The Upper West Side lobster fuss continues in New York City — over the “lobster salad” at Zabar’s (the grocery store/high-end deli), which contained no lobster.

As reported in a NYT story by James Barron on August 12 (in print under the hed “Lobster Salad, in Name Only; Yummy Whatever, for 15 Years”, on-line under the hed “Lobster Salad, but a Key Ingredient Was Missing”), beginning:

Only the name has changed. The ingredients remain the same: wild freshwater crawfish, mayonnaise, celery, salt and sugar.

For at least 15 years, Zabar’s, the Upper West Side grocery with the big crowds and even bigger prices, sold that as lobster salad — thousands and thousands of pounds of it, by itself in a plastic tub or on a bagel or a roll. Apparently no one noticed.

Then Doug MacCash, a reporter from The Times-Picayune of New Orleans, stopped at Zabar’s while vacationing in Manhattan last month.

“Lobster salad on a bagel: Why not?” he wrote on Aug. 1 on the newspaper’s Web site. “It was delicious, but the pink/orange tails seemed somehow familiar.”

He checked the label. “Wild fresh water crayfish?” he wrote. “Really? At $16.95 per pound?” He photographed the label, just to be sure.

Mr. MacCash had discovered a fact of New York culinary life that New Yorkers had not: There was no lobster in the lobster salad at Zabar’s.

An outcry ensued.

Saul Zabar’s first responses were to equivocate on what counted as lobster (citing the Wikipedia entry 

“If you go to Wikipedia,” he said, “you will find that crawfish in many parts of the country is referred to as lobster.”

and noting the existence of rock lobsters, spiny lobsters, langostinos or langoustines, and the like) and to point with pride to the list of ingredients (above), which did not misrepresent the dish as containing anything with a lobster-like name. Not surprisingly, these maneuvers did not satisfy U.S. customers (or the Maine Lobster Council), who expect Homarus americanus under the label lobster.

(I know that you can get into legal trouble in the U.S. for misrepresenting ingredients, but I’m not sure what the status of names is in the U.S.; the E.U. tends to be sticky indeed about such things.)

(Zabar didn’t take this tack, but he could have tried to maintain that lobster salad is a name on its own, essentially unanalyzable, so it makes no claim about containing lobster, in the same way that lobster seasoning and lobster sauce make no such claim; in this approach, lobster + N merely refers to a N connected in some way or another with lobsters. Compare fish sauce, which is made from fish, with duck sauce and lobster sauce, which are sauces for duck and lobster (or shrimp), respectively, and imagine all the things that a compound like Texas sauce or lobster plant might refer to. So maybe it would be enough for lobster salad merely to remind you of lobsters in some way — perhaps by being a salad with an ingredient that resembles lobster visually, or smells and tastes sort of like lobster. It could even be made of soybeans.

Not very convincing, I think, but you could try pitching the idea.)

Zabar then tried shifting to the colorless seafare salad, but (like seafood salad) that might have anything in it as long as some of it has some association with the sea, or at least with water (freshwater crawfish don’t come from the sea, of course): shrimp, crab, bits of firm fish, calamari, scallops, clams, and so on, not to mention surimi. There’s not even any assurance that something similar to Homarus americanus plays a role, however minor, in something labeled “seafare salad”.

But, according to the most recent NYT story (in print August 30 under the hed “Still No Lobster in the Salad, But It Comes With a Few Z’s”, on-line under the hed “Zabar’s New Non-Lobster Z-Food”), Zabar’s trademark guy told him that seafare salad was already trademarked, so he struck out boldly, flaunting the ZA of the family name under the banner of the portmanteau word zabster (which he pronounces, according to James Barron in the NYT, to rhyme with Napster, rather than mobster or the name of the unmentionable crustacean.

In fact, he went all the way to zabster zalad (illustration below).

I imagine he thought this would be seen as playful and attractive (as well as suggestive), rather than devious, and he’s probably right.

That’s not the end of the story, however. Zabar couldn’t resist defending his attempt to use the word lobster (or something very much like it) in the name of the salad. There are two parts to this defense. Part one is the claim that, basically, the free market made him do it: no one could be expected to provide actual lobster in something labeled as lobster salad, even at $16.95 a pound, since actual lobster would make the dish prohibitively expensive. As Zabar put it:

you could never charge that price for real lobster meat. It would have to be way out of there. The pricing was according to the product. We gave them a very clear label.

Part two, not made explicit by Zabar, follows from part one: no sensible person should expect to get Homarus americanus under the label lobster at a mere $16.95 a pound (any more than you should expect to get actual Hermés, Louis Vuitton, etc. merchandise from people selling things, at reasonable prices, under these names on the street (or on the net or in Hong Kong, etc.). Caveat emptor.

[A story from my life.  Many years ago in Columbus OH, tiring of feeding my lawn twice a year, I consulted a firm that would do the task for a fee. But, I emphasized to the salesman, my lawn consisted substantially of plants other than grass (several varieties of violet, ajuga, ground ivy, and more, all of which we admired and treasured), so that it was essential that the company would apply only fertilizer, and not the broadleaf herbicide they normally combined with the fertilizer. No problem, the salesman said, and he wrote up the work order with these instructions in capital letters.

In a few weeks, the workmen arrived, and sprayed the lawn. As they were leaving, I saw canisters of herbicide on the truck and rushed out to ask the men what they had applied. Oh, they said, fertilizer and herbicide, just like always.

Disaster. I called the company to complain and got a representative who checked the work order and agreed that it said NO HERBICIDE, but explained to me candidly that no one could expect the workmen not to apply herbicide; it was what they did on every job, I should have realized that; yes, the salesman agreed to it, but then salesmen will promise anything, I should have realized that too. Caveat emptor.

(In the end, I didn’t sue, but I got my money back and then some for replacement planting. There was only one application of herbicide, and it wasn’t fatal, though the lawn looked mighty unhappy for a while.)]

Zabar’s people are now working on concocting a langostino lobster salad. According to the Wikipedia entry,

In America, [langostino] is commonly used in the restaurant trade to refer to the meat of the squat lobster, which is neither a true lobster nor a prawn. It is more closely related to porcelain crabs and hermit crabs.

Crayfish/crawfish are actually closer to true lobsters than squat lobsters are, but squat lobsters have lobster in their name. Stay tuned to see how the langostino lobster salad works out on the Upper West Side.

18 Responses to “lobster?”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Elizabeth Zwicky on Facebook:

    It turns out that the primary European lobster is Homarus gammarus, which is basically interchangeable with Homarus americanus, including as far as I can tell under EU law. But there is also Norway lobster, which isn’t Homarus at all but Nephrops norvegicus.

    I cagily stuck to the U.S., because once we move to Europe (and on from there) things get really complicated. But H. americanus and H. gammarus seem to be very close in physical characteristics and in genetics. I wonder if they can hybridize.

  2. Victor Steinbok Says:

    I will never forget the “Welsh Dragon Sausage” that was shut down by EU regulators for lack of dragon meat. No, I am not making it up. It’s been immortalized on Language Log.


    In the end, the dragons were saved from ending up in the deli case by re-branding the product as Welsh Dragon Pork Sausage.


    • arnold zwicky Says:

      To Victor on Welsh Dragon Sausage: I’d forgotten this lovely example. As Bill Poser pointed out in his LLog posting, Chinese food names are big trouble, since so many of them are metaphorical. I wonder what the EU regulators do with “Ant Climbs Tree” (a.k.a. “Ants on a Tree”), which contains neither ants nor a tree.

  3. Victor Steinbok Says:

    I had a meandering post on this on ADS-L on August 12.

  4. arnold zwicky Says:

    On Facebook, Lise Menn reminds me about “lobster tails”, which aren’t Homarus at all, but Pacific spiny lobsters.

  5. arnold zwicky Says:

    Also on Facebook, Jean Berko Gleason reports that she thinks Whole Foods carries this very salad, under the name “crayfish salad”.

    • Victor Steinbok Says:

      Although “lobster sauce” may be accepted practice, the FDA may not look kindly on “lobster salad”–which is a New England fixture–not having any lobster in it. Usually they go after vendors who deliberately misinform customers about the main ingredient–Red Lobster got in big trouble at one point for serving langostinos as “lobster tails”. But there was an easy solution for Zabar’s–merely putting “lobster” in quotation marks would have addressed the issue.

      • arnold zwicky Says:

        Fascinating. “Lobster tails” are almost never the tails of clawed lobsters, but instead they come from other species — which, being clawless, have significant meat only in their tails.

        Since “lobster tails” are everywhere in the U.S., I’m surprised the FDA moved against Red Lobster specifically. Red Lobster seems to have taken to calling them “rock lobster tails”. Have others done the same?

  6. Cecily Says:

    Quite apart from the lobster/crawfish confusion, shepherd’s pie doesn’t contain shepherd’s and treacle tart is made with syrup rather than treacle, so maybe it’s fine for a lobster salad to accompany lobster, rather than to contain it.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      So far no one seems to have suggested that the compound lobster salad was intended as ‘salad to accompany lobster’ rather than ‘salad made of/from lobster’. This is of course possible — compounds are always potentially ambiguous in many ways — but in this case it seems preposterous.

      • Cecily Says:

        Perhaps I should have included a winking smiley (I was playing devil’s advocate, and it might have excused my apostrophe error). 😉

  7. arnold zwicky Says:

    Elizabeth Zwicky on Facebook on the 5th:

    Amazingly, one of my friends is hosting the blog carnival of the spineless today, and provides this link: http://deepseanews.com/2011/08/are-crawfish-really-lobster/ And in case you want the rest of the invertebrates: http://cephalopodiatrist.com/blog/2011/09/circus-of-the-spineless-65.html

  8. crabsticks « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

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    […] I descended into a confusing landscape of culinary and biological terminology, as with my lobster adventures of a little while […]

  10. Food and drink postings « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

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  11. Peking on Mystic « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] But that’s from Peking. Ants Climb Tree and Lion Head are from the culinary-incendiary West of China, Szechwan / Sichuan. The names are metaphorical, as I noted a while back, in my lobster posting: […]

  12. At the sign of the Z « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] be selling “lobster salad” made from crayfish, and eventually renamed it zabster zalad (here). And so another kind of Z food came into […]

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