Photographs: Becky Reams
Let’s pretend we’re playing charades. The word is “lobster.” Now what? Did your hands instantly rise up to make claws? Stop. Don’t we live in Southern California? Don’t we have our own lobsters? The ones without big claws? The ones that aren’t flown in from 3,000 miles away?
Now, I’m not going to say it’s easy to do an impression of a California Spiny Lobster with its large antennae being more of a showpiece than its miniature claws. And I am certainly not here to tell you that the beloved American Lobster, commonly referred to as Maine Lobster, and Spiny Lobster are the same. They are not as closely related as one might think, and besides, Maine Lobsters are pronounced, “lobstahs,” which should be indication enough that they exist separate from the rest. But, jokes aside, it does raise the question: Why is this Southern California Pacific native an after thought?
The meat of the Spiny, although not quite as sweet, is still delectable and luxurious; the shell cracking ritual is intact, complete with the utter mess of beautifully briny water–yet there is no celebration of this local treat. Despite the fact that we have several lobster festivals in and around Los Angeles every year, almost all of them feature Maine Lobster. In fact, the vast majority of our Spiny Lobsters are exported to Asia. There is simply no demand, and thus our fishermen ship them away from our shores.
On top of other commercial fishing fees, fishermen are currently required to obtain a $356 lobster permit, which allows them to use wire traps to haul these babies in from the first Wednesday in October to the first Wednesday after March 15. Marine mammal interaction with lobster traps is minimal, and strict lobster trapping regulations keep the population healthy, making it a fine choice of seafood for those in Southern California.
These regulations, however, have made life as a fisherman more expensive than ever. New traps were to be purchased, and the season was cut down to a short and strict time frame. Amazing for the lobster, tough on the fisherman. It’s no wonder that Maine lobster is less expensive, when close to 115 million pounds of them are pulled from the waters each year, as opposed to around 0.715 million pounds of Spiny Lobster. Demand is low in the United States, with many people not even knowing that they exist, and the Southern California fishermen are forced to ship them abroad through multiple distributors. Each time the lobsters exchange hands, a cut is taken from the fisherman.
But, if most lobsters are consumed in a restaurant setting–67% of seafood in general is eaten in dining establishments–is it then up to our chef’s to increase demand? When speaking with Patrick “Paddy” Glennon, founder of The Culinary Liberation Front, and vice president of sales at Santa Monica Seafood Company, he explained that it’s not an easy task for our local fishermen to move seafood directly to our restaurants: “What happens is, the fisherman, he goes out to sea, and does all that work, and the last thing he needs after he blows all that gas in his boat, is to come in and get in his car and go around and try to sell it…It’s hard…but what needs to happen, is the local seafood companies, they have to promote the local fish.”
The chefs, in turn, have to begin looking to their own waters—no doubt, where the freshest of seafood can live. It will also take creativity. Spiny Lobster is by no means cheap, but with small plates being preferred at most new restaurants, a little can go a long way. Chef Ray Garcia of FIG restaurant in Santa Monica, explains how the California Spiny Lobster, with its density, can be treated more like a fine piece of red meat, than the delicate American Lobster. The Spiny can stand up to bolder flavors.
Rather than focusing on the traditional idea of eating lobster whole, complete with the tacky plastic bib and 5,000 napkins, we are in a city of chefs who could easily and artfully craft small plates using this local delicacy. By wisely using our local resources, we are not only keeping our carbon footprint low, but we’re supporting local businesses and fisherman, whose industries, just like many of our farmers, are a far cry from being easy.
Edible Westside, along with Annette Eason of A Sustainable Kitchen, Surfas Restaurant Supply, Kim Thompson of Seafood for the Future, and Chef Ray Garcia of FIG restaurant at the Fairmont Hotel, have banded together to promote Spiny Lobster this season. Chef Ray Garcia will be hosting a cooking demo at Surfas Test Kitchen in Culver City on February 2, 2013, and Spiny Lobster will make an appearance on the menu at FIG this winter. Stay tuned for confirmed dates, but in the meantime, if you would like a chance to meet and speak with some of the closest fishermen to LA selling directly off of the pier, take a field trip to the Dory Fleet in Newport Beach, on Saturdays and Sundays at the crack of dawn.
Lobster is lovely all on its own, and pairs well with a number of flavors and ingredients
SPINY LOBSTER WEEK 2013
Dory Fleet Fish Market
Saturday & Sunday 5am–10am
110 McFadden Place
Newport Beach, CA 92663
Surfas Restaurant Supply & Gourmet Food
8777 West Washington Blvd.
Culver City, CA 90232
FIG Restaurant at the Fairmont Hotel
101 Wilshire Blvd.
Santa Monica, CA 90401