By Deborah Van Hoewyk
Think lobster, and your mind leaps to the right side of the menu, where it’s going ker-ching, ker-ching! A luxury dinner out, right?
That’s where my Uncle Whit thought he was taking my Aunt Marian in some fancy San Francisco restaurant years ago. Originally from Massachusetts, then from Minnesota, they were so happy to get to an ocean they ordered Maine lobsters. And what showed up on their plates? Fierce looking, spiny and ochre-spotted burnt-orange creatures with no front claws, officially named Panulirus interruptus, better known as the California, and sometimes the red, spiny lobster. It has none of the gorgeous, tomato-red curving claws and rounded carapace of Homarus americanus, the Maine lobster. No one from New England would ever mistake one for the other. Which is why, according to family lore, the restaurant said, “Well, no one here knows the difference,” and invited them back the next night for a complimentary lobster dinner flown in from Maine.
Fancy a spiny lobster?
Along the Pacific coast of Mexico, this is what you get served when you order lobster. There are lots of spiny lobsters – 19 species of the genus Panulirus, 4 species of the genus Palinustus, and 5 of Palinurus, not to mention another 19 family members distinguished by minor characteristics. In all, there are 149 species of them organized into 33 genera. If you’re into eating spiny lobsters, Panulirus interruptus, the California spiny lobster caught off the Pacific coast of Mexico, would taste pretty much like Panulirus argus, the Florida or Caribbean spiny lobster caught in the Gulf of Mexico. On a restaurant menu it should be called langosta. (If used properly, the word langostino, sometimes langostino del rio, is the freshwater prawn called chacal throughout Oaxaca.)
Commercially, most spiny lobsters are caught off Baja California and about 95% of them are sold to China, generally as live catch. The remaining 5% is sold cooked and frozen to the U.S. and Europe, with a fraction going both live and frozen to the Mexican market. The spiny lobster fishery is worth about US $26 million, and employs over 1,100 people. The fishery is regulated by CONAPESCA (Comisión Nacional de Acuacultura y Pesca); the season is limited, with catches allowed from October through the middle of March. Each lobster must exceed a minimum size, “berried females,” i.e., bearing eggs, must be returned to the sea; the only officially authorized method of catching them is traps. This is not to say that, if you drive west of Huatulco to Playa Boca Vieja in Coyula, you won’t see a fisherman carrying a half-dozen spiny lobsters by their antennas up the sand to one of the beach restaurants. (In the Atlantic, the Caribbean spiny lobster is often caught with casitas and free diving. The casitas are concrete tables about two feet long, sitting on stumpy legs. The lobsters like to hide underneath, the fishermen dive down to retrieve them.)
Starting around 1950, lobster fishermen and their families started serving up spiny lobsters deep-fried in lard on a beach called Puerto Nuevo in the municipio of Playas de Rosarita in Baja California. In times past, you could get the lobsters right from fishermen’s wives, sometimes in their kitchens, outside their kitchens, on their porches, ordered by halves (cinco mitades ¡por favor!) and accompanied by soft drinks and the usual beans, rice, large flour tortillas, and a local spicy sauce.
Today, you can still eat the halves of langosta al estillo Puerto Nuevo, and Puerto Nuevo is still a tiny beachfront town (fewer than 200 people actually live there), but the beach is wall-to-wall restaurants, 25 of them at last count, with a combined seating capacity of 3,105. You can get spiny lobster in any style you like – Restaurante Puerto Nuevo II offers langosta in traditional style, ranchera, steamed, thermidor, and lobster burritos. With the rise of wine production in Baja in the 80s, you can have your lobster paired with whatever Baja wine you wish. Puerto Nuevo kicks off lobster season with what is now a Wine and Lobster Festival; the 2018 Fiesta was Saturday, October 20.
People rave about the taste. Since spiny lobsters like cooler water, though not as cold as the waters where Maine lobsters thrive, they have a fair amount of fat, which in theory makes their meat smooth and more flavorful. Biting into one of them has been described as first bite “chewy,” and then it has a “creamy and extremely nutty flavor.”
Although most seafood restaurants in Huatulco serve langosta, perhaps the best-known is Restaurante Bar Doña Celia on the beach in Santa Cruz; for New Year’s Eve last year, Doña Celia offered special menus that included lobster cooked in butter, lobster al mojo de ajo, and lobster cream soup.
BUT . . . langosta is not lobster.
Sure, you can call it a spiny “lobster,” the American chain Red Lobster serves them both, and most frozen lobster tails you buy at the supermarket are spiny lobster, but they are not the same.
The Homarus americanus fishery is worth about 25 times more than the spiny lobster fishery – nearly US $700 million. The fishery is regulated through cooperation at the federal and state level, and sometimes more local, with complicated rules covering who can fish how many traps where. (It is illegal to use any other method, but there’s nothing like the thrill of trying to fool a lobster clinging to chunk of dogfish on a handline into the net you’ve been hiding at the back of the boat.)
There are lower and upper limits on size, egg-bearing females must be notched and thrown back, all lobsters must be delivered live and whole to the dock, and so on. There is no season on these lobsters, although there are endless debates about the virtues of soft- versus hard-shelled lobsters, which does reflect the season. Lobsters of the North Atlantic shed their shells beginning in late spring/early summer; the price goes down because soft-shell lobsters can’t be shipped very far. There’s less lobster inside the soft shell (they lose weight before molting so it’s easier to get out of the old shell), but the meat is more tender and sweet than that of a hard-shelled lobster.
The regulations have produced “lobster wars,” especially along the coast of Maine, with the focus on territory – did that lobster come from New Hampshire, where a legal lobster could be 1/16″ smaller than in Maine, or did it come from Maine? Is someone new trying to muscle in on the waters around Matinicus Island, setting traps where they shouldn’t go? Not to mention the Maine-Canada argument over who owns Machias Seal Island, surrounded by lobsters. And covered with puffins. When I was a kid, the damage was limited to slashing another lobsterman’s tires, and we used to put a sign on the dashboard of our car saying we were visiting our relatives who lived on an island. As time went on, though, the attacks were aimed at a lobsterman’s livelihood – lines attaching buoys to traps (or “pots”) were slashed, lobster boats (a major investment) were shot through below the waterline. More recently the lobstermen have started shooting each other.
Homarus americanus has large front claws with smooth meat, they are almost always served live-caught, the body has a lot of edible stuff in there if you work at it, and there’s even meat in the 10 body claws. Usually called “Maine” lobsters, they range from North Carolina to Labrador. A very similar lobster, Homarus gammarus, ranges in the cold waters off Scandinavia and northern Europe, although it’s also found in much of the Mediterranean Sea. It is not really a commercial product, with most catches for personal consumption. Instead Europe imports about US $200 million worth of Maine lobster a year.
For a while there, at the behest of Sweden, the European Union considered banning imports for fear the “alien species” would escape or be tossed into the sea by the likes of the Lobster Liberation Front and cross-breed with European lobsters. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief when the E.U. decided against the ban. Before you think the Swedes were crazy, when live North American signal crayfish (Pacifastacus leniusculus) were imported in the 1960s because they were thought to grow bigger and faster, they did indeed manage to wipe out the Scandinavian noble crayfish (Astacus astacus). Without the Scandinavian crayfish, the Swedes found it difficult to throw the traditional kräftskiva, or crayfish parties held in August. Lots of crayfish. Lots of Aquavit. Mushroom pies.
The best way to eat a lobster
Maine lobsters get somewhat similar party treatment with the “lobster bake.” A quintessential Maine lobster bake requires that the lobsters be cooked within sight of the waters they lived in. On the island where my relatives live, it’s done on the rocks next to the ocean. They’ve had a sheet-steel cradle made to hold the whole thing; driftwood is gathered for days for the fire. The fire is laid between concrete blocks and the cradle goes on top. Long pieces of commercial aluminum foil criss-cross the cradle and extend outward far enough to wrap around the bake after it’s assembled.
The bake itself is layered on – wet seaweed for salt steam, a field of lobsters, more seaweed, cheesecloth bags of clams, more seaweed, a layer of corn in the husk, more seaweed, and then the whole thing gets wrapped in the foil. The fire gets lit, and Josie the ace Boston bartender cruises about with this year’s “signature cocktail,” while the brave and the foolish float about in the icy Maine waters. About 45 minutes later, cousin Andy determines from the nature of the steaming and dripping that it’s done. Runners put out the fire with buckets of sea water, and the foil is carefully peeled back as the line of people with fiber-board trays assembles.
In my family, people eating lobster is not a pretty sight. It ALL gets eaten, even the hard-to-extract parts, with lots of idiosyncratic techniques and comparisons of tomalley (green stuff, you don’t want to know) and coral (eggs). And there’s enough melted butter to put lard to shame! If it weren’t for the lemons, you’d still be trying to get the grease off the next day. More you could not wish for.