Life, Death and the Lobster Pot

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Fall is the beginning of lobster season. Cooking this marine creature gives chef Gillian Clark one of the few opportunities she has to directly connect with nature.


Today's food moment takes us to commentator and chef Gillian Clark. Unlike chicken or beef, she kills the lobster she prepares with her own hands. The start of fall means the start of lobster season, and it's the time of year that reminds Clark just how much she relies on the natural world.

GILLIAM CLARK: My first time: I was a young newlywed cooking an elaborate dinner for our second anniversary. I carefully pulled the wriggling beasts from the tangle of seaweed and tossed them into the pot of boiling water. I covered the rolling bubbles with the lid. When it was safe to look, I peeked inside. The thrashing had come to a stop, and the briny green camouflage was gone from their shells. They had turned the bright red of lobster surrender. I could exhale now. Mission accomplished.

Today I am divorced and cook for a living. Hundreds of chickens, thousands of pounds of beef have come out of my kitchen. But I look forward to the fall colors and the cooler air and lobster season.

Protecting that precious tail meat are the armor and sharp spines my victims use to propel themselves away from the steaming kettle. They leap onto my stove, upending the pots of beurre blanc and green beans. It becomes a test of wills. They are Ali in his prime when they rope-a-dope me. Appearing weak and vulnerable, they lead me to believe they've given up. I go at them unguarded like George Foreman, and I pay for my arrogance.

Serving lobster in a restaurant is not like serving chicken or beef tenderloin. Headless, featherless birds seem to have never been alive. Beef arrives and is safely stacked in my cooler in pieces, nothing like the huge beasts I've marveled at at the county fair.

The lobster, twitching under wet newspaper, I respect and admire. There are no thoughtful eyes or soothing purr, but there is a tenacious instinct and complicated beauty to this arthropod.

With the boiling pot between us, I feel the prey and predator connection, a cathartic moment long removed from today's world of modern convenience. Supermarkets diminish our role in the food chain. Fishermen, hunters, and on occasion a chef, get to play a direct part in nature.

From my kitchen window, I watch people eat what was once a living lobster. Pulled from the shell, elegantly plated and sauced, it looks as if it never participated in that life and death struggle, too one-sided for Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom.

Nonetheless, my small role brings me closer to knowing and appreciating the gifts of the Earth. I'm careful with them. Until it's time, they enjoy nursery-like conditions in my cooler. The life of the lobster is never wasted in my kitchen. I cry for the ones in hands of the less skilled. Because they live and die, I live better. I appreciate their sacrifice and don't let any bit of them go to waste. The tail is in one recipe, the delicate claw meat in another. The shells are for the bisque. They are my buffalo, and I treat them with the reverence Native Americans showered upon their life-sustaining prey.

Sure, I love the simple way mashed potatoes satisfy and that an egg can scramble or soufflé, but it's the lobster that gets me through the winter.

(Soundbite of music)

ELLIOTT: Gillian Clark is chef and owner of The Colorado Kitchen in Washington, DC. This is NPR News.

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