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The New England lobster is a fairly terrifying-looking sea-green creature that's cannibalistic, reclusive, rather nasty, and very good to eat.

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The New England lobster (Homarus Americanus) is a crustacean related to crabs, shrimp, crayfish and barnacles. An arthropod, it is more closely related to insects than to animals (hence the jocular term "bugs" for lobsters).

In colonial America, lobsters were so plentiful in New England's coastal waters that they were used as pig fodder. The prize catch back then was bland codfish.

Nearly 60 million pounds of lobster are caught in Maine, Massachusetts and Rhode Island each year. (In Canada's Atlantic provinces the catch is almost twice as large!)

Lobster Facts

Fresh from the water, live lobsters are green colored with dark splotches. They only turn red when cooked.

The two front (of 10) legs of the New England lobster have evolved to become large, powerful claws, which differentiate it from the Caribbean spiny lobster, which has no such front claws. When cooked, the claw meat is tender, sweet and delicious, and is looked upon as choicer than the tail meat, though that is also good.

How to Cook a Lobster

New England restaurants prepare lobsters in any number of elaborate ways (baked, stuffed, salads, etc.), but to a true New Englander there are but three ways to cook a lobster: you boil (or steam) it, you broil it, or you grill it.

To broil or grill, take a live lobster—no true New Englander would accept a dead one—and a big, sharp knife, make a straight cut underneath from head to tail, and place the lobster cut-upward under the broiler, or cut-downward on the grill.

Boiling (really, steaming) is the most popular method, however, and is the easiest. Bring a few inches of seawater to boil in a big pot, drop in the live lobsters, cover the pot, bring the water to a boil again, and let the lobsters steam until they turn bright red (10 to 12 minutes, a few minutes longer for lobsters of several pounds or more).

When you take them out, the lobsters will be very hot and full of hot water, especially after moulting (see below). Give them a few minutes to cool so you don't burn your fingers or get scalded by boiling water when handling them.

The ease of eating a lobster depends partly upon the time of year. Lobsters moult (shed their shells) every year in early summer. Underneath the about-to-be-moulted shell, a new, roomier paper-thin shell is growing.

Just before moulting (May or June) a New England lobster's shell is thick and hard, and the claws difficult to break open. You will certainly need tools—maybe even a hammer!—to break the hardest claws.

(How do they wrestle their way out of those complicated, hard shells? Beats me...)

Just after moulting, the new shell is as thin as heavy paper, and the claws are easy to open without tools.

The new shells begin to harden within a few weeks after moulting, but an August lobster is still much easier to eat than a May lobster. As the year progresses, the lobster will grow into the larger shell and it will grow thicker...until next year's moulting.

However, because the new shell is much larger than the lobster (so it has room to grow into it), the empty space is filled with water—boiling-hot water if the lobster has just come from the cooking pot. Be careful eating lobster in August, September and October!

Here's how to eat a lobster.

Here's a glossary of lobster terms so you'll know how to talk about lobsters.

Want to know all about lobster? Read this book.

—by Tom Brosnahan

How to Eat a Lobster

Lobster Glossary

Lobster - A Global History

How to Eat Steamed Clams

A New England Clambake

New England Food & Drink

Travel Details

About Maine

  Paris Girls Secret Society, the new novel by Tom Brosnahan


Maine lobsters

Above, steamed lobsters hot from the pot.


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