easier for him to remove it from the claws and tails. A radio is blaring Spanish music, and he dances and sings along while he rips apart the lobsters.
He first removes the claws and the tail and tosses them into separate areas of the sink. A milky liquid pours from their bodies, a mix of innards and water. The middle body of each lobster, including the head, is dumped in the trash.
He knifes the edge of a claw, which cuts away the elastic band and loosens the shell. Then he cracks the claw three times with the knife. With a final whack, the claw busts open and the meat slips out from it.
He puts the meat into a bucket and throws away the shell.
By the time lunch prep rolls around, another prep chef joins him. He digs his fingers into the lobster tails and scoops the meat out by hand.
The chefs fill giant white buckets with lobster meat by the time they are done with the day's batch.
A one-and-a-half pound lobster, about the size of the ones at Ed’s, yields about one-and-one-third cups of flesh. It’s naturally fat-free and full of calcium and omega-3 acids.
McFarland said the messiness of lobster—the carnage—is what he loves about it. He often tells his customers who are trying to be mannerly while eating a whole lobster that they have to “get down and dirty and get your hands in there and rip it apart,” he said. “You’re forced to really experience, to really be with the food. This isn’t just putting a fork to your mouth.”
“I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of eating it,” McFarland said. “Any way I make it, I like it.”
As for Aziz, she doesn’t eat lobster anymore. “I’m sick of lobster,” she said.
More by this author:
- At the Tribeca Film Festival: Filmmaker Mira Nair on our 'world of misunderstanding'
- The Brooklyn Islanders: what's left to lose?