If ever a creature embodied the rise from obscurity to fame, it’s the lobster. One night, it might be scampering along the floor of a frigid bay, feeling around for shrimp and sea urchins, when, by a twist of fate, it follows the scent of herring into a trap. Plucked from the water, banded and trucked, sometimes for hours, it finds itself with many other lobsters in a tank until it meets its ultimate fate: Steamed until crimson and plated as the superstar of the hour, maybe even the century.
“That’s a big one,” said Stephen Jordan, watching a server whisk such a lobster across the dining room of his restaurant, Jordan Lobster Farms, in Island Park. Even after 60 years of wrangling lobsters, Jordan, a chiseled figure of deep bronze full of kinetic energy, holds a momentary awe for each one. “A three- or four-pounder.”
Split open lengthwise, the lobster’s claws were blackened with char from the broiler, and lemon wedges and containers of melted butter nestled along its shell. When the server set the platter down in front of a man in his 60s, he, too, looked momentarily astonished.
It’s the imposing lobsters that Jordan Lobster Farms is known for, the ones that edge upwards of 4 pounds to 10 pounds or more. “Our niche is big lobsters, jumbo lobsters. People don’t want to handle them,” said Jordan. “I have a thousand coming in Friday that are like 6 to 15 pounds. I have people coming in two hours from Suffolk County for 7-, 8-pound lobsters. How are you going to cook a 15-pound lobster at home?”
It’s a rhetorical question, one that partially drives the success of the place, which is not really a farm at all but a rambling complex along Reynolds Channel, the strait that separates Long Island from Long Beach. Choosing a lobster here has been a custom for many Long Islanders since the market opened in 1975. Then, it was basically a way station along the water where visitors in the know walked around back to choose a lobster from a fiberglass tank. Some had it steamed while they waited, and while there were a few picnic tables outside for visitors, it was primarily a wholesale empire that reached around New York and beyond. “We had five trucks, and we shipped all over,” said Jordan, who would send live lobsters onto planes at JFK or into the heart of Manhattan to restaurants such as Smith & Wollensky and The Plaza Hotel. (Back in the ’90s, The Plaza once called to reserve 800 lobsters for the following day. “I said, ‘No problem!’ I didn’t ask questions. Crazy things happen,” he told The New York Times back then.)
Many of those lobsters were from Long Island Sound, where a multimillion-dollar trade thrived. Starting in 1998, they began to die off abruptly—depending on who you ask, the victims of either increasing water temperatures or pesticides (Jordan thinks the latter)—and Jordan Lobster Farms pivoted hard to suppliers who work with co-ops in Maine and the Canadian Maritimes. Jordan and his brother, Mike, his partner at the time, began to shift their focus from wholesale to retail, and from retail to dining. Their few picnic tables evolved into an outdoor clam bar, the lobster market became a retail fish market and shop, and over time the place became a compound marked by sprawling decks and a vintage truck outside the color of a cooked lobster. “The competition got so fierce, we had to get creative,” said Jordan, who within a millisecond turned to greet some late-afternoon diners. “Hi guys, want to sit down? Right through that door.”
The purveying of lobsters was baked into Jordan’s DNA. In the 1930s, Jordan’s father, William, began shipping lobsters from Boston to the Fulton Street Fish Market, along the waterfront in lower Manhattan. He and his brother, Chuck, eventually moved south to build a business around New York City. William Jordan had a place in Brooklyn’s Sheepshead Bay, and the extended family ran restaurants on Gun Hill Road and a barge on City Island, both in the Bronx. It was into this hard-shelled dynasty that Steve Jordan was born in 1954, his destiny sealed. “Like a mallet, slam, when you’re born, and that’s it. Sixty years in the lobster business.” The Island Park location eventually eclipsed the Brooklyn original, which closed a few years ago.
“We’re unique because we’re right on the water, and we pull the water in from Reynolds Channel, through a huge filtration room [and] after that, through a set of chillers,” said chef Brian Glennon, standing next to lobster tanks at the back of the place, the whoosh of water nearly drowning out his words. That water temperature is kept in the 40s, he explained, to keep the lobsters lively. “The colder the water, the better the lobster.”
Though Glennon wasn’t born into the lobster life, he’s spent a significant chunk of his life around it. He grew up a half mile from Jordan Lobster Farms and his first job was here, helping to package, steam and serve lobster through his teens and years at culinary school. After a long spell away, Glennon, 41, returned four years ago to run the kitchen—or kitchens, plural, because during his time away the culinary side of the operation had grown: A fish filleting station near the lobster tanks, a prep kitchen for dishes such as mussels marinara and baked clams, an outdoor kitchen near one of the two outdoor bars.
What stayed the same were the constancy of jumbo lobsters. “You never see those anywhere, even nice restaurants. We get 7-, 8-, 15-, 20-pound lobsters in the summertime,” he said. “Ever see one of the bigger ones?” Glennon hoisted a 6-pounder from the tank, holding it by the tail. The lobster moved its pincher and crusher claws slowly, their menace contained by yellow rubber bands.
“It takes about seven years for a lobster to reach one pound,” said Glennon, the weight below which a lobster needs to be thrown back. A lobster then grows a quarter pound each year after that, he said, which meant the one in his hands was probably around 30 years old.
In July 2015, a 23-pound lobster from the Bay of Fundy caused a stir at Jordan’s—and garnered both local and international coverage. Steve Jordan estimated it to be around 95 years old, and, after a flurry of photos from visitors, he donated it to the Long Island Aquarium in Riverhead. “It’s almost like a dinosaur. You’d like to see it continue on and I think they would take great care of it,” he told The Telegraph (London) at the time.
The meat of such a giant lobster is not nearly as tough as its resilience, said Glennon. “If you take a tail off a jumbo, and cut it into hunks, it’s going to be chewy. If you take the same tail and cut it nice and thin at the right angle, it’s going to be tender. Just as there’s the right way to slice a steak, there’s a right way to slice the lobster.”
There’s also a right way to cook a lobster: About 10 minutes for the pound-and-a-quarters, nearly half an hour for the jumbos, in water seasoned with salt and nothing else. “The meat is very delicate, so it has to be cooked properly. It takes on flavor very easy. You really don’t want to flavor it with garlic or overpower it,” he said.
As they boil, lobsters turn red due to a pigment in the shell, astaxanthin, that’s changed by heat. Do lobsters feel pain when boiled? Myriad studies have led to conflicting conclusions, and Glennon has considered this over the years. “When I first worked here, when I was younger, I didn’t think anything of it. We cooked totes and totes of them,” said Glennon. “As you get older ... now, I don’t like to drop them in the water. I give them to the kitchen guys, and they drop them in.”
Almost everything about a lobster is alien, at least to humans: They smell with their legs, chew with their stomachs, regrow lost limbs. What isn’t alien is the taste and texture of their flesh, sweet and tender, low in fat yet rich with nutrients. Lobsters dwell throughout the world—there are South African lobsters and European lobsters, and tiny lobsters and spiny lobsters—but it is the American lobster (Homarus americanus), found on the Atlantic coast of North America from Labrador to New Jersey, that tends to dominate global gastronomy.
Lobsters were an easy source of protein for the Indigenous peoples of the region as well as the first Europeans who arrived in the 1600s. The creatures were so abundant in our waters that they were considered “poor man’s food,” fed to prisoners and indentured servants, and used as fertilizer for crops.
As cities grew, the fortunes of lobsters shifted, fueled in the 1800s by the westward expansion to places such as Chicago and the spread of haute cuisine in New York City and Europe. Extravagant Gilded Age creations such as lobster Newburg (made with butter, egg yolks, cream and sherry, then baked) and lobster Thermidor (mixed with a rich cheese sauce, returned to the shell and broiled until bubbling) date to this era. In 1917, a platter of lobster Thermidor cost $1.50 at Delmonico’s in New York City.
A century-plus later, lobster meat sells for $60 a pound, the highest Glennon has ever seen it. His recipe for a Maine-style lobster roll—chilled, with lobster meat, mayo, celery, and a few other bits spooned into a toasted, buttered potato roll—was $27.95 last summer.
This season, they will sell for $31.95. “Our rolls are a bit chunkier than other people for our price range, and contain tail meat,” said Glennon, who credits volume as a downward driver of cost. Though he knows diners love lobster tails and he doesn’t eat a whole lot of lobster anymore, Glennon is more of a knuckle man. “The knuckle is the best part—the sweetest-tasting.”
Lobster bisque, lobster mac-and-cheese, Connecticut-style lobster rolls (warm, with butter instead of mayo)—this is an enduring but expensive business, with not much margin for restaurants. Jordan can swiftly narrate the nuances of the international lobster trade, from processing plants in Canada to growing Asian demand. “Right now, China, Vietnam and South Korea bought, I’d say, 50, 60 to 70 percent of the catch. They want American lobster.
Last year we were paying $8 per pound [wholesale], this year we’re paying $15 [per pound for whole lobsters].” Without missing a beat, he turned to a woman with a walker who had just arrived. “Hey, ma, what are you doing there? I see your date is behind you.” After her husband wondered where to stow the walker, Jordan grabbed it and rolled it between two empty tables. “I’ll give you valet parking,” he joked.
The restaurant’s indoor dining rooms, scattered across two multiple levels, are a relatively new addition, built after superstorm Sandy flooded the place up to the windows in 2012. During the cleanup, Jordan expanded his fish market, too, filling shoals of ice with soft-shell crabs and halibut and Norwegian salmon, all things a hungry, carnivorous lobster might eat if given the chance. “We had to recreate ourselves,” said Jordan. This year, he’s added sushi to the menu.
Outside, on one of the many decks, a group of Japanese tourists, who had piled out of an Uber shortly beforehand, tucked into the spread before them: A few lobsters with corn and potatoes, some lobster rolls, steamers. It was the calm before Memorial Day weekend and a few workers were putting finishing touches on the place: They painted wainscoting, potted petunias, updated the menu board next to the street-facing clam bar window. By the weekend, a long line will snake down the street for fried clam strips and fish-and-chips, oysters on the half shell and lobster rolls, which people will cart to one of the tables overlooking the water. The outdoor bars will fill with drinkers, while around back, boaters will tie up at the dock to grab lobsters for supper. In the end, Jordan’s manages to be, maybe not all things to all people, but definitely a lot of things to lots of people. Like the channel out back, it keeps rolling on, season after season.
Jordan Lobster Farms, 1 Pettit Place, Island Park; 516-889-3314, jordanlobsterfarms.com