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Book reviews

How To Make Love To A Lobster: An Eclectic Guide To The Buying, Cooking, Eating and Folklore Of Shellfish, Marjorie Harris and Peter Taylor, Whitecap Books, 2013, 144 p.

  • Sandra Duric

Corps de l’article

Originally published in 1988, Marjorie Harris and Peter Taylor’s updated guide, How To Make Love To A Lobster: An Eclectic Guide To The Buying, Cooking, Eating and Folklore Of Shellfish, captured my imagination, and sparked an unexpected critical inquiry. With great attention to detail, I pored over the survey of fairly standard recipes (divided by type of species), wine pairing suggestions, historical trivia, and mildly amusing yet thoroughly nostalgic memories of unforgettable shellfish indulgences in the lives of Harris and Taylor.

The delightful literary tone, reminiscent of M. F. K. Fisher’s 1941 classic book, Consider The Oyster, and the playfully naive illustrations by Setareh Ashrafologhalai could not, however, distract this reader from what was reading like a shallow dive into an even more critical pairing than wine: the topic of ecological sensitivity. Where else but in an updated cookbook do we find the opportunity for updated ideas, such as the fact that the ocean's tasty resources are being compromised, in quality and in quantity?

Setting aside this nagging question, I continued reading with an eye to mastering a certain culinary challenge I had set for myself. I'd elected Harris and Taylor to be my personal guides as I reached for a milestone in my appetite for self-education and flavourful adventures. With trepidation, softened only by the exuberance and detailed knowledge these shellfish aficionados obviously share, I was daring to prepare a live lobster, snappy claws and all. This idea left me Woody Allen skittish. That escapee live lobster scene in Annie Hall risked playing out in my own kitchen.

Unlike the crab, the shrimp, the prawns and scampi, the abalone, the conch, all the shellfish — and even squid and octopus — that Harris and Taylor simmer in nostalgia and season with lyrical romance, the California spiny lobster was local and in season. Adding to the thrill of creating unforgettable moments, my husband offered to join a group of lobster divers and capture one for a late romantic dinner. I was delighted at his offer. Only the freshest would do for my lofty ambitions, as long as it wasn't me in the dark murky waters chasing a crustacean.

As a Canadian who did not grow up on one of our three saltwater coasts, I did not have privileged access to dripping fresh quality seafood, until this year. I am undeniably a shellfish amateur. That is, I have had the pleasure of enjoying what others prepared. While studying abroad, in Bordeaux, France, I delighted in the annual tradition of gritty, raw oysters one New Year’s Eve. Only during the years I lived in Vancouver did I begin to truly appreciate the wondrous subtleties of sushi, and developed a personal theory that those who don't like sushi haven't tasted fresh high quality sushi. In Hawaii, I had a surprising Proustian moment, but my madeleine was the simple shrimp, the freshest I have ever had the pleasure of savouring, coated in coconut.

These delectable experiences taught me about the undeniable roles that location, freshness, and expert preparation play in the flavour of shellfish, roles that are cursorily examined — or perhaps taken for granted? — in How To Make Love To A Lobster, a book aimed at inspiring and educating amateur shellfish cooks.

On the night of the lobster dive, as the divers donned wet suits and checked flashlight batteries, they discussed best methods for capturing and preparing these crustaceans. The locals preferred to make love to this claw-free creature by barbecuing it and pairing it with beer.

Claw-free? Barbecue?

Harris and Taylor focus on their love of the “king of all crustaceans,” the snappy claw-waving American lobster for which they share favourite recipes to steam, poach, boil, or broil. Tony Aspler provides wine pairings at the end of each chapter, not beer. While waiting for the divers to return, I messaged my sister-in-law, “No claws? Barbecue? Help!?”.

Earlier that day, my sister-in-law became my lobster expert by emphatically begging to disagree with the authors’ advice that you can eat a lobster after it dies overnight in your refrigerator, preferably on a bed of seaweed (p. 5).  That she grew up eating shellfish in Newfoundland, and survived to share techniques and recipes, persuaded me to side with her on this thorny point. I was intimidated by the prospect of my first time killing and preparing a creature of the sea, and planned to err on the side of caution. Preparing live shellfish can be a precarious matter, with the avoidance of environmental toxins and accidental food poisoning high on the list of a cook's culinary objectives. As inspired as I was with Harris and Taylor's easy-to-follow instructions and passion for the subject, my sister-in-law had planted a seed of doubt in the authors' authority on lobsters, never mind seafood handling and preparation in general.

The lobster dive lasted two hours. Shivering from the always-cold Pacific Ocean, the empty-handed divers approached a small waiting crowd. None of us would be loving freshly caught — claw-free — lobster that day. One or two lobsters were spotted, swimming quickly away.

Undeterred, and still hungry, I  briefly considered the list of seafood restaurants at the end of How To Make Love To A Lobster, a list based on Harris and Taylor’s own experiences, and that of their friends. Cross-referencing their list of recommended San Diego restaurants with that of the San Diego Coastkeeper’s list of sustainable seafood restaurants, unsurprisingly, I didn’t find any correspondence. Restaurants serving sustainable seafood are still uncommon. However, my lack of surprise is more due to the perhaps unintentionally gluttonous enjoyment of seafood consumption Harris and Taylor promote when they share a story about the "all-you-can-eat mussel day" at one of their favourite restaurants (p. 79). Sustainable food discourse celebrates quality, flavour, and conservation (or moderation), so that future generations, too, will know what it means to make love to a bevy of edible sea creatures.

Without a doubt, the delightful historical detail and anecdotal quality of How To Make Love To A Lobster, as well as the Harris and Taylor’s literary and gastronomical passion for this topic, is entertaining. However, far from charming is the lip service they pay, when they do, to the spirit of social and environmental responsibility that accompanies contemporary culinary discourses, especially in the farm-to-table cookbook genre.

To my knowledge, highly-regarded and deliciously literary works on sustainable seafood-to-table cooking in book form have yet to appear on the market. Partly filling this gap are online resources such as SeaChoice (www.seafoodchoice.org), a Canadian seafood program that delivers current science-based information to help us make the best seafood choices, and the Marine Stewardship Council (www.msc.org), a global ecolabel and fishery certification program. How To Make Love To A Lobster may not sufficiently guide an amateur shellfish cook through murky ethical waters, the cookbook does motivate us to ask how a conscientious culinary celebration and gastronomical practice that invites informed environmental stewardship to the table will look.

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