All alone at home last night, I steamed a lobster at 11pm. It’s the kind of thing you do when lobster is on sale for $6.99 a pound for one day only and you realize this just before closing time. I’d never brought home a lobster before, skittering in its paper bag on the back seat of the car. I’ve plunged handfuls of lobsters into boiling water as a cooking-class assistant. But never cooked one like this—just me and the lobster in the nighttime. I could feel the faint stirrings of a detective novel.
There is a bit of a mystery tied to the creature. I discovered this while doing research for my book on French cuisine in America. The case in question involves lobster à l’americaine.
Things aren’t quite what they seem with this dish. With its tomato-based sauce infused with shallots, tarragon and cream and then flamed with cognac, the dish, in its flavors and ingredients, would seem impeccably and unmistakably French. But then why the name?
The classical French repertoire is full of dishes named à la something-or-other. There’s a logic to this naming. A dish à la lyonnaise, for example, will involves onions, a Lyons staple; something à la bourguinonne will be cooked in red wine, Burgundy’s prize; à la forestière means with mushrooms, like the ones you might discover on a walk through the woods; something “Parmentier” means with potatoes, in honor of Antoine-Auguste Parmentier, who introduced potatoes to France in the late 18th century and campaigned tirelessly to raise their public image. (The Métro stop near where I grew up in Paris is named Parmentier, and the station platforms have display cases explaining the potato’s botany and history.)
The seemingly misnamed lobster à l’americaine is more puzzling. How exactly is it American? What is it borrowing from, or reflecting of, America? Is this some kind of joke?
The problem has led to much speculation. Is it true that a chef invented the dish last-minute for late-dining transatlantic guests at his Paris restaurant (version 1)? Was it invented by a chef who had studied in America (version 2)? Was it first created in a restaurant named l’Americaine in Paris (even more apocryphal version 3)? There are those who resolve the question by suggesting that the whole thing is a mistake: The name is really a perversion of à l’armoricaine (Armorica is another name for Brittany) and that the dish is actually Breton. My Larousse Gastronomique, for example, finds this version most likely. (Though why a dish with Provencal flavors would be named after Brittany is another puzzle.)
The fact that people have gone to so much trouble to trace its roots is part of what I’m interested in. But I will not be making lobster à l’americaine just yet. My lobster adventure was enough for one night.