Considered Lobster Essay Topics
CONSIDER THE LOBSTER
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED AUGUST 2004
For 56 years, the Maine Lobster Festival has been drawing crowds with the promise of sun, fun, and fine food. One visitor would argue that the celebration involves a whole lot more.
The enormous, pungent, and extremely well marketed Maine Lobster Festival is held every late July in the state’s midcoast region, meaning the western side of Penobscot Bay, the nerve stem of Maine’s lobster industry. What’s called the midcoast runs from Owl’s Head and Thomaston in the south to Belfast in the north. (Actually, it might extend all the way up to Bucksport, but we were never able to get farther north than Belfast on Route 1, whose summer traffic is, as you can imagine, unimaginable.) The region’s two main communities are Camden, with its very old money and yachty harbor and five-star restaurants and phenomenal B&Bs, and Rockland, a serious old fishing town that hosts the Festival every summer in historic Harbor Park, right along the water.
Tourism and lobster are the midcoast region’s two main industries, and they’re both warm-weather enterprises, and the Maine Lobster Festival represents less an intersection of the industries than a deliberate collision, joyful and lucrative and loud. The assigned subject of this article is the 56th Annual MLF, July 30 to August 3, 2003, whose official theme was “Lighthouses, Laughter, and Lobster.” Total paid attendance was over 80,000, due partly to a national CNN spot in June during which a Senior Editor of a certain other epicurean magazine hailed the MLF as one of the best food-themed festivals in the world. 2003 Festival highlights: concerts by Lee Ann Womack and Orleans, annual Maine Sea Goddess beauty pageant, Saturday’s big parade, Sunday’s William G. Atwood Memorial Crate Race, annual Amateur Cooking Competition, carnival rides and midway attractions and food booths, and the MLF’s Main Eating Tent, where something over 25,000 pounds of fresh-caught Maine lobster is consumed after preparation in the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker near the grounds’ north entrance. Also available are lobster rolls, lobster turnovers, lobster sauté, Down East lobster salad, lobster bisque, lobster ravioli, and deep-fried lobster dumplings. Lobster Thermidor is obtainable at a sit-down restaurant called The Black Pearl on Harbor Park’s northwest wharf. A large all-pine booth sponsored by the Maine Lobster Promotion Council has free pamphlets with recipes, eating tips, and Lobster Fun Facts. The winner of Friday’s Amateur Cooking Competition prepares Saffron Lobster Ramekins, the recipe for which is available for public downloading at www.mainelobsterfestival.com. There are lobster T-shirts and lobster bobblehead dolls and inflatable lobster pool toys and clamp-on lobster hats with big scarlet claws that wobble on springs. Your assigned correspondent saw it all, accompanied by one girlfriend and both his own parents—one of which parents was actually born and raised in Maine, albeit in the extreme northern inland part, which is potato country and a world away from the touristic midcoast.
For practical purposes, everyone knows what a lobster is. As usual, though, there’s much more to know than most of us care about—it’s all a matter of what your interests are. Taxonomically speaking, a lobster is a marine crustacean of the family Homaridae, characterized by five pairs of jointed legs, the first pair terminating in large pincerish claws used for subduing prey. Like many other species of benthic carnivore, lobsters are both hunters and scavengers. They have stalked eyes, gills on their legs, and antennae. There are dozens of different kinds worldwide, of which the relevant species here is the Maine lobster, Homarus americanus. The name “lobster” comes from the Old English loppestre, which is thought to be a corrupt form of the Latin word for locust combined with the Old English loppe, which meant spider.
Moreover, a crustacean is an aquatic arthropod of the class Crustacea, which comprises crabs, shrimp, barnacles, lobsters, and freshwater crayfish. All this is right there in the encyclopedia. And an arthropod is an invertebrate member of the phylum Arthropoda, which phylum covers insects, spiders, crustaceans, and centipedes/millipedes, all of whose main commonality, besides the absence of a centralized brain-spine assembly, is a chitinous exoskeleton composed of segments, to which appendages are articulated in pairs.
The point is that lobsters are basically giant sea-insects. Like most arthropods, they date from the Jurassic period, biologically so much older than mammalia that they might as well be from another planet. And they are—particularly in their natural brown-green state, brandishing their claws like weapons and with thick antennae awhip—not nice to look at. And it’s true that they are garbagemen of the sea, eaters of dead stuff, although they’ll also eat some live shellfish, certain kinds of injured fish, and sometimes each other.
But they are themselves good eating. Or so we think now. Up until sometime in the 1800s, though, lobster was literally low-class food, eaten only by the poor and institutionalized. Even in the harsh penal environment of early America, some colonies had laws against feeding lobsters to inmates more than once a week because it was thought to be cruel and unusual, like making people eat rats. One reason for their low status was how plentiful lobsters were in old New England. “Unbelievable abundance” is how one source describes the situation, including accounts of Plymouth pilgrims wading out and capturing all they wanted by hand, and of early Boston’s seashore being littered with lobsters after hard storms—these latter were treated as a smelly nuisance and ground up for fertilizer. There is also the fact that premodern lobster was often cooked dead and then preserved, usually packed in salt or crude hermetic containers. Maine’s earliest lobster industry was based around a dozen such seaside canneries in the 1840s, from which lobster was shipped as far away as California, in demand only because it was cheap and high in protein, basically chewable fuel.
Now, of course, lobster is posh, a delicacy, only a step or two down from caviar. The meat is richer and more substantial than most fish, its taste subtle compared to the marine-gaminess of mussels and clams. In the U.S. pop-food imagination, lobster is now the seafood analog to steak, with which it’s so often twinned as Surf ’n’ Turf on the really expensive part of the chain steak house menu.
In fact, one obvious project of the MLF, and of its omnipresently sponsorial Maine Lobster Promotion Council, is to counter the idea that lobster is unusually luxe or rich or unhealthy or expensive, suitable only for effete palates or the occasional blow-the-diet treat. It is emphasized over and over in presentations and pamphlets at the Festival that Maine lobster meat has fewer calories, less cholesterol, and less saturated fat than chicken. And in the Main Eating Tent, you can get a “quarter” (industry shorthand for a 1‰-pound lobster), a 4-ounce cup of melted butter, a bag of chips, and a soft roll w/ butter-pat for around $12.00, which is only slightly more expensive than supper at McDonald’s.
Be apprised, though, that the Main Eating Tent’s suppers come in Styrofoam trays, and the soft drinks are iceless and flat, and the coffee is convenience-store coffee in yet more Styrofoam, and the utensils are plastic (there are none of the special long skinny forks for pushing out the tail meat, though a few savvy diners bring their own). Nor do they give you near enough napkins, considering how messy lobster is to eat, especially when you’re squeezed onto benches alongside children of various ages and vastly different levels of fine-motor development—not to mention the people who’ve somehow smuggled in their own beer in enormous aisle-blocking coolers, or who all of a sudden produce their own plastic tablecloths and try to spread them over large portions of tables to try to reserve them (the tables) for their little groups. And so on. Any one example is no more than a petty inconvenience, of course, but the MLF turns out to be full of irksome little downers like this—see for instance the Main Stage’s headliner shows, where it turns out that you have to pay $20 extra for a folding chair if you want to sit down; or the North Tent’s mad scramble for the NyQuil-cup-size samples of finalists’ entries handed out after the Cooking Competition; or the much-touted Maine Sea Goddess pageant finals, which turn out to be excruciatingly long and to consist mainly of endless thanks and tributes to local sponsors. What the Maine Lobster Festival really is is a midlevel county fair with a culinary hook, and in this respect it’s not unlike Tidewater crab festivals, Midwest corn festivals, Texas chili festivals, etc., and shares with these venues the core paradox of all teeming commercial demotic events: It’s not for everyone. Nothing against the aforementioned euphoric Senior Editor, but I’d be surprised if she’d spent much time here in Harbor Park, watching people slap canal-zone mosquitoes as they eat deep-fried Twinkies and watch Professor Paddywhack, on six-foot stilts in a raincoat with plastic lobsters protruding from all directions on springs, terrify their children.
Lobster is essentially a summer food. This is because we now prefer our lobsters fresh, which means they have to be recently caught, which for both tactical and economic reasons takes place at depths of less than 25 fathoms. Lobsters tend to be hungriest and most active (i.e., most trappable) at summer water temperatures of 45–50°F. In the autumn, some Maine lobsters migrate out into deeper water, either for warmth or to avoid the heavy waves that pound New England’s coast all winter. Some burrow into the bottom. They might hibernate; nobody’s sure. Summer is also lobsters’ molting season—specifically early- to mid-July. Chitinous arthropods grow by molting, rather the way people have to buy bigger clothes as they age and gain weight. Since lobsters can live to be over 100, they can also get to be quite large, as in 20 pounds or more—though truly senior lobsters are rare now, because New England’s waters are so heavily trapped. Anyway, hence the culinary distinction between hard- and soft-shell lobsters, the latter sometimes a.k.a. shedders. A soft-shell lobster is one that has recently molted. In midcoast restaurants, the summer menu often offers both kinds, with shedders being slightly cheaper even though they’re easier to dismantle and the meat is allegedly sweeter. The reason for the discount is that a molting lobster uses a layer of seawater for insulation while its new shell is hardening, so there’s slightly less actual meat when you crack open a shedder, plus a redolent gout of water that gets all over everything and can sometimes jet out lemonlike and catch a tablemate right in the eye. If it’s winter or you’re buying lobster someplace far from New England, on the other hand, you can almost bet that the lobster is a hard-shell, which for obvious reasons travel better.
As an à la carte entrée, lobster can be baked, broiled, steamed, grilled, sautéed, stir-fried, or microwaved. The most common method, though, is boiling. If you’re someone who enjoys having lobster at home, this is probably the way you do it, since boiling is so easy. You need a large kettle w/ cover, which you fill about half full with water (the standard advice is that you want 2.5 quarts of water per lobster). Seawater is optimal, or you can add two tbsp salt per quart from the tap. It also helps to know how much your lobsters weigh. You get the water boiling, put in the lobsters one at a time, cover the kettle, and bring it back up to a boil. Then you bank the heat and let the kettle simmer—ten minutes for the first pound of lobster, then three minutes for each pound after that. (This is assuming you’ve got hard-shell lobsters, which, again, if you don’t live between Boston and Halifax, is probably what you’ve got. For shedders, you’re supposed to subtract three minutes from the total.) The reason the kettle’s lobsters turn scarlet is that boiling somehow suppresses every pigment in their chitin but one. If you want an easy test of whether the lobsters are done, you try pulling on one of their antennae—if it comes out of the head with minimal effort, you’re ready to eat.
A detail so obvious that most recipes don’t even bother to mention it is that each lobster is supposed to be alive when you put it in the kettle. This is part of lobster’s modern appeal: It’s the freshest food there is. There’s no decomposition between harvesting and eating. And not only do lobsters require no cleaning or dressing or plucking (though the mechanics of actually eating them are a different matter), but they’re relatively easy for vendors to keep alive. They come up alive in the traps, are placed in containers of seawater, and can, so long as the water’s aerated and the animals’ claws are pegged or banded to keep them from tearing one another up under the stresses of captivity, survive right up until they’re boiled. Most of us have been in supermarkets or restaurants that feature tanks of live lobster, from which you can pick out your supper while it watches you point. And part of the overall spectacle of the Maine Lobster Festival is that you can see actual lobstermen’s vessels docking at the wharves along the northeast grounds and unloading freshly caught product, which is transferred by hand or cart 100 yards to the great clear tanks stacked up around the Festival’s cooker—which is, as mentioned, billed as the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker and can process over 100 lobsters at a time for the Main Eating Tent.
So then here is a question that’s all but unavoidable at the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker, and may arise in kitchens across the U.S.: Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure? A related set of concerns: Is the previous question irksomely PC or sentimental? What does “all right” even mean in this context? Is it all just a matter of individual choice?
As you may or may not know, a certain well-known group called People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals thinks that the morality of lobster-boiling is not just a matter of individual conscience. In fact, one of the very first things we hear about the MLF …well, to set the scene: We’re coming in by cab from the almost indescribably odd and rustic Knox County Airport very late on the night before the Festival opens, sharing the cab with a wealthy political consultant who lives on Vinalhaven Island in the bay half the year (he’s headed for the island ferry in Rockland). The consultant and cabdriver are responding to informal journalistic probes about how people who live in the midcoast region actually view the MLF, as in is the Festival just a big-dollar tourist thing or is it something local residents look forward to attending, take genuine civic pride in, etc. The cabdriver—who’s in his seventies, one of apparently a whole platoon of retirees the cab company puts on to help with the summer rush, and wears a U.S.-flag lapel pin, and drives in what can only be called a very deliberate way—assures us that locals do endorse and enjoy the MLF, although he himself hasn’t gone in years, and now come to think of it no one he and his wife know has, either. However, the demilocal consultant’s been to recent Festivals a couple times (one gets the impression it was at his wife’s behest), of which his most vivid impression was that “you have to line up for an ungodly long time to get your lobsters, and meanwhile there are all these ex–flower children coming up and down along the line handing out pamphlets that say the lobsters die in terrible pain and you shouldn’t eat them.”
And it turns out that the post-hippies of the consultant’s recollection were activists from PETA. There were no PETA people in obvious view at the 2003 MLF, but they’ve been conspicuous at many of the recent Festivals. Since at least the mid-1990s, articles in everything from The Camden Herald to The New York Times have described PETA urging boycotts of the MLF, often deploying celebrity spokespeople like Mary Tyler Moore for open letters and ads saying stuff like “Lobsters are extraordinarily sensitive” and “To me, eating a lobster is out of the question.” More concrete is the oral testimony of Dick, our florid and extremely gregarious rental-car guy, to the effect that PETA’s been around so much in recent years that a kind of brittlely tolerant homeostasis now obtains between the activists and the Festival’s locals, e.g.: “We had some incidents a couple years ago. One lady took most of her clothes off and painted herself like a lobster, almost got herself arrested. But for the most part they’re let alone. [Rapid series of small ambiguous laughs, which with Dick happens a lot.] They do their thing and we do our thing.”
This whole interchange takes place on Route 1, 30 July, during a four-mile, 50-minute ride from the airport to the dealership to sign car-rental papers. Several irreproducible segues down the road from the PETA anecdotes, Dick—whose son-in-law happens to be a professional lobsterman and one of the Main Eating Tent’s regular suppliers—articulates what he and his family feel is the crucial mitigating factor in the whole morality-of-boiling-lobsters-alive issue: “There’s a part of the brain in people and animals that lets us feel pain, and lobsters’ brains don’t have this part.”
Besides the fact that it’s incorrect in about 11 different ways, the main reason Dick’s statement is interesting is that its thesis is more or less echoed by the Festival’s own pronouncement on lobsters and pain, which is part of a Test Your Lobster IQ quiz that appears in the 2003 MLF program courtesy of the Maine Lobster Promotion Council: “The nervous system of a lobster is very simple, and is in fact most similar to the nervous system of the grasshopper. It is decentralized with no brain. There is no cerebral cortex, which in humans is the area of the brain that gives the experience of pain.”
Though it sounds more sophisticated, a lot of the neurology in this latter claim is still either false or fuzzy. The human cerebral cortex is the brain-part that deals with higher faculties like reason, metaphysical self-awareness, language, etc. Pain reception is known to be part of a much older and more primitive system of nociceptors and prostaglandins that are managed by the brain stem and thalamus. On the other hand, it is true that the cerebral cortex is involved in what’s variously called suffering, distress, or the emotional experience of pain—i.e., experiencing painful stimuli as unpleasant, very unpleasant, unbearable, and so on.
Before we go any further, let’s acknowledge that the questions of whether and how different kinds of animals feel pain, and of whether and why it might be justifiable to inflict pain on them in order to eat them, turn out to be extremely complex and difficult. And comparative neuroanatomy is only part of the problem. Since pain is a totally subjective mental experience, we do not have direct access to anyone or anything’s pain but our own; and even just the principles by which we can infer that others experience pain and have a legitimate interest in not feeling pain involve hard-core philosophy—metaphysics, epistemology, value theory, ethics. The fact that even the most highly evolved nonhuman mammals can’t use language to communicate with us about their subjective mental experience is only the first layer of additional complication in trying to extend our reasoning about pain and morality to animals. And everything gets progressively more abstract and convolved as we move farther and farther out from the higher-type mammals into cattle and swine and dogs and cats and rodents, and then birds and fish, and finally invertebrates like lobsters.
The more important point here, though, is that the whole animal-cruelty-and-eating issue is not just complex, it’s also uncomfortable. It is, at any rate, uncomfortable for me, and for just about everyone I know who enjoys a variety of foods and yet does not want to see herself as cruel or unfeeling. As far as I can tell, my own main way of dealing with this conflict has been to avoid thinking about the whole unpleasant thing. I should add that it appears to me unlikely that many readers of gourmet wish to think hard about it, either, or to be queried about the morality of their eating habits in the pages of a culinary monthly. Since, however, the assigned subject of this article is what it was like to attend the 2003 MLF, and thus to spend several days in the midst of a great mass of Americans all eating lobster, and thus to be more or less impelled to think hard about lobster and the experience of buying and eating lobster, it turns out that there is no honest way to avoid certain moral questions.
There are several reasons for this. For one thing, it’s not just that lobsters get boiled alive, it’s that you do it yourself—or at least it’s done specifically for you, on-site. As mentioned, the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker, which is highlighted as an attraction in the Festival’s program, is right out there on the MLF’s north grounds for everyone to see. Try to imagine a Nebraska Beef Festival at which part of the festivities is watching trucks pull up and the live cattle get driven down the ramp and slaughtered right there on the World’s Largest Killing Floor or something—there’s no way.
The intimacy of the whole thing is maximized at home, which of course is where most lobster gets prepared and eaten (although note already the semiconscious euphemism “prepared,” which in the case of lobsters really means killing them right there in our kitchens). The basic scenario is that we come in from the store and make our little preparations like getting the kettle filled and boiling, and then we lift the lobsters out of the bag or whatever retail container they came home in …whereupon some uncomfortable things start to happen. However stuporous the lobster is from the trip home, for instance, it tends to come alarmingly to life when placed in boiling water. If you’re tilting it from a container into the steaming kettle, the lobster will sometimes try to cling to the container’s sides or even to hook its claws over the kettle’s rim like a person trying to keep from going over the edge of a roof. And worse is when the lobster’s fully immersed. Even if you cover the kettle and turn away, you can usually hear the cover rattling and clanking as the lobster tries to push it off. Or the creature’s claws scraping the sides of the kettle as it thrashes around. The lobster, in other words, behaves very much as you or I would behave if we were plunged into boiling water (with the obvious exception of screaming). A blunter way to say this is that the lobster acts as if it’s in terrible pain, causing some cooks to leave the kitchen altogether and to take one of those little lightweight plastic oven timers with them into another room and wait until the whole process is over.
There happen to be two main criteria that most ethicists agree on for determining whether a living creature has the capacity to suffer and so has genuine interests that it may or may not be our moral duty to consider. One is how much of the neurological hardware required for pain-experience the animal comes equipped with—nociceptors, prostaglandins, neuronal opioid receptors, etc. The other criterion is whether the animal demonstrates behavior associated with pain. And it takes a lot of intellectual gymnastics and behaviorist hairsplitting not to see struggling, thrashing, and lid-clattering as just such pain-behavior. According to marine zoologists, it usually takes lobsters between 35 and 45 seconds to die in boiling water. (No source I could find talked about how long it takes them to die in superheated steam; one rather hopes it’s faster.)
There are, of course, other fairly common ways to kill your lobster on-site and so achieve maximum freshness. Some cooks’ practice is to drive a sharp heavy knife point-first into a spot just above the midpoint between the lobster’s eyestalks (more or less where the Third Eye is in human foreheads). This is alleged either to kill the lobster instantly or to render it insensate—and is said at least to eliminate the cowardice involved in throwing a creature into boiling water and then fleeing the room. As far as I can tell from talking to proponents of the knife-in-the-head method, the idea is that it’s more violent but ultimately more merciful, plus that a willingness to exert personal agency and accept responsibility for stabbing the lobster’s head honors the lobster somehow and entitles one to eat it. (There’s often a vague sort of Native American spirituality-of-the-hunt flavor to pro-knife arguments.) But the problem with the knife method is basic biology: Lobsters’ nervous systems operate off not one but several ganglia, a.k.a. nerve bundles, which are sort of wired in series and distributed all along the lobster’s underside, from stem to stern. And disabling only the frontal ganglion does not normally result in quick death or unconsciousness. Another alternative is to put the lobster in cold salt water and then very slowly bring it up to a full boil. Cooks who advocate this method are going mostly on the analogy to a frog, which can supposedly be kept from jumping out of a boiling pot by heating the water incrementally. In order to save a lot of research-summarizing, I’ll simply assure you that the analogy between frogs and lobsters turns out not to hold.
Ultimately, the only certain virtues of the home-lobotomy and slow-heating methods are comparative, because there are even worse/crueler ways people prepare lobster. Time-thrifty cooks sometimes microwave them alive (usually after poking several extra vent holes in the carapace, which is a precaution most shellfish-microwavers learn about the hard way). Live dismemberment, on the other hand, is big in Europe: Some chefs cut the lobster in half before cooking; others like to tear off the claws and tail and toss only these parts in the pot.
And there’s more unhappy news respecting suffering-criterion number one. Lobsters don’t have much in the way of eyesight or hearing, but they do have an exquisite tactile sense, one facilitated by hundreds of thousands of tiny hairs that protrude through their carapace. “Thus,” in the words of T.M. Prudden’s industry classic About Lobster, “it is that although encased in what seems a solid, impenetrable armor, the lobster can receive stimuli and impressions from without as readily as if it possessed a soft and delicate skin.” And lobsters do have nociceptors, as well as invertebrate versions of the prostaglandins and major neurotransmitters via which our own brains register pain.
Lobsters do not, on the other hand, appear to have the equipment for making or absorbing natural opioids like endorphins and enkephalins, which are what more advanced nervous systems use to try to handle intense pain. From this fact, though, one could conclude either that lobsters are maybe even more vulnerable to pain, since they lack mammalian nervous systems’ built-in analgesia, or, instead, that the absence of natural opioids implies an absence of the really intense pain-sensations that natural opioids are designed to mitigate. I for one can detect a marked upswing in mood as I contemplate this latter possibility: It could be that their lack of endorphin/enkephalin hardware means that lobsters’ raw subjective experience of pain is so radically different from mammals’ that it may not even deserve the term pain. Perhaps lobsters are more like those frontal-lobotomy patients one reads about who report experiencing pain in a totally different way than you and I. These patients evidently do feel physical pain, neurologically speaking, but don’t dislike it—though neither do they like it; it’s more that they feel it but don’t feel anything about it—the point being that the pain is not distressing to them or something they want to get away from. Maybe lobsters, who are also without frontal lobes, are detached from the neurological-registration-of-injury-or-hazard we call pain in just the same way. There is, after all, a difference between (1) pain as a purely neurological event, and (2) actual suffering, which seems crucially to involve an emotional component, an awareness of pain as unpleasant, as something to fear/dislike/want to avoid.
Still, after all the abstract intellection, there remain the facts of the frantically clanking lid, the pathetic clinging to the edge of the pot. Standing at the stove, it is hard to deny in any meaningful way that this is a living creature experiencing pain and wishing to avoid/escape the painful experience. To my lay mind, the lobster’s behavior in the kettle appears to be the expression of a preference; and it may well be that an ability to form preferences is the decisive criterion for real suffering. The logic of this (preference p suffering) relation may be easiest to see in the negative case. If you cut certain kinds of worms in half, the halves will often keep crawling around and going about their vermiform business as if nothing had happened. When we assert, based on their post-op behavior, that these worms appear not to be suffering, what we’re really saying is that there’s no sign that the worms know anything bad has happened or would prefer not to have gotten cut in half.
Lobsters, however, are known to exhibit preferences. Experiments have shown that they can detect changes of only a degree or two in water temperature; one reason for their complex migratory cycles (which can often cover 100-plus miles a year) is to pursue the temperatures they like best. And, as mentioned, they’re bottom-dwellers and do not like bright light: If a tank of food lobsters is out in the sunlight or a store’s fluorescence, the lobsters will always congregate in whatever part is darkest. Fairly solitary in the ocean, they also clearly dislike the crowding that’s part of their captivity in tanks, since (as also mentioned) one reason why lobsters’ claws are banded on capture is to keep them from attacking one another under the stress of close-quarter storage.
In any event, at the Festival, standing by the bubbling tanks outside the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker, watching the fresh-caught lobsters pile over one another, wave their hobbled claws impotently, huddle in the rear corners, or scrabble frantically back from the glass as you approach, it is difficult not to sense that they’re unhappy, or frightened, even if it’s some rudimentary version of these feelings …and, again, why does rudimentariness even enter into it? Why is a primitive, inarticulate form of suffering less urgent or uncomfortable for the person who’s helping to inflict it by paying for the food it results in? I’m not trying to give you a PETA-like screed here—at least I don’t think so. I’m trying, rather, to work out and articulate some of the troubling questions that arise amid all the laughter and saltation and community pride of the Maine Lobster Festival. The truth is that if you, the Festival attendee, permit yourself to think that lobsters can suffer and would rather not, the MLF can begin to take on aspects of something like a Roman circus or medieval torture-fest.
Does that comparison seem a bit much? If so, exactly why? Or what about this one: Is it not possible that future generations will regard our own present agribusiness and eating practices in much the same way we now view Nero’s entertainments or Aztec sacrifices? My own immediate reaction is that such a comparison is hysterical, extreme—and yet the reason it seems extreme to me appears to be that I believe animals are less morally important than human beings; and when it comes to defending such a belief, even to myself, I have to acknowledge that (a) I have an obvious selfish interest in this belief, since I like to eat certain kinds of animals and want to be able to keep doing it, and (b) I have not succeeded in working out any sort of personal ethical system in which the belief is truly defensible instead of just selfishly convenient.
Given this article’s venue and my own lack of culinary sophistication, I’m curious about whether the reader can identify with any of these reactions and acknowledgments and discomforts. I am also concerned not to come off as shrill or preachy when what I really am is confused. Given the (possible) moral status and (very possible) physical suffering of the animals involved, what ethical convictions do gourmets evolve that allow them not just to eat but to savor and enjoy flesh-based viands (since of course refined enjoyment, rather than just ingestion, is the whole point of gastronomy)? And for those gourmets who’ll have no truck with convictions or rationales and who regard stuff like the previous paragraph as just so much pointless navel-gazing, what makes it feel okay, inside, to dismiss the whole issue out of hand? That is, is their refusal to think about any of this the product of actual thought, or is it just that they don’t want to think about it? Do they ever think about their reluctance to think about it? After all, isn’t being extra aware and attentive and thoughtful about one’s food and its overall context part of what distinguishes a real gourmet? Or is all the gourmet’s extra attention and sensibility just supposed to be aesthetic, gustatory?
These last couple queries, though, while sincere, obviously involve much larger and more abstract questions about the connections (if any) between aesthetics and morality, and these questions lead straightaway into such deep and treacherous waters that it’s probably best to stop the public discussion right here. There are limits to what even interested persons can ask of each other.
Even when I’m not reading him, I hear him. If I’m somewhere that seems peculiar for reasons I can’t immediately pinpoint, like the oilfields of North Dakota or a nightclub or a Home Depot, my first impulse is to wonder, “What would David Foster Wallace think of this place?”
I’m no Wallace expert. I’ve never read any of his fiction and only a handful of his essays. But the few essays I have read I revisit often. Every semester, the first essay I teach to my college writing class is “Consider the Lobster,” in which Wallace reports on the 2003 Maine Lobster Festival and what it was like to “spend several days in the midst of a great mass of Americans all eating lobster, and thus to be more or less impelled to think hard about lobster and the experience of buying and eating lobster.”
I find it odd that I keep re-reading and teaching this essay considering how uncomfortable it makes me. Wallace intimidates me with his breathless insights and pointed observations. Just look at the first sentence: “The enormous, pungent, and extremely well-marketed Maine Lobster Festival is held every late July in the state’s midcoast region, meaning the western side of Penobscot Bay, the nerve stem of Maine’s Lobster industry.” Before I have time to chew over the connotations of “enormous,” “pungent,” and “extremely well-marketed,” I’m bombarded with specifics about the festival’s whereabouts. I can’t keep up with the frantic pace of his prose or his mind.
My years of teaching “Consider the Lobster” have left my crinkled photocopy stained with marginalia graffiti of random observations (“Assumes knowledge! Audience! Condescending?”; “Playing w/ what we know/don’t know”; “snarky tone”) and questions (“Who are his readers?”; “Is he as curious and unknowing as he’s letting on?”). These erratic notes exhaust me, and eventually render me so passive that I simply lean back and let Wallace’s voice wash over me.
In early fall 2016, I heard about a lobster festival in Brooklyn. It was around this time that I first became concerned that my adoration and deference to Wallace might be a problem. I bought a ticket to the festival. I figured going to a lobster festival and reporting on my experience might help clarify his influence on me and give me insight into why I keep coming back to his essay. But I didn’t want to go alone.
His face fixed in a gentle grin, my buddy Dahsan reminds me of the actor Vince Vaughn, who’s six-foot-five, which happens to be how tall Dahsan says he is “on a good day.” He’s opinionated and makes a conscious choice to be happy. He’s the kind of guy who insists on paying for everyone’s bar tab at the end of the night. Whenever I’m with him, which for the last five months was almost every day since we shared a 242 square-foot studio apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, I’m confronted with the reality that compared to him I’m less gracious, less generous, and less patient.
Dahsan talks incessantly. He asks questions about things I’ve never even thought about. He has opinions on topics that many wouldn’t think warrant a discussion. Most of my time is spent listening to him explain why the 2010 Denver Nuggets could have won the NBA title if only a few more calls had gone their way, or why Kill Bill is actually the best Quentin Tarantino movie (and how egregious it is that I’ve never seen it), or why Dahsan prefers Tom Cruise to Tom Hanks.
“Tom Hanks is too likable,” Dahsan says. “Like, he’s a nice guy. Tom Cruise is a fucking alien, and that’s what I like about him. Like, he’s a weird dude. He puts in the work to get it done. The guy dressed up as a UPS man for four months or four weeks or some shit just to play an assassin. You want to know why? To see what it’s like to go unnoticed as an assassin would. It doesn’t even make sense! What a weird jump! And that’s why I love him, dude. It’s the same thing with anything, stuff that’s interesting is stuff that’s complex.”
Last July, Dahsan moved in with me because he needed a place to crash for a few months before he moved back home to Colorado. My apartment is small, but it’s a livable space for one person, with a kitchenette in one corner and enough room for a full-size futon and a desk. With Dahsan, we were squeezed. He slept less than five feet away from me on a creaky cot that had been collecting dust in the hall outside my apartment.
I forbade Dahsan from paying me rent, but he insisted. We finally made a deal—in lieu of rent, he could purchase something for both of us that just so happened to equal half of one month’s rent. Dahsan bought a 40-inch TV and a PlayStation 4. For the last three months that we lived together we spent pretty much every night from 7:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. sitting on the futon playing video games.
Dahsan doesn’t care much for lobster, but when I asked him to come to the lobster festival, he agreed. As a courtesy, I halfheartedly tried to talk him out of it. The event might not be that fun, I warned. The food might be gamey.
“Don’t worry,” Dahsan said. “I’ll walk with you in the rain.”
Walking in, Dahsan and I felt like we’d arrived early for a high school dance. The fest was being held in an unremarkable concert venue in Williamsburg, with a long bar lining the left wall and a few rows of faux leather booths near the stage. “Unremarkable” is probably an unfair descriptor; if the venue was packed wall-to-wall with people ordering drinks and dancing then it’d be just like any other concert hall in the city. But there were maybe a dozen people in attendance, a far cry from the 80,000 who went to the infamous 2003 Maine Lobster Festival.
After a few minutes, when a server brought our lobster, I realized Dahsan and I had been duped. Our tickets cost $30 each, and I’d assumed we’d at least be getting an actual lobster for that price (at the Maine Lobster Festival, Wallace got a 1 1/4-pound lobster, a “4-ounce cup of melted butter, a bag of chips, and a soft roll w/ butter-pat for around $12.00.”). What we got instead was whipped lobster salad in one of those cheap hot dog buns that’s maybe four or five inches long and is so soft that it leaves a dent after you poke it with your finger. The meal also came with a small serving of crispy french fries seasoned with something like Old Bay, two soggy, wrinkled corncob halves, and a small plastic cup of dime-sized dill pickle slices.
“Was this worth $30?” Dahsan asked. “Hell no!” Throughout the evening his review of the meal kept coming. “I feel like we ate something that was in a can. It felt like tunafish from a can. You know what they did, right? They put it all in a vat and made a cole slaw in an Oscar Mayer bun. They give you 2/5 of a can. How long do you think it took to prepare this? One minute?”
During his rant, Dahsan wasn’t so much disappointed as giddy about how misguided this event was. Unable to contain his curiosity, he peppered me with questions in staccato bursts: “Why’s lobster considered such a delicacy? Isn’t it easy as fuck to catch a lobster?”
In response to Dahsan’s questions I paraphrased from a section early in Wallace’s essay where he explains that while lobster is now treasured, “until sometime in the 1800s … lobster was literally low-class food, eaten only by the poor and institutionalized … some colonies had laws against feeding lobsters to inmates more than once a week because it was thought to be cruel and unusual, like making people eat rats.” Lobsters weren’t valued in part because there were so many of them. “ ‘Unbelievable abundance’ is how one source describes the situation,” Wallace writes, “including accounts of Plymouth pilgrims wading out and capturing all they wanted by hand, and of early Boston’s seashore being littered with lobsters after hard storms.”
“I don’t even know if I want to eat lobster!” Dahsan exclaimed. “What does a lobster eat? It’s a legitimate question. They live on the bottom of the ocean eating all kinds of shit. They eat human shit!” Dahsan was actually sort of correct. Wallace tells us that lobsters are a “species of benthic carnivore … both hunters and scavengers … garbagemen of the sea, eaters of dead stuff, although they’ll also eat some live shellfish, certain kinds of injured fish, and sometimes each other.”
Wallace doesn’t exactly give the Maine Lobster Festival a ringing endorsement. He laments the many “irksome little downers” such as soda that’s “iceless and flat,” coffee that’s “convenience-store coffee in yet more Styrofoam” and the way he’s “squeezed onto benches alongside children of various ages and vastly different levels of fine-motor-development.” About a third of the way through his essay, though, Wallace reveals a much more sinister “downer”—he discovers the “World’s Largest Lobster Cooker,” where more than 100 lobsters can be boiled alive at once.
While everyone else appears to be enjoying themselves at the festival, Wallace is stunned and horrified when he sees “the fresh-caught lobsters pile over one another, wave their hobbled claws impotently, huddle in the rear corners, or scrabble frantically back from the glass as you approach.” He likens the scene to a “Roman circus or medieval torture-fest.” Curious if we, the readers, might also be disturbed, Wallace asks us point-blank, “So then here is a question that’s all but unavoidable at the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker, and may arise in kitchens across the U.S.: Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure?”
After dismantling the myriad ways we rationalize eating lobster (e.g. we cite their lack of a cerebral cortex as a sign that they can’t feel the pain of being boiled alive, to which Wallace says, “a lot of the neurology in this … claim is still either false or fuzzy”), Wallace ends his essay with questions: “Given the (possible) moral status and (very possible) physical suffering of the animals involved, what ethical convictions do gourmets evolve that allow them not just to eat but to savor and enjoy flesh-based viands (since of course refined enjoyment, rather than just ingestion, is the whole point of gastronomy)?” To those who choose not to fall down this moral and ethical rabbit hole, Wallace asks, “Do they ever think about their reluctance to think about it?”
Dahsan and I were spared wrestling with anything close to an ethical dilemma that evening. There were no live lobsters in sight, and what appeared on our plate looked and tasted closer to cole slaw than something that had once been alive. But, thanks to Dahsan, we left with plenty of tangential questions. “How do you say what’s better than what? A steak versus a burger. Isn’t a burger more work to make? You have to grind it up.”
After the festival in Brooklyn, I went back and read Wallace’s essay again. In the past, the lines that most stood out to me were those that explicitly discussed the horrors of the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker. But with this reading, a new sentence grabbed me. Before forcing the reader to confront the ethics of boiling lobsters alive, he writes:
“A detail so obvious that most recipes don’t even bother to mention it is that each lobster is supposed to be alive when you put it in the kettle.”
I cringe whenever I read this sentence. But this time I was struck by how the horrors of this observation also excited and inspired me. It gave me insight into Wallace’s thinking and writing process. He actually stops to think about what a recipe doesn’t mention. He’s adamant that every crevice of even the most mundane detail might hide something consequential.
When the writers in my class are working on their own essays, I ask them to adapt the method of a writer we’ve read. Many adapt Wallace—they want to ask a research question that pushes them to revel in the strangeness and contradictions of their topic. None of them writes an essay exactly like “Consider the Lobster.” But, with Wallace on the mind, they trust that interrogating their gut response will lead them somewhere productive, even if it’s somewhere they couldn’t have imagined when they started writing.
In truth, I actually want the writers in my class to wonder, “What would David Foster Wallace think?” when they write, because asking that question is a way of becoming intimately attuned to your immediate responses and filtering them through a hyper-focused, easily perturbed, fiercely curious lens. It’s an approach that pushes you to see the world in ways you might have missed.
As Dahsan delighted in his new passion for everything lobster-related, the rock band, which had a funky, sleepy sound that reminded me of Steve Miller Band, played to its sparse audience. She’s like a true sunrise, crooned the band’s lead singer.
I was embarrassed to be there—embarrassed for the promoters of this event, embarrassed for the band impelling people to dance (“Now we do encourage dancing at our shows,” the singer said. “It’s not a party unless you make it one”), embarrassed by my negativity. It was hard for me to find anything redeeming. But as I slouched in my seat, Dahsan perked up when he noticed a small child near the stage. Next to the boy was an older man. They were both dancing.
“I like that he’s a white grandfather and it’s not a white grandson,” said Dahsan, whose mom is white and father was black. “Interracial couples are kind of my thing.” Soon, the child’s dad joined, and for a moment Dahsan said nothing as we watched the three of them dance arrhythmically.
Three months after the lobster festival, on Christmas Eve, Dahsan moved out and flew home to Colorado. The kitchen where his cot had once been was now bare. I didn’t know how I would fill the space; it felt empty, and vast. When he lived with me, my world became smaller and so did his. We both routinely cancelled plans with people to just hang out and play video games. On the night he packed up his things, we spoke candidly while the Playstation hummed softly. It was time to move on. But that realization didn’t make it any easier for me.
When I began preparing my syllabus for the upcoming semester, I briefly thought about striking Wallace’s essay from the reading list. I’d been teaching it for a few years now, and perhaps my syllabus, too, needed a change.
But then I thought about losing the first lively week of class when my writers would try to dissect that fraught, scrambled, eccentric essay. I thought about them losing Wallace’s breathless voice. And I thought about a moment a few weeks before Dahsan moved home, when he agreed to go with me to a holiday market in midtown Manhattan one night after work to help me finish my Christmas shopping, and how that evening it started to rain. Each droplet hit hard, like a pellet, a thwack on my skin. Figuring a cold, rainy night would ruin our experience at an outdoor market, I suggested we just stay at the apartment instead and watch a movie. So we ordered in Vietnamese food—we both got banh mi and Dahsan got upset when I refused to trade one of my dumplings for some of his calimari. As we ate, it occurred to me that I had never asked Dahsan if he would have still gone to the holiday market even though it was raining. I’d just assumed it wouldn’t be fun.
“Yeah I would have gone,” Dahsan said after I asked.
“I don’t really mind the rain.”
Hal Sundt teaches writing at Columbia University, where he received his MFA in nonfiction writing. His work has appeared in The Rumpus, The Classical, and Away. He is working on a book about failure.