Friday, April 18, 2008


The last time we took our kids to Washington, D.C. there was a PETA demonstration in front of the Natural History Museum. One of the people gave Eleanor a flyer, and she gleefully deconstructed its propaganda for the rest of the trip. One of the things she noticed is that the lobster pictured in their vegetarianism section is red. It's already been cooked!

I have loved eating lobster for as far back as I can remember. My family would go to a fancy restaurant in St. Louis and I would order a lobster, and my brother would insist that I turn its face away from him while I ate its insides. Nothing makes me feel more carnivorous than tearing the flesh out of someone's exoskeleton and putting it in my mouth.

My son has also loved eating lobster since he was about two years old. We'd go to Red Lobster, pick one out of the tank, and then split it. He eats his without butter. Over the years, he's become fairly expert at cracking the claws and extracting the meat, and he's added a side order of King crab legs to our shared lobster.

Despite having lived in Rhode Island for a winter, I've never eaten lobster except at a restaurant, and I've never tried to cook one. Like many modern Americans, I'm a little reluctant to kill an animal myself and then eat it. The closest I've ever come is helping to boil some crabs we caught in South Carolina. It's not easy to put them in the pot and hear them trying to get out.

Over the years, I've read about lobsters, trying to decide how cruel it is to boil them alive. Trevor Corson's The Secret Life of Lobsters, while it goes into intricate detail about their nervous systems and how they use their antennules, doesn't end up revealing whether they feel pain in a way humans can understand.

Perhaps that's just our failure of imagination. As David Foster Wallace points out in his essay "Consider the Lobster," the question for lobster eaters is "Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure?" That is, as he says, an uncomfortable question. "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. (Morality-wise, let's concede that this cuts both ways. Lobster-eating is at least not abetted by the system of corporate factory farms that produces most beef, pork, and chicken. Because, if nothing else, of the way they're marketed and packaged for sale, we eat these latter meats without having to consider that they were once conscious, sentient creatures to whom horrible things were done.)" Wallace's imaginary picture of a beef festival where "trucks pull up and the live cattle get driven down the ramp and slaughtered right there" is an exaggerated comparison pre-empted by Douglas Adams in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, where Arthur Dent is so unsophisticated as to be taken aback when a cow who has been bred to be happy about being eaten offers him some of her flesh for his own, personal dinner.

And all the uncomfortableness about eating lobster is further complicated if you've read Neal Stephenson's Zodiac, as I have. The hero of Zodiac is an environmental activist (a friend calls him "the granola James Bond") concerned with finding a source of some serious pollution in the Charles River and Boston harbor. He knows that they're badly polluted because he's been getting tainted lobsters and taking them to be tested. The description of what he finds in one lobster is almost enough to put a person off eating them (warning: do not read on if you're squeamish):

I could smell... an oily, foul odor, mixed in with the marine stench of the lobsters. I recognized it. Some of the lobsters I'd gotten off Gallagher's boat had smelled that way. In fact that was the reason they'd given them to me. Big enough to sell, but they stank too bad. They had come from the entrance to the Inner Harbor....She was about halfway through dissecting one of Gallagher's big stinky lobsters. She'd removed the legs and tail and pried back the shell around the body to expose the liver....There was hardly any liver left. It had necrosed--a fancy word for died. Rotted away, inside the body, leaving just a puddle of black stuff. Surrounded by blobs of yellowy material, vesicles or sacs of something that I'd never seen inside a lobster before. Some kind of toxin that the liver had desperately tried to remove from the lobster's system, killing itself in the process.

Since Zodiac is a novel, the pollution is something that the hero can clean up, in the end. But if, like me, you like to eat Lobster (or catfish), the image of your dinner coping with pollution can be hard to get out of your head. But not impossible. Walker has a soccer game two hours away on Sunday, and we'll stop for dinner in the big city on the way back. If he gets to choose, we'll be going to Red Lobster.

For the flavor of David Foster Wallace's footnotes (rendered here in parentheses), see the comic posted by Bookslut:


Anonymous said...

I, too, love lobster, and crab, and mussels, all kinds of critters that we eat that first we submerge in boiling water. The first time I steamed mussels and heard their shells clicking open and shut, I was disturbed. I know, rationally, they have pretty primative nervous systems, but still.

Maggie loves to look at the lobsters in the tank at the Wegmans. I'm sure she doesn't really appreciate what their fate is.

The only place around town here to get lobster is the Red Lobster on the Golden Strip. However, I have discovered that eating there doesn't agree with me, so I haven't had lobster in years. The one time it was included in a dish I bought at the local Chinese restaurant, it was inedible, so that doesn't count.

I think you were at the crab feast at Barb and Kim's old house in Seabrook, weren't you? That was one of the only times I had an up close and in person experience listening to crabs scratch the pot as they are being steamed to death.

But, damn, they're tasty.

Jeanne said...

Yes, I was at Barb and Kim's. One of the things I loved about Maryland was the charming local custom of sitting around pounding on cooked crabs while drinking beer.