Maria Parloa’s Lobster Newburg

As with clams, so with lobsters. Steaming lobsters in hot stones and seaweed was okay for Indians, but not for civilized colonists. Lobster was not a class dish until it was parboiled and stewed with butter, wine, and spices and poured into the emptied shell to make what Hannah Glasse calls “a fine side-dish at a second course.”

There were two major concerns for our cook-book ladies with lobsters: the freshness of them and the killing of them. With a fresh lobster, Hannah explains, “the tail will, when opened, fall smart, like a spring; but when stale, it has a rank scent, and the tail limber and flagging.” Lydia Child elaborates on the spring action of a fresh tail. “The end of a lobster is surrounded with what children call ‘purses,’ edged with a little fringe,” she writes. “If you put your hand under these to raise it, and find it springs back hard and firm, it is a sign the lobster is fresh; if they move flabbily, it is not a good omen.” Omens extended to lobster killing. Hannah finds that boiling lobsters in a pot is not half the trouble of roasting them alive in the coals, “not to mention the cruelty.” Sarah Josepha Hale defends the lobster cook from cruelty even in the boiling of lobsters. “Many people are shocked at the apparent cruelty of thus killing, but death takes place immediately,” she says, “and life cannot be taken without pain.”

After the painful parboil, the lobster meat should be cut into pieces and stewed with wine, butter, elderberry vinegar, and maybe an orange or lemon slice, according to the seventeenth-century Compleat Cook’s recipe “To Butter Lobsters: my second Cousen Clerkes Receipt.” When Maria Parloa in her Kitchen Companion (1887) adds brandy and sherry to her buttered lobster and calls it “Lobster Newburg,” she follows a venerated English tradition. The Newburg name got attached to this lobster dish sometime during the nineteenth century for reasons obscured by time and publicists. The fabled origin of the name in a sea captain named Wenberg is clearly the invention of a Delmonico Restaurant publicist. The Delmonico brothers had made French names so fashionable in the 1880s and 1890s that “à la” dishes began to litter not only menus but cook books. The “à la Newburg” is probably a misspelling of Newburgh, either the one in Scotland or the one up the Hudson River, where the New York Central Railroad of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt had established an important station. An intriguing clue is provided by Madame Saint-Ange, whose formidably important La Cuisine (1927) supplies a lobster recipe named “à la Newburg or Van Der Bilt.”

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Ingredients

  • 2 large lobsters (2 pounds each)
  • ¼ pound (1 stick) butter
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • ¼ teaspoon each white pepper and nutmeg
  • pinch of cayenne pepper
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • ¼ cup brandy or Madeira

Method

Boil lobsters in salted water for 10 to 15 minutes (they will finish cooking in the sauce). Split shells in half and remove the tail meat and all the coral and tomalley (the orange roe and green liver). Discard the stomach sac from the shell, rinse the shells, and save. Split the claws and remove their meat. Cut meat into chunks.

Melt butter with seasonings in a saucepan, add all the lobster, and simmer very gently for 1 to 2 minutes. Mix egg yolks with the cream and brandy. Pour mixture slowly into the simmering lobster and stir until sauce barely begins to thicken (remember that high heat will curdle egg yolks). Spoon mixture into the emptied shells and serve.