Loida Nicolas Lewis and Her Love of Lobster


The philanthropist Loida Nicolas Lewis grew up by the sea, in Sorsogon, in the Philippines, listening to her father bargain with fishermen for sapsap (ponyfish) and “fresh shrimp, still jumping.” But the first time she tasted lobster was at Max’s Kansas City, the artist and punk refuge in downtown Manhattan.

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This was in 1969. Andy Warhol may have been in the back room. No matter: Ms. Lewis had eyes only for her date and soon-to-be husband, Reginald F. Lewis, and the lobster. It cost $4.95. She ate it down to the shells.

Mr. Lewis, a corporate lawyer who would go on to be hailed as the first African-American to head a billion-dollar company, watched her, mesmerized. (His life is chronicled in the book “Why Should White Guys Have All the Fun?”) He didn’t fancy lobster himself. “Too much work,” recalled Ms. Lewis, now 72.

Ever since, Ms. Lewis has served lobster to family and friends visiting from the Philippines, to share her discovery. Her Fifth Avenue apartment, overlooking Central Park, is equipped with silver picks and crackers, for wresting every scrap of flesh, and disposable plastic bibs bearing a life-size image of the creature about to be devoured.

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A former immigration lawyer, Ms. Lewis helped found the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund andmultiplied the profits of her husband’s business, TLC Beatrice International, after his death, at age 50, in 1993.

She has never prepared a lobster. For this she relies on Delia Juarez, a native of Iloilo City in the Philippines, who presents it simply broiled, with a finger bowl’s worth of melted butter and half a lemon, carved into a flower.

Ms. Lewis did cook for her husband and their two daughters when they were little. “I had three dishes,” she said. “Fried chicken, pork chop, sinigang” (the last one a distinctively sour Filipino soup). For her grandchildren, she occasionally slips a tablespoon of brown sugar into spaghetti sauce or bastes ribs in hoisin and sautés broccoli with lobster sauce (which contains no lobster).

“I cook pretty good,” she said. “They eat it all.”

Her father, a lumber and furniture magnate, wanted her to enter politics. “Maybe congresswoman, then mayor,” Ms. Lewis said with a laugh. When she was 7, he built and named a movie theater in their hometown after her, hoping that voters would remember “Loida” in a future election.

Years later, when she passed the bar exam, he sent her on a round-the-world tour that culminated in New York, where she was supposed to while away a few months while her sister studied art history at Columbia.

Instead, bored (“You don’t sit around”), Ms. Lewis found a job at a civil rights organization. Her boss set her up on a blind date with Mr. Lewis. (Her father’s hopes were not entirely dashed: Ms. Lewis’s sister, Imelda Nicolas, is a cabinet-level secretary in the government of PresidentBenigno S. Aquino III.)

At a recent lunch, Ms. Lewis efficiently dismantled her lobster and encouraged guests to try tomalley, the green minerally paste inside the carapace. She said, “At any dinner the fish head is reserved for me.”

Afterward, Ms. Juarez handed out Häagen-Dazs ice cream bars. Ms. Lewis wasted no time. Within minutes, only the stick was left.

Original article is published at The New York Times on December 7, 2015,

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