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The laziest lobster

Mainer uses pressurization to shuck crustaceans without cooking

By Billy Baker
Globe Staff / September 18, 2011

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RICHMOND, Maine - The story of how the Maine lobster got naked began, in 2001, when a guy named John Hathaway opened a little restaurant in Kennebunkport called the Sea Star Grill.

Hathaway had a simple plan for his lobster shack. His five children would run the place, he would steam the lobsters in the back - “I’m no chef, but I’m from Maine and I know how to boil water’’ - and his customers would get what he thought they wanted: the bibs and the crackers and the messy experience of shucking and eating a fresh Maine lobster.

Immediately, he discovered that his business plan had a fundamental flaw.

“The customers, especially the tourists, didn’t want the experience, they didn’t want the ritual of eating a whole lobster,’’ he said. “I was stunned.’’

Instead, they wanted what Mainers call, with some derision, “Lazy Man Lobster.’’

They didn’t want to deal with all the messy stuff; they had no interest in “earning’’ their meal. They just wanted to eat it.

“My boys spent their summers shucking meat,’’ Hathaway said, and shook his head.

Then one day Hathaway learned about an accidental discovery down in Louisiana and, in that old spirit of Yankee ingenuity, wondered if it could be used to make Lazy Man Lobster even lazier.

Live lobsters in hand, he got on a plane to investigate.

What had happened in Louisiana is that an oysterman had been experimenting with high pressure processing, a technique that uses extreme water pressure to kill off bacteria and parasites, in an effort to increase the shelf life for the oysters, when he discovered the process had an added side benefit: it shucked the oyster.

When Hathaway placed his live lobsters inside the oysterman’s machine, several things happened. The lobster came out looking exactly as it had before it went in, only it was no longer alive. But inside the lobster, the change was dramatic: the pressure had forced the meat to detach from the exoskeleton, which meant that when the shell was cracked, the meat slid out whole, undamaged, but still raw.

“It was amazing,’’ Hathaway said of that moment when he first held raw lobster meat. Previously, it was nearly impossible to get usable lobster meat out of the shell without cooking it, or at least blanching it.

As Hathaway looked down at the meat in his hand, which had come out so perfectly that you could still trace the bumps along the inside of the claws, he had a thought: This is going to revolutionize the way the world eats Maine lobster.

In short order, Hathaway found a used high-pressure processor in Australia, bought it, and, in 2005, opened up Shucks Maine Lobster in a former golf shoe factory in Richmond. Then he tried to figure out what to do with this new ability to extract raw lobster meat.

He started by targeting the people who - like his own boys - knew what a pain it was to shuck lobster: he went directly to the chefs.

Steve Corry, an award-winning chef and owner of the restaurant Five Fifty-Five in Portland, was one of his first customers.

“It changed my whole world as far as lobster goes,’’ Corry said.

From a practical standpoint, he said, it was a no-brainer; the requirements of storing and processing live lobsters are immense and expensive and drove the price up for the consumer.

But from a culinary perspective, Corry said, having the raw meat was a game-changer.

“Steaming and boiling are aggressive ways to cook meat,’’ he said. “But when you can cook a lobster slowly, at 145 degrees, the difference is unbelievable. It’s tender instead of chewy, especially with the tough tail. You get something that you could easily slice through with a butter knife.’’

Then there are the opportunities presented by the raw product; the door is now open, Hathaway said, for things like lobster sushi and lobster tartare.

But Hathaway believes the real value of this new method is in its potential to spread the Maine lobster brand. Shipping lobster has always been tricky; keeping it alive for long distances is expensive and complicated, and the other option is to ship it cooked and frozen.

But with this new ability to ship just the raw meat, Hathaway thinks the market will take off in Asia - “They only trust raw,’’ he said - and increase demand, raising the prices for the fishermen. This year, Shucks has been visited several times by contingents from China looking into the technology.

On a recent day, Hathaway - who is a big guy with curly white hair, a shaggy mustache, and an outsized personality - stood proudly next to his high-pressure processor. The machine is two stories tall, weighs 80,000 pounds, and the pumps turn the water pressure up to 50,000 pounds per square inch, about three times the pressure in the deepest parts of the ocean.

A worker loaded a couple hundred pounds of live lobsters into a cylindrical metal basket, lowered it through a hole into the shucker - which is full of fresh water - and turned it on. A giant lid slid into place, and the pressurization began. In six seconds, the lobsters were dead.

In six minutes, the cycle was over and they were hoisted out and quickly processed by the workers, who expertly crack the shells and slide the lobster meat out in seconds.

Hathaway beamed, grabbed a lobster, cracked it himself, let the raw parts slide out, and reassembled them neatly on a metal table: the naked lobster.

It was that easy. But was it too easy?

Forty miles south of Shucks, at the Portland Lobster Company, owner Debra Randall put it simply: “We don’t serve ‘Lazy Man’s Lobster.’ ’’

What they do serve, she said, is that very experience that Hathaway initially tried to create.

“People love to put on the bib. They want the experience of cracking the lobster, of sitting by the water, of seeing the boats,’’ she said as she looked out on a couple dozen customers doing just that.

Customers can choose their own lobster from a tank inside, or even go next door to a boat company that offers tourists the chance to go out on a lobster boat, catch their own, and then bring it in to be cooked at the restaurant.

“It’s the whole Maine experience,’’ she said.

But with that experience, Randall said, comes that touchy subject of fresh lobster. It’s a live animal that must be killed. Many people have a hard time with it, she said. “A lot of people say goodbye to the lobster,’’ she said. “Some people kiss it.’’

Corry said the killing process is something you never get used to.

“You can argue whether they feel pain or not, but I’ll tell you this much, they know something is happening when you pop them into the water,’’ he said. “They’re hissing and kicking at you. I feel bad.’’

At Shucks, Hathaway argues that this is just another benefit of the processor. “You don’t buy a salmon with the head on it; you don’t buy chickens with feathers on; and you don’t buy a cow. But you still buy a live lobster.’’

People have used everything from stun guns to hypnosis to try to make the killing more humane; Hathaway believes the high-pressure method, which kills the lobsters almost instantly, is the most humane of all, and removes the consumers from having any involvement in the murder.

His chief operating officer at Shucks, a young Harvard Business School graduate named Charlie Langston, puts it this way: “It’s the last animal we still kill in the kitchen.’’

That’s a deep statement, at a time when many already lament that we have become too distant from our food supply.

So then, are lobsters the only thing that died in this facility?

It’s a deep question, and one that Langston takes a moment to contemplate.

“I guess there’s a little bit that’s lost,’’ he said. “But it’s long lost.’’

People want convenience, he said.

They want Lazy Man Lobster.

Billy Baker can be reached at billybaker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker