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On a Roll

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On the screen, a male lobster, hiding out in a shelter at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, is excitedly flicking his swimmerets, symmetrical lines of tiny fins under his tail. A female comes in behind him, and they warily tap claws and sniff each other by waving their antennules. Then the female lies on her side and molts, wiggling out of her shell. She’s soft as jelly right now, Corson says. At this point, the male climbs on top of her and inserts his two penises (count ’em) into her seminal receptacle. Eight seconds later, he is done.

Owner Rebecca Charles comes out of the kitchen in chef’s whites, and Corson nods at his laptop: Lobster porn. Want to see it?

Lobster porn? Charles says, as she settles in for a viewing. Nasty.

If it weren’t for all these lobsters having all this sex, Corson says, in a game attempt to justify our gratuitous viewing, we wouldn’t be having all these lobster rolls in New York.

Which is sort of true. But the lobster glut is a little more complicated than that. Over the last 30 years, the annual catch has more than tripled, from 22 million pounds to 78 million pounds. The proliferation is an instance of environmental disaster begetting environmental boon: The overfishing of cod decimated the largest group of natural predators of young lobsters, resulting in many more lobsters reaching edible/fertile adulthood. At the same time, stringent conservation measures, including a minimum size and maximum size of keepable lobsters, have made the Maine-lobster fishery a rare story of successful sustainability. (As a result of Maine’s maximum-size limits, the perennial New York tabloid feature about some ancient, outsize lobster being liberated by peta from a hapless restaurant invariably involves lobsters caught elsewhere. George the Giant Lobster140 years old and twenty poundsfreed by Gramercy’s City Crab and Seafood last year, hails from Newfoundland; Craig the Crustacean, a comparably large centenarian sprung from Halu Japanese Restaurant & Grill in Dyker Heights one month later, is from Canada. Both were released into the relative safety of Maine waters.)

Compounding the lobster surplus, an unlikely financial event halfway around the world triggered an implosion in demand. When 2008 began, Maine lobstermen were selling more than half their catch to Canada, where three large processors were on growth binges and willing to pay a premium. These Canadian processors were backed by seafood-savvy banks in Iceland, and when the Icelandic banking system crashed in October of that year, the processors suddenly lost their lines of credit. They shut down completely for several weeks and never fully rebounded. Suddenly, there was more catch than the market could absorb, just when an increasing volume of competing product, such as warm-water lobster tails from South America, was hitting the market. The price of Maine lobster at the dock dropped from $5 to $2.50 a pound.

It was a low point for the crustaceans that had once been shorthand for a gaudy sort of high life. Then again, in Maine, lobstersor bugsused to be regarded as poor man’s food. The shift in lobster economics was about to bring the quaint roadside fast-food treatment known as the lobster roll to the city in a big way. Suddenly, a lobsterpreneur could drive to Maine, load up on cheap lobsters, and bring them back to New York for a profit.

It’s a perfect confluence of two things in a cultural moment, says Corson. It’s the sudden affordability of lobster meat, and it’s this foodie trend of wanting to get back to artisanal food and its source.

In late 2008, Susan Povich and Ralph Gorham were facing their own credit crisis. Povich, a lawyer (and the daughter of Maury), and Gorham, a custom-furniture-maker, had been planning to develop a building they owned near their home in Red Hook, and suddenly they couldn’t get financing.

Povich had spent summers in Bath, Maine, at the home of her grandfather, who kept kosher. Lobster in the house wasn’t an option, so growing up she made a point of eating at every possible lobster shack she could find. Gorham had grown up in Massachusetts and hung out around the docks.

Visiting Maine that Thanksgiving, they stopped to see some friends who lived in Portland. Lobsters were dirt cheap, and Povich and Gorham bought twenty pounds. We brought it back, and sat at our table, and pigged out, Povich says, and Ralph turns to me and says, Let’s open a lobster pound.’ The recession was hitting New Yorkers hard, and we felt we could bring them a luxury product at an affordable price.

People deserve to eat this, Gorham told her.


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