Kinsmen shipwrecked in the East Indies become means by which to impart the virtues of proper husbandry, self-reliance and thorough knowledge of the natural world – such is the conceit of the pastor Johann David Wyss’s 1812 novel The Swiss Family Robinson. As much a child of the Enlightenment as a man of the cloth, Wyss presents his subjects’ exploits as a series of lessons in morality, natural history and the physical sciences. An ostrich tamed is transformed into transport, soil into earthen vessels. The heteroclite character of the island – elephants cavort with kangaroos, tapirs with giraffes; coconut palms grow side-by-side with fir trees – perplexes not the resourceful Swiss family; they draw from it nourishment, entertainment and comfort, as well as valuable insight.
Even a contretemps with a cantankerous crustacean proves instructive. While wading in a pool, the third eldest Robinson son Jack, a spirited boy, steps on a lobster, who retaliates in the only way available to it. Caught in its “terrible powerful claws,” Jack suffers a “terrible fright.” The ensuing commotion draws to the scene Jack’s father, who frees his son from the lobster’s grip and brings the offending creature to shore. Jack angrily grips the creature, who, by now exasperated, again retaliates with a sharp blow with its tail. Its reward is to be flung down and crushed with a stone.
Robinson père looks on with anything but approval. “You are acting in a very childish way,” he tells Jack, adding that to “strike an enemy in a revengeful spirit” is unwise policy. His reproof falls on deaf ears, however. Too caught up with his triumph, Jack rushes his shattered adversary home to his mother, who in a spirit of strict domestic economy tosses it into a soup kettle simmering nearby.
The absence of an enemy to vanquish need not mean an empty stock pot. In her delightful volume, The Storybook Cookbook (1967), Carol MacGregor assures her readers that you “don’t need to catch your own lobster, but you can make this delicious seaside soup” using the eminently sensible canned kind.
1 1/2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
A dash of pepper
1 1/2 cups light cream
1/2 cup milk
10 oz. of canned lobster
Red coloring (optional)
1. Put a medium-sized saucepan on the stove and turn the heat on low. Melt the butter in the pan, but do not let it burn.
2. Add the flour, salt, and pepper to the butter. Stir over low heat until you have a paste.
3. Gradually add the cream and milk, stirring constantly until the mixture thickens. You may have to turn up the heat a little to thicken the sauce.
4. Open the can of lobster meat and drain off all the liquid. Break the lobster into pieces, and be sure there are no little scales in it. Add it to the cream sauce and cook for 10 minutes.
5. Place a sieve over a medium-sized bowl and pour the lobster bisque into the sieve. With a spoon, press as much of the sauce and lobster meat as you can through the sieve. Discard the remaining lobster meat or feed it to your cat.
6. If you want to, add 2 drops of red coloring to give the soup a nice pink color.
7. Pour the bisque back into the saucepan and reheat it, as it will have cooled off. Serve it hot. Makes 4 servings.