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The great lobster debate — claws vs. tails

When it comes to lobster, Kathryn Rolston is all about tails. She finds it easier to wrestle from the shell than claw meat, and more substantial.
/ Source: The Associated Press

When it comes to lobster, Kathryn Rolston is all about tails. She finds it easier to wrestle from the shell than claw meat, and more substantial.

But for Gene Beaudoin, her lunch companion, it’s the claws that make the meal. He says any extra effort to get at them is worth it because the meat is sweeter and more tender than tails.

“Plus there are two claws,” he said as they finished their lobster rolls during a recent visit to The Lobster Shack restaurant, which overlooks the cold, lobster-filled waters of Maine’s Casco Bay.

“But I like the texture of the tail meat,” she countered light-heartedly.

The arrival of warm weather in Maine means tourists won’t be far behind, scarfing down the state’s signature seafood at the numerous lobster joints that dot the coast. And with that comes the perennial debate over lobster part preferences — claws or tails.

In these parts, it’s a question that can stir spirited debate, something akin to asking Southerners which kind of barbecue is best.

The North American lobster, Homarus americanus, is regarded as the king of shellfish. Served whole with a side of melted butter is the traditional way to eat it, but chefs also use lobster meat in numerous recipes, from appetizers and stews to salads and pastas.

Much of the lobster is edible, including meat from parts many diners never try — the body, legs, even the tail flippers. By comparison, the tail and claws offer rich rewards for comparably little effort.

The tail meat generally is chewier and more fibrous than the claw. That’s because lobsters flap them forcefully as a means of locomotion, said Brian Beal, a lobster expert and professor at the University of Maine at Machias.

The claw muscles are softer, because they aren’t used as much or as vigorously as the tail. The crusher claw (the larger of the two, used to crush things) generally is tougher than the pincher claw (used to pull things apart).

Beal prefers the tail to the claw — he says it’s meatier and more flavorful. The tail and claw have different tastes, he says, much the way that the different parts of other animals have diverse flavors.

“Why does bacon taste different than ham? It’s different muscle tissue, that’s all,” Beal said.

Melissa Bouchard, head chef at DiMillo’s Floating Restaurant in Portland, is well familiar with the claw vs. tail debate. Year round, DiMillo’s goes through 140 lobsters and 70 pounds of lobster meat a day.

She says claw meat is preferable for lobster rolls and lobster club sandwiches because it’s more tender and easier to eat.

Lobster tails, however, are used for the restaurant’s deep-fried lobster tail entree, Bouchard says, because they stand up better than claws to deep-frying.

And then there is the best of both worlds. A combination of claw, tail and knuckle meat is used in other dishes such as lobster ravioli, seafood scampi and baked lobster pie.

Bouchard thinks people from Maine prefer the claw meat, while people from other parts of the country like the tail.

“It’s the tourists vs. the locals,” she said.

True lobster lovers will tell you they like the entire lobster. But even tails and claws have their downsides.

The claws can sometimes be puny in soft-shell lobsters. For the tails, people have the vein — the intestine — and the roe, or eggs, to contend with. (The vein usually is removed, while the roe is scraped or washed out.)

A newspaper columnist in Portland once asked readers their lobster preference in an informal survey. The result: a tie between the claw and tail, with knuckles, legs and other parts far behind.

You can count Bob Wakefield, the owner of the Great Maine Lobsterbake Co., a fan of knuckle meat, which is found in the shell between the claw and the body.

“The tail fits the blue-collar palate, and the knuckle fits aristocracy,” Wakefield said. “The knuckle is a little bit more delicate, and the tail you can get your arms around and get a big piece of meat.”

Ask longtime lobsterman Greg Griffin for an opinion, and he’ll talk up the lobster’s virtues without downplaying any part.

“The sweet subtle succulent lobster flavor is throughout,” said Griffin, who reckons he’s eaten about 7,000 pounds of lobster in his time.

Back at The Lobster Shack, Barry McIntyre of Cobden, Ontario, ate his first lobster while having lunch with his wife and friends. The verdict? He liked the texture and taste of the claw over the tail.

“I would trade a tail for a claw any time,” he said.