The Crustacean

Ilene Prusher

I couldn’t get enough lobster. I loved its tender flesh, and the way—when cooked to perfection and then dunked into liquid butter—it simply gave way and surrendered to your blissed-out palate, barely demanding to be chewed. I adored the texture of lobster meat and its pure white color. I even liked the tiny forks reserved exclusively for getting at the lobster’s most prized, hidden parts.
        I fell for this crustacean creature in my very own home. The same home where my mother changed dishes for Passover—down to the salt-shakers and can-openers—and forbade us from chewing so much as a stick of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum because it contained corn syrup. “It’s not Pessadika!”she would exclaim, and we understood that no one could argue with that. Even drinks and juices could only come from the kosher-for-Passover aisle at Waldbaum’s, or they simply weren’t going to make it into our kitchen. That her frum approach to keeping Pesach completely contradicted our summer forays into succulent seafood did not occur to me. And if it bothered my mother, she didn’t show it.
        Charlie Gibillaro, a business associate of my father’s, spent every weekend of his summer fishing. Or, as other Long Islanders called it, lobstering. Occasionally, Charlie would stop by and bring us a few fresh-caught lobsters on ice as a thank you to my father, who had been carrying Charlie’s drawings on the train with him into the city; the two were both architectural engineers, and Charlie worked from home. On these occasions of a few lobsters arriving in our kitchen, my mother would produce a large, deep pot from somewhere in the bowels of our basement. The pot, it seemed, was reserved especially for these lobsters and nothing else.
        At first, I found the lobsters frustrating—one had to pry their meat from their hard shells—and occasionally disgusting, such as when, in cracking a lobster’s middle section open, one discovered that it was a female with a belly full of pungent roe. When I realized that these were unfertilized lobster eggs that might have become lobster babies, I refused to eat them. I had my limits.
        Part of the fun was the plastic bib (this stuff was messy), the nutcrackers we used to break the shells (did Grandma Fannie know that the same tool that Mom set out with the nuts on Jewish holidays was occasionally used to break lobster claws?) and of course, the drawn butter (when else did we indulge in such a embarrassment of fatty riches?).
        Mostly, I saw my parents’ excitement when the lobster came, and the feeling they exuded of us stumbling onto a special treat. There appeared to be some special lobster law that they forgot to mention to us in Hebrew school. One doesn’t buy it, but neither does one turn it away.
        In time, I started to love lobster. By the time I was in high school, when it came to a special occasion such as a birthday or Mother’s Day and we were debating restaurant choices, lobster was all I wanted to eat.
        “How about we go for Chinese?” my mother would ask.
        “Or Mexican,” my sister would plead. “We never go for Mexican anymore.”
        “It’s my birthday,” I would insist. “And I wanna go to Red Lobster!”
        My parents laughed at my “champagne tastes” and explained that lobster was a delicacy. Had it not been for Charlie’s largesse, they said, we wouldn’t have been able to afford to eat lobster at all.
        Summers at the Indian Hills Country Club, where I started working when I was 15, only enhanced my growing lobster fetish. It was the priciest, most desirable thing on the menu, and, I decided, the most delicious. You knew that you were working at a very upper-crust wedding—always of well-heeled WASPs who ordered tray after tray of drinks all night—when there was lobster on the menu. Moreover, the lobster at the country club was of far better quality than the ones we got from Charlie. Almost weekly, I would indulge in a cup of creamy lobster bisque, courtesy of the wealthy members of Indian Hills, for whom it was as much a staple as chicken soup.
        Once, when loads of fire-engine-red lobsters were being served at a wedding, an assistant chef surreptitiously set one aside for me, aware as he was of my professed lobster love.
        “Lobster is better than sex,” I declared as I sat with another teenage waitress, pulling the sweet meat out of a claw.
        “You would know?” asked the young chef, probably in his late 20s, with raised blond eyebrows.
        I sheepishly went back to my lobster. Truth is, I wouldn’t know, and wouldn’t know for quite a few years, in fact, until I was safely out of my teens. Now 17, I was sassy, smart-mouthed, and as virginal as any local Catholic girl on the day of her Confirmation.
        Of course I was talking nonsense, comparing lobster to sex. But I did read dieting magazines, where I learned that foods such as shrimp and lobster were lower in fat than most meat and fowl, and higher in protein. These nutritional considerations were like a higher power to me when I was 17. Given this, shouldn’t we be eating lobster all the time?
        That not all modern Jews ate shellfish (but oy, not at a Jewish wedding, my mother whispered at a cousin’s nuptials, that’s just a shanda) was something that didn’t actually occur to me until I was in college, during which I came on my first visit to Israel. At 19, I’d turned vegetarian—the sight of a big, bloody side of beef in the freezer at the country club had started me on that path—but was still eating fish. And then at some point, about ten years later, it just came up and grabbed me like a snapping lobster. It being Jewish life, which I’d woken up to and wanted more of. Shabbat was becoming spiritually attractive to me, but kashrut? I wasn’t sure it was for me, or that it mattered.
        I was 30 and sitting in a sushi bar on my own in Tokyo when it hit me like a bolt of lightning. Or, more precisely, an indestructible chunk of cephalopod. The piece of raw squid I was chewing on just didn’t feel right. Didn’t feel healthy. Didn’t feel, oh, I’ll admit it, Jewish. Maybe, I suddenly felt, there was a reason God said to eat these things and not those, even though the actual nutritional logic of it didn’t hold water. As the minutes went by and I continued to chew on these thoughts, I also continued to chew on my ika, the piece of squid sushi. (I must let you know, kosher sushi aficionados, that the average Japanese person would not consider you someone who has even tasted sushi if you’ve never tried unagi (eel), a beloved summer specialty reminiscent of a very delicate chicken topped with a sweet teriyaki-style sauce, or uni (sea urchin), an orange, slightly slimy fish, which friends and I had decided was just so gelatinous and gooey that we’d secretly renamed it “the dreaded uni.” A mixed sushi plate in Japan involves various species of shrimp, crab, clam, oyster and octopus, not to mention the one thing I did not try: blowfish, part of which is poisonous, and part of which is considered the penultimate Japanese delicacy.)
        But back to my mouthful of mollusk. Perhaps there was more to it. Perhaps there were some social incentives to saying no to seafood: I couldn’t very well invite folks to Shabbat dinner on Friday, and then be spotted on an unagi don lunch date on Monday, as was de rigueur in Tokyo business circles. Perhaps I was about to have a radical gastronomical makeover, perhaps not. The one thing I was sure of was that I wanted to spit the still-unmasticated squid into a napkin without the sushi chef at the center of the kaiten-zushi bar—the kind where the sushi servings zip by on a circular conveyer belt—taking notice of my foreigner’s faux-pas.
        When I decided to go exoskeleton-free in the interest of eating kosher, my family initially found it amusing.
        One evening, while out at a lovely restaurant in Coral Springs, Florida—outings I don’t plan to give up because that would be a wholesale, unbearable rejection of my family culture—my brother had a hard time accepting my not wanting to try his sautéed scallops and shrimp over angel-hair pasta.
        “What,” my brother asked, “you won’t even want to try it? From now on, someone’s going to put a lobster tail in front of you and you’re going to say ‘feh!’ like Grandma Fannie?”
        Well, yeah. Feh. I don’t miss it. But neither do I regret that I tasted it at all. Occasionally, on a visit to Long Island or New England, the haunts of my youth and the heartland of American seafood culture, I feel wistful for the person I was and the way I ate, oblivious to the complications.
        Sometimes, a new way of living can just slip into your life as easily as a piece of buttery lobster slips down your throat. I discovered that narrowing my choices of what I take in—also necessary for, say, committing to a relationship—can be a good thing. And unlike my 17-year-old self, I now know whether lobster is better than sex.

Ilene Prusher is a columnist and editor at The Jerusalem Report. She teaches journalism for NYU-Tel Aviv, and creative nonfiction at the Hebrew University’s Department of English. Her first novel, Your Body Knows All Languages, will be published with Halban Publishers in London in June 2012.


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