It wasn’t New York City inspectors nor the Food and Drug Administration that found that the nation’s best-known deli was selling lobster salad without the lobster, but a reporter from Cajun country.

I’m not the only one who has traveled hundreds of miles to get to Zabar’s, the Manhattan Mecca for all deli lovers.

The aromas from its corned beef and pastrami; smoked salmon, sturgeon and whitefish; fish salads and pickles; and some of New York’s finest bagels, breads and pastries permeate the 20,000 square-foot edifice on Broadway and justify repeated visits.

This store is so well known that when owner Saul Zabar finally broke with tradition in the all-male bastion and permitted a woman to slice the precious Nova lox, it made national newspapers and network TV news.

crawfish-not-lobster-406.jpgBut now they’ve gotten caught trying to pass off crayfish, a Cajun staple, for lobster in their popular salad. In fact, it turns out that Zabar’s has been selling the misidentified crustacean salad for about 20 years, perhaps more, Zabar told reporters.

Zabar insisted he wasn’t being dishonest and directed the multitude of journalists laying siege to the Upper West End deli to Wikipedia where, as he told the New York Times, “you will find that crawfish in many parts of the country is referred to as lobster.”

This culinary conundrum can be credited to or blamed on Doug MacCash, a vacationing reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

In his blog earlier this month, MacCash wrote: “In New York City a lucky crayfish can become lobster,” and tells of standing in the checkout line at Zabar’s where “tiny tubs of lobster salad in the refrigerator case caught my eye.”

Lobster salad on a bagel — why not? he thought.  “It was delicious, but the pink-orange tails seemed small and somehow familiar,” he wrote.

He was neither an investigative reporter nor a food writer but a sharp enough journalist to know how to read the ingredients on the label: “wild freshwater crayfish, mayonnaise, celery, salt and sugar.” It read.

“Wild freshwater crayfish? Really? At $16.95 per pound?”  he wrote.

The only other place you might see the humble freshwater crustacean at a similar price would be at a high-end French restaurant, where it’s called écrevisse.

The Louisiana Crawfish Co. will sell you a pound boiled for $6.95.

When I was in New Orleans in June, I took a friend – a food safety investigator – out for dinner. While I went for Ya Ya Gumbo, he ordered an overflowing platter of smoking hot crayfish and spent the next hour sucking the heads off the miniture lobster-looking creatures and loving every minute of it.

“It’s all about getting the real flavor from these,” he mumbled, waving a hot sauce-covered limp crayfish. “But my wife – who’s from Boston – would kick me out of the house if I did this at home,” he said.

The all-powerful Maine Lobster Council wasted no time getting Zabar on the phone.

Dane Somers, the council’s executive director and the chief protector of Maine’s finest told the owner that FDA regulations say that mislabeling food products is a big deal.

She told the Bangor Daily News that the FDA permits the use of the term “lobster” only for the Homarus species, which, she said, includes the European and American lobsters, not other lobster-like species such as langostino or crayfish.

Zabar says he is changing the name of the salad to be more transparent to consumers. When I called today, someone who said he was “just a manager” told The Food Watchdog that “it’s still being discussed – and way too much.” All he knows is that it won’t have lobster on the label “unless there’s lobster in the salad.”

By the way, those two separate spellings of the Louisiana crustacean are not a mistake. Turns out the small but tasty critters go by several names: crayfish, crawfish, crawdads and mud puppies, among the most popular.


Editor’s Note:  Crawfish? Crayfish? Mud bugs? Call Them Anything But Lobster, by Andrew Schneider, was originally published at The Food Watchdog on August 13, 2011.