This essay was originally published in Oasis Journal 2016.
You either feel passionate about lobster or you don’t. I don’t. I like lobster—I like kale and cottage cheese too, but none of these ranks among my favorites. I’ve never craved lobster, licked my lips in anticipation of it, the way my mother did.
She was brought up in an Orthodox Jewish household, and when she left her mother’s kosher kitchen she rejected its dietary decrees like a hot knish. Making up for lost time, she indulged hungrily in what had been the forbidden fare—pork and shellfish. As I child I would watch her sigh in contentment as she gnawed the last morsel of meat off a pork chop or rib bone, grab with mock greed when I proffered the remains from my own plate. But her favorite was always lobster.
The former Torrey Pines Inn in La Jolla had a Friday night all-you-can-eat spread featuring shipped-in-fresh Maine lobster. We rarely ate out, and then just for Mexican food or pizza. The Torrey Pines buffet was a splurge saved for two special occasions—my parents’ anniversary in February and my mother’s birthday in September—and savored during the months between. On those festive Fridays Mom would ignore the soups and salads, the shrimp dangling from the rim of an iced bowl of cocktail sauce, the kettles of steamed clams, the carving table with its array of roast meats. She would aim straight for the radiant mounds of scarlet shells, the platters piled high with broiled lobsters. Not wanting to look piggish, she’d put two on her plate with a fluted ramekin of drawn butter and head back to our table. A disposable bib was provided at each place setting in the spirit of joyful, messy gluttony, and I would tie it around her neck in exaggerated slow motion until she started to squirm, swatting at my hand.
“Hurry up,” she’d say. “Stop teasing me.”
She’d dip the first piece in butter, bring it to her mouth … and stop … motionless, eyes closed … to revel in the essence of its rich, sweet succulence before biting in. With the precision of a surgeon and the tools at hand, she would pry every bit of flesh out of the body cavity and claws, extracting every tiny morsel. When she finished, she’d go back for two more. And maybe more again. She wasn’t trying to set any records; she just ate until she was satiated and, as she never failed to remind us, had gotten her money’s worth. I can still see her sitting back in the afterglow, sealing the occasion with an after-dinner cigarette, a contented smile on her face and a greasy smear of butter on her chin.
My father used to go surf fishing. He enjoyed the unhurried pace, gazing out to sea for hours on end or exchanging small talk with the other fishermen as they waited for the infrequent tugs on their extended poles. His aim was to bring home a meal’s worth of the small shore-hugging fish that he could hook with sand crabs for bait and a good cast at low tide. I acquired an early appreciation for fresh fish, but my mother only tolerated it. She was more enthusiastic when Dad brought home a bucketful of mussels, plucked off the rocks in the months with an “r” when they were deemed safe to eat. I would help remove the beards and scrub the grit from the pitted purple-black shells; then he would steam them in a cast-iron kettle with onions, garlic and oregano. We devoured them with gusto and lots of French bread for sopping up the broth. For Mom, though, they were no substitute for the big crimson crustaceans she loved.
Dad came home from one of these outings to tell us that a fishing buddy knew a guy who knew a guy who could get local lobsters for a couple of bucks each. “Don’t tell anyone,” he said, as they were “shorts,” below the legal size. They were supposed to be tossed back to grow to maturity, but many became victims of a brisk black-market trade. My parents were honest almost to a fault, but they didn’t blanch when offered illicit lobsters under the table. Dad would bring home a dozen to boil and broil and serve up with lemon and Tabasco-infused butter. We’d get four apiece—they were small—but sometimes I’d give one of mine to my mother just for her warm gush of gratitude.
“Oh, you sweetheart,” she would say.
David Foster Wallace’s investigative essay, “Consider the Lobster,” is legendary among food writers and readers. I wouldn’t presume to tread in his shadow but I too am considering, contemplating, ruminating, reflecting, musing on lobster. My focus isn’t catastrophic—cruelty to lobsters, scandals in the fishing industry, fears for the environment. Nor is it disinterested. My lobster tale (to which Microsoft Word adds a squiggly blue underline to suggest that I use the homonym “tail”) is about family, about finding myself in the unwitting role of conduit.
Recessive traits are known to often skip a generation or more; take the examples of red hair and twins. I didn’t inherit my mother’s lust for lobster, but it’s in my genes. As my mother’s daughter and my daughter’s mother, I’m the designated carrier, transmitting the passion from one to the other.
Jennifer always got to choose her birthday dinner. It’s a family tradition many of us grew up with and perpetuated with our own children. As a child I favored batter-fried shrimp; now it’s seared ahi. Neither of us remembers Jennifer’s early preferences. She was a picky eater, so it probably was some kind of kid food, tacos or pizza. Nor do we recall why, the year she was eleven or twelve, we went to Newport Annie’s, a new restaurant by the beach. Maybe for the tacos, but we both opted for the specialty, fried lobster tails in the Baja California style, with tortillas, beans and rice, guacamole and salsa.
The recessive DNA strand sprang to life as soon as Jennifer took her first bite. The eyes wide in wonderment, the sighs and squeals: “Mom, I’ve never tasted anything so good.” My mother had passed away several years earlier, but I knew instantly that Jennifer had inherited the lobster legacy.
These clawless spiny Pacific lobsters—langostas—have long been the draw in Puerto Nuevo (“new port”), a small Baja California town fifty miles below the Mexican border at San Diego. Some shrewd entrepreneurs must have figured they could capitalize on its popularity by duplicating it on this side of the border. Newport Annie’s served fresh local lobster throughout the season, which started on the Saturday before the first Wednesday in October. Jennifer’s birthday is in late September, so the timing was perfect—I think it was preordained.
Newport Annie’s closed after a few years, but I found a seafood restaurant in our neighborhood that advertised broiled Maine lobster. Lobster’s lobster, right? I’d had both kinds and couldn’t taste any difference. I warned Jennifer that you have to work a little harder, pick the meat out of the claws instead of just extracting the whole tail in a single swoop. She was game, and her enthusiasm was heightened when she saw the green stuff in the body cavity—“Oh look, guacamole!” she said. She tasted it and gagged, turning as green as the mushy mound. Which was tomalley, the lobster’s liver and pancreas, a delicacy to some, repulsive guts to others. Jennifer salvaged the precious meat, removing it from its shell and possible contamination to a separate plate. But she still doesn’t eat Maine lobster and scorns easterners’ claims of its superiority.
Her birthday choices varied after that until Ortega’s opened, specializing in the Baja-style lobster. She’d remained faithful to her favorite, and our ritual was restored. That’s where you’ll find us in late September, sipping salted margaritas, dipping chips into guacamole prepared fresh at the table. The langostas arrive with all the traditional accompaniments, including a paper bib. Jennifer ties it on, beaming as she eyes her plate. She wraps pieces of lobster in warm flour tortillas and dips them in butter. I watch her expressions of delight and listen to her mews of bliss. She’s her grandmother’s successor, buttery chin and all.