Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Consider the Lobster

One of the articles by David Foster Wallace that I've read besides "Shipping Out" is "Consider the Lobster." It was published in August 2004 in Gourmet magazine, so naturally one would expect something in keeping with the golden realm of stylized food and glamorous photos and "aspirational" thinking, which an elite gastronomic periodical is expected to celebrate. Instead, it is an amusingly literal approach to the subject. Wallace does dutifully cover the Maine Lobster Festival, the intended topic, in his customary extensive detail, though hardly in the uncritically blissful way the editor must have had in mind. But he devotes much space and attention to working out, for his own edification and that of the reader, what the lobster is, in terms of its etymology, scientific classification, physical characteristics, history as human nourishment, lifestyle, culinary preparation, and neurology. The question to which he devotes the greatest enthusiasm is whether it is cruel and unjustifiable to cook the lobster as we do, boiling it alive.

After the self-mocking pedantry of his introduction to the lobster (where he drily remarks that "all of this is right there in the encyclopedia") he hits a note of discomfiting truth:
[. . .] 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.
Then there is a series of quirky facts that I, for one, did not know. For one thing, lobsters can live for a hundred years or more, and for another,
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.
Intermittently the Lobster Festival reappears, and Wallace's mammoth paragraphs, written in a breathless accumulation of clauses and observations, convey the busy and hectic atmosphere. He concludes that the festival shares the "core paradox of all teeming commercial demotic events: It’s not for everyone." As he informed us in the first paragraph, he was sent here in part because of the enthusiasm it inspired in the senior editor of another magazine; but, he remarks,
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.
After describing how the arthropods are cooked, he mentions how they are harvested and held. One sadder detail is that their claws are bound together so that they don't rip each other up in response to their crowded captivity. But right after that comes a macabre but funny observation, on buying lobsters in tanks, "from which you can pick out your supper while it watches you point."

On that note, more or less, he asks the central question of the essay:
Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure?
The lobster-selling lobby theorizes that the nervous system of lobsters is too rudimentary to permit them to feel pain. Here the neurology is, as Wallace eventually concludes, ambiguous (or at least it was, four years ago). There is, for one thing, a difference between feeling pain and feeling suffering because of that pain. Given the lobsters' behaviour, however, it would appear that they do feel suffering. One compelling piece of evidence is that lobsters do sense changes in water temperature, and express a preference by moving from water of one temperature to another. Then there is the frantic behaviour of lobsters (before they die, which occurs in under a minute) in the pots of boiling water, which he describes in equally comic and unsettling passages.

There are alternatives to boiling lobsters alive, but none sound so great. Firstly, one can drive a knife into their heads, which apparently does not kill them wholly because they have more than one ganglion (a bundle of nerves that is a simple version of a brain). Secondly, one can microwave them after poking holes through the shell so that they don't explode, which is sadistic. Thirdly, one can put them in the water when it's still cold, and hope that the gradual heating will prevent pain. But . . .
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.
And the article concludes in a long parade of footnotes, which are, of course, David Foster Wallace's specialty. They are pleasantly self-sufficient, and can be left to the end entirely, with (in my view) equal profit and enjoyment.

One last thing that comes to mind here is that I very much like the earnest way in which Wallace considers not only his subject but also his readers; he tries to write not only as well but also as entertainingly as possible, and to take into account the reaction of the reader. This is risky, as the writing can become too self-conscious, but he toes the fine line quite proficiently. I also like his emotional investment in the topic, especially since the investment is something nobler than the selfish fear of being proven wrong (vs. the fear of being wrong), which is too often at the heart of essays and scholarly articles.

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P.S.: There is an implied inaccuracy in the article (p. 7, online): when an earthworm is cut in half, only one half lives on, not both of them.

P.P.S.: Coincidentally, the one and (as far as I can remember) the only time that I ate lobster was in Maine, when my family drove across the US at the end of the summer holidays in 1998. We sat at wooden tables on a pier, so we were right at the water's edge and could see fresh lobster being hauled up in dripping cages as we devoured the lobster and corn-on-the-cob. I accidentally cracked mine open in the wrong place, so that the intriguing aquamarine slurry in the middle was revealed, but I quickly found where the real meat was and enjoyed it. Then I wandered into the building, where long bins held the lobsters, alive in cold water or steaming, and became aware for the first time that they are boiled alive. Since then I've decided not to eat lobster (or crabs) whenever it can be politely avoided.

P.P.S.: The illustrations are my amateur efforts. (c:
(In case the issue ever comes up, they may be copied if credit is given.)

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"Consider the Lobster" (Article in full, not divided into pages)
"Lobster tale lands writer in hot water" (Boston Globe article on "Considering the Lobster")

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