Maybe no food is more iconic of New England than the lobster. Lobster can be excellent, or it can be mediocre. I hate to see tourists come to Plymouth and finally try a long-anticipated lobster dinner, knowing that they are probably getting a second-rate lobster at a chain restaurant.
What makes for a first-rate lobster?
As with all seafood, freshness is paramount. This is an especially tricky situation with lobsters, because they are kept "alive" in tanks until they are taken out to be cooked. I put "alive" in quotes because the tanks are a critical part of the supply chain, and an often-neglected one. Look at the tank in a supermarket, or in a huge restaurant that buys lobsters faster than it sells them: is there a layer of lobsters stifled under three more layers of its brothers? How good is the circulation down there? What wastes are building up, and affecting the water in the next few layers? When you order your lobster from the top layer at 7pm, was it two layers down all afternoon until the dinner crowd bought the tastier top few?
Seawater is a complex substance. A bucket of seawater off the end of Town Wharf in Plymouth is unique in all the world; it includes thousands of minerals, organic acids, suspended matter, microorganisms, and maybe a fish if you're lucky. It contains moonbeams and mermaid tears and the memories of sunken treasure if you want to get poetic anbout it. Can the living sea be reduced to a tank of saltwater maintained by a high-school kid working at the local supermarket or Red Lobster restaurant?
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Here is some useful information by some lobster experts from ... Las Vegas. The information is aimed at the owner of the tank who sells the lobsters to you. Pay special attention to the Q&A's and FYI's. The scary part is not the information itself, but the sheer amount of it and the length of the troubleshooting section: somebody is having those common problems.
This is not to say that you can't get a good lobster from an inland tank. People eat lobsters from the supermarket every day and don't drop dead from the experience. If that's the lobster you are used to and you are happy with it, then that's great.
But if you want the best lobster foodie experience, here's your hot tip: get the lobster from a lobster pound on the shore that pumps real seawater through the tank. Cook the lobster fresh from the water (or have the seller cook it for you), and eat it as soon as you can.
Cooked lobster loses its flavor in hours. Take two lobsters from the same tank cooked the same way and chilled immediately, one of them cooked yesterday and the other cooked an hour ago. You'll be able to tell the difference. Easily. There's an aromatic sparkle to the flavor of the fresh-cooked lobster that has evaporated out by the next day. That's why it is so important when you make my Lobster Salad to use only fresh lobsters, and to shell them and dress them as fast as you can - let the dressing capture those aromatics before they escape into the air!