The lobster just wouldn’t die.
Neat black-and-white drawings in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking fail to tell the whole story. Nothing there about squirming bodies, queasy stomachs, and misplaced stabs to crustacean heads. “While professionals simply cut up the lobsters with never a qualm nor a preliminary, you may find this difficult.”
No joke, Julia.
For a fortnight, I’m enrolled in a short seafood class at the Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris, France. The very same place where Julia learned to cook la cuisine française.
I loom over a lobster, its fidgety black claws tethered with beige twine, bound tight with a slip knot. A twelve-inch chef’s knife gleams in my right hand, sharp as my grandfather’s straight-edge razor. Despite that sharpness, the knife fails me. The creature’s dark eyes bulge like tiny blueberries on the vine when I thrust the knife into its head. Shaking, I try again, and again. On my fourth attempt, this time gripping the lobster’s spiny torso with my left hand, the knife slips. Again. The creature’s tail twitches, flapping up and down. The creature’s feathery legs tickle my thumb.
And that’s when I know I’m dealing with a female lobster. I aim the tip of the knife at the sweet spot just below her quivering eye stalks. And plunge it through the shell, my eyes closed. Then I rap the head with the butt of the knife. Or maybe Chef does that. I don’t really remember.
This time she stops moving. She’s dead. Finally.
The knife falls from my hand, the blade ringing on the well-seasoned metal cooktop, more like a flat grill. I sink against the stainless-steel counter, my breath rasping, the sound my grandfather made when his congestive heart failure turned terminal. To be truthful, the killing horrifies me. Meat usually enters my kitchen all wrapped up in cellophane or, as it happens in African open-air markets, meat sits on fly-infested wooden counters. Dead. But not by my hand.
Chef Jean-Pierre notices me and yells, “Allez, allez,” pointing at his watch. I grab the knife again.
I slice through her underbelly. Orange roe seeps out. I save it for the sauce, for Lobster Thermidor, a dish I first tasted in La Ceiba, Honduras.
Scraping away stray bits of shell, I prep the tail, dig the meat from claws with a special fork, its tines long and spindly as a pitchfork. Butter sizzles in the copper-bottom sauté pan. I drop the meat into the bubbling fat. The shell changes color, from dark brown-black to bright crimson red. The color of blood, I think. I scoop out the meat, keep it warm on the side of the stove while I make the sauce. Mushrooms. Flour. Dry mustard. Egg yolks. Heavy cream. More butter. Cognac. Parmesan. I broil the tails, claw meat, and sauce until bubbles blister and brown on the surface. I plate the dish. Chef comes to my station, sticks a tasting fork into the thickest part of the tail. Sauce drips onto his plump fingers. He licks the calloused tips. “Bon!” And moves on to the next student.
Years later, I flick on the television and insert a DVD into the machine. Julia Child, played by Meryl Streep, flounces across the screen. The film “Julie & Julia,” based on Julie Powell’s book of the same name, follows Powell through the year she decided to cook and blog her way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Then Amy Adams, as Julie Powell, braces herself for the moment she’s been dreading. She reaches into a large white paper sack and pulls out two lobsters. A pot of water as large as a small garbage can boils on the stove in the background. She removes the lid and shoves the lobsters into the scalding water, holding them down with the lid as they thrash. She screams as the lid flies into the air and the lobsters propel themselves across the tiny kitchen.
And that’s when I think of her, my lobster. And I shudder.
Something must die so that I may live. So that we may all live. Life is death. And death is life.
To read more of my kitchen adventures and reflections on cooking/life, please take a look at my book, Stoves & Suitcases: Searching for Home in the World’s Kitchens.