-by Eric Yoshida
New York City’s Chelsea Market has come a long way from its time as a NABISCO factory. A little-known hangout during my childhood, it’s now a prime tourist location, with a wide variety of eateries and specialty shops. Interning ten blocks uptown from the place in the spring of 2011, I would come to the market for lunch nearly every day, for either Thai food, a sandwich and chips, or a few Australian meat pies.
Thinking of enjoying something like I had in those days, I walked over to the market for lunch at 1:30 with two of my friends, with a third planning to meet us at some point within the hour. Once inside, it took a few moments to warm up and see an eye-opening spectacle: hordes of people carrying around paper plates loaded with lobsters, some of them as big as my forearm. I glanced at my friends, they looked back. Our plans just got solidified.
After calling up Jon (get yourself downtown NOW!!) we muscled our way through the mob of lunchers balancing pounds of shellfish and lemon and butter and plasticware on flimsy, soaking wet plates. What made this even more difficult was that there were more eaters than chairs or benches available; we had to be mindful of the people sitting on the ground, who added to the congestion of this busy route. But no matter, we still got to The Lobster Place (finally living up to its name; it’s a fish market) without stomping on or kicking anyone whose eye-level was at our waists.
Whenever I enter a place selling fresh seafood I usually stop short as the powerful cocktail of fish insides, saltwater, and seaweed shoots up my nose. I love it, maybe you can tell? But no stopping short today, because my eyes fixated on the massive stacks of half-steamed lobsters heaped at the back of the shop. I asked for two medium ones to share between the four of us, two pounds each at $13.95/pound. With tax, we figured, we would be basically paying fifteen bucks each for what might cost twice that much, as the second-fiddle option at a classic New York steakhouse. Well, either I or the guy behind the counter was not really paying attention, because when I took the receipt to the cashier (the lobsters were being prepared) the scanner displayed $89.00. Luckily, we picked up exactly what we paid for – nearly six pounds of meat and shell. I couldn’t help but have the phrase “YOLO” pass through my mind when we exited.
We dispersed, looking for seats. It took only a few minutes, as the lunch hour started to wane. The weighty tray was set down, and we examined it, trying to formulate a plan of attack. Tigran was apprehensive; he had never eaten lobster before. So he teamed up with my 2 A.M.-fridge-cleaner roommate Jon for one, and Daniel and I got the other.
It began. The shell had been cracked open in all the right places, and each of us uniformly selected a half section of tail. As the others pondered whether to use a fork or pick it up with their fingers, I steadied my lobster’s head with my fingers and scoop out the acid-green tomalley from the empty cavity, scraping it off into my cup of butter. I drowned my tail-piece in it, dragging it across the bottom so as to mix the butter and innards into a slightly fishy slurry of a subtle yet strong flavor. The first bite was, well, words fail to describe it. I think of what food writers are paid to do: come up with vocabulary for times like these. But how many times can one describe lobster as sweet, or briny, or velvety before sounding cliche?
Sadly, my lobster tail disappeared quickly, so claw came next. Wrenching it apart too suddenly, juice splattered everywhere. My friends jumped with surprise, and for a moment I found myself surprised too, that I had kind of forgotten that there were, ahem, people watching me, and that I was not in my own personal bubble. Tigran and Daniel had given up, something about it being too rich? Wait a minute, Jon, you’re not using your butter? Yoink. Your tomalley too? Thanks, and what exactly are you pulling out of your backpack there? A salad, wow, I might just eat your leftovers when I’m finished over here.
Claw went down, then shards of shell were launched at an even greater frequency than before as I tried to extract every last fingerful (still abstaining from using a fork) from the knuckles, the leg sockets, and the tailfin. Mopped up the butter, the guts, the fat and slurped it all down with reckless abandon. And…it was gone. Leaning back in my crooked metal chair I surveyed the damage. My hands were covered with a slimy film of lobster organs, which has also accumulated under my fingernails and had leaked onto the table. Slivers of red carapace and flecks of pale fat stuck to my hand, forming an ugly-looking mosaic, extending onto my sweater and, comically, my glasses. A heap of disemboweled and thoroughly deconstructed lobsters spread out across the tray five pounds lighter than it was only a half-an-hour ago. Jon had finally finished, and put away his arugula salad, half-heartedly nibbled. We collect ourselves. Daniel remarked how he remembered hearing that lobsters used to be fed to prisoners, who would complain about being fed it too often. A few moments of light conversation, a flurry of napkins and wipes, and we walked away from our little table, feeling slightly less mobile. Money well spent.
(Other people enjoying)