Someday I’d like to design a room saluting the lobster, perhaps the chicest creature on Earth, the very definition of jolie-laide (“pretty-ugly”) which is at the heart of true chic. (That’s why the Duchess of Windsor, herself the chicest jolie-laide, wore a lobster-painted gown by Elsa Schiaparelli.)
Think of the lobster’s beastly silhouette, the beautiful fresh blue, the magnificent steamed red, the rich sweet taste…
Here on Cape Cod, a lobster roll is surely the first taste of summer. But did you know that fossil lobsters, or nephropidae, have been dated to the Valanginian Age, one million years ago? Or that the Pilgrims found lobsters so abundant when they first settled in Provincetown that they piled them on vegetable plots for fertilizer?
In the United States, lobsters remained the food of the poor and standard fare for servants until the beginning of the Gilded Age, when well-heeled New Yorkers and Bostonians discovered a taste for what had once been thought of as the bottom-feeding cockroach of the sea.
Recipes like Lobster Newberg (created in 1876 at Delmonico’s in Manhattan) were all the rage, though the lobster found earlier fame in England in the lyrics to “The Lobster Quadrille,” from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, first published with wonderful illustrations by the famed Victorian cartoonist Sir John Tenniel in 1865:
“You can really have no notion how delightful it will be When they take us up and throw us, with the lobsters, out to sea!”
According to Howard Mitcham, author of the Provincetown Seafood Cookbook (1975, Parnaussus Imprints) and the bon vivant chef of Pepe’s Restaurant in the 1970s, Provincetown’s lobstermen were so adept that they lent their skills to lobstering communities up and down the Atlantic Coast, which deterred the competition from fishing Provincetown’s rich waters.
Some can’t bear the idea of eating lobster, which is killed before eating with a knife-whack through its head, or, by steaming alive. David Foster Wallace’s 2004 essay “Consider the Lobster” details the lobster’s sensory neurons, and has likely killed the taste for lobster in many people.
But for the lucky rest of us, here’s a recipe for Portuguese Lobster from Mitcham’s cookbook, which has the best introduction to Provincetown and it’s Portuguese roots I’ve read. The book is out of print, and can be hard to find, but worth the hunt for any seafood cook or reader of great cook books.
LAGOSTA A PORTUGUESA [Portuguese Lobster] (1 Serving)
1 ½ cups lobster meat 1 cup molho sauce (see below)
2 tbsps. Imported brandy 2 tbsps. butter ½ tsp. chopped parsley
Native Cape Cod lobsters have a great affinity for the mohle tomate and for flaming brandy which adds to the piquancy of this dish. Steam lobsters until they are about three-fourths done, shell them and pick out the meats, fat and tomalley. Cut the meat up into chunks. This dish should be cooked only in individual or double portions; it just can’t be mass produced.
Melt the butter in a skillet, add the lobster chunks and stir them around; add the brandy and flame it. After the flame goes out add the parsley and keep sautéing and stirring for about 2 minutes more. Add the mohle tomate, raise the heat a little and cook and stir until all the elements are well blended. Serve in preheated individual casserole dish with slices of toasted Portuguese, French or Italian bread.
(Notes from JP: Discard the tomalley, or freeze for a sauce. And flame the brandy with the burner off!)
MOHLE TOMATE [Tomato Sauce]
1 large can pomodori pelati tomatoes 3 medium onions, slivered 1 green pepper, chopped 2 cloves garlic, finely minced ½ cup chopped parsley ½ cup olive oil 1 cup red wine
1 cup water 2 tbsps. Vinegar 1 tbsp. sugar ¼ tsp. crushed cumin seeds 1 pinch each of basil, thyme, and crushed red pepper seeds salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste
Saute the onion, green pepper and garlic in the olive oil until they are soft but not brown; add the parsley and stir it in. Add the tomatoes (squeeze them up to pulverize them) and all the rest of the ingredients; turn the heat up high to bring it to a boil, stirring briskly to mix everything well.
Now lower the heat to as low as possible and simmer for one or two hours, stirring now and then to prevent sticking or scorching. “Simmer,” as defined by the Portuguese, is a slow thing; it doesn’t even bubble.
(Note from JP: I prefer a few branches of each fresh herb rather than dried. And I cook this in a heavy, covered pan in the oven at 275 degrees for 2 hours, adding a bit of water or the juice from the tomatoes every 20 minutes or so.)