The New York media is all aflame over a shocking discovery at local institution Zabar’s. Zabar’s, an Upper West Side gourmet grocery store is justly famed for its amazing coffee, cheese, and baked goods (the chocolate babka is especially glorious). But for the last 15 years, the lobster salad has been made with freshwater crawfish – it contained no actual lobster at all.
In the New York Times story on the scandalous news, Saul Zabar, the 83-year-old president and co-owner of Zabar’s, defended this unusual labeling scheme:
“If you go to Wikipedia,” he said, “you will find that crawfish in many parts of the country is referred to as lobster.”
He read aloud the beginning of the Wikipedia entry for crawfish: “Crayfish, crawfish, or crawdads — members of the superfamilies Astacoidea and Parastacoidea — are freshwater crustaceans resembling small lobsters, to which they are related.”
By that definition, he said, he could call a product in which the main ingredient — actually, the only seafood ingredient — was crawfish, “lobster salad.”
As a former New York resident and frequent patron of Zabar’s, I felt it was my sacred duty to see if Mr. Zabar’s taxonomy was as perfect as his rugelach. According to science, are crawfish the same as lobster?
Remember the Linnaean system of taxonomy that you learned in high school or college biology? Here’s how it goes for crawfish & lobsters*:
- Phylum Arthropoda: mostly have lots of legs & crunchy outer shells, including insects, millipedes, crabs, etc.
- Subphylum Crustacea: Mostly live in ocean or fresh water. Excludes the major groups of land-dwelling bugs like insects.
- Class Malacostraca: The lobster and shrimp-looking creatures, from crabs to krill to amphipods
- Subclass Eumalacostraca: Excludes the most primitive malacostracans, leptostracans.
- Superorder Eucarida: The lobster and shrimp-looking dudes that don’t brood their own eggs in a special pouch (amphipods and isopods do this). Includes lobster and shrimp-looking dudes along with krill. Bad parents! Bad!
- Order Decapoda: Ten legs. But you probably knew that. Excludes krill.
- Suborder Pleocyemata: Excludes penaeid and sergestid shrimps (“prawns”)
- Infraorder Astacidea: Here’s where this gets interesting. We’ve now excluded most of the other tasty shrimp- and crab-looking dudes. They get their own infraorders – for example, the true shrimps are in Caridea, the true crabs are in Brachyura, the hermit crabs are in Anomura, etc. But we’ve ALSO broken off the tropical spiny lobsters! They ALSO get a separate infraorder: Palinura! What’s left in Astacidea? Just the clawed lobsters and the crawfish!
- Family Nephropoidea (lobsters) and Family Astacoidea (crawfish)
In other words, crawfish are way closer to clawed American lobster than they are to clawless California or Caribbean spiny lobster! Perhaps Mr. Zabar has a background in marine biology, because it is actually more correct to call crawfish “lobsters” than it is to call all those tropical non-clawed lobsters “lobsters.”
Would there have been an uproar if the Zabar’s lobster salad had contained taxonomically incorrect California lobster instead of American lobster? Despite my allegiance to the superior deliciousness of American lobster, I doubt it. To put my “I almost majored in English cause I like to bullshit a lot” hat on, part of the appeal of lobster (along with its deliciousness) is that it’s expensive and special. Crawfish, though also delicious, is far less expensive and is associated with, how shall I say, not so high-class dining. Spiny lobster, though biologically farther apart from Maine lobster/crawfish, is expensive and hard to get like American lobster, and therefore probably would have been an acceptable lobster-like substance. (The fact that we call spiny lobsters “lobsters” and not “spinydads” or something like that probably wouldn’t hurt either.)
Personally, I think “Astacidea Salad” has a certain ring to it. Zabar’s, if you’re reading this, no need to credit me. Just send a couple babka my way.
*Yes, taxonomists, this is HIGHLY oversimplified, and I have left many many things out. I based this taxonomy on my invertebrate bible, Brusca & Brusca, which is probably outdated. Corrections welcome in the comments!