Consider, the Lobster
Having murdered a thousand ocean-bottom insects in my lifetime, it’s about time I saved one.
I was hungry for bouillabaisse, which is probably even harder to spell than it is to make.
It’s a Marseillaise fish stew, hence the way they rammed two Provençal verbs together — bolhir (to boil) and abaisar (to simmer) — to give you the basic recipe in those pre-Mark-Bittman days. But I detect a hint of baiser there as well, a delicious French kiss. Of course, it’s the kiss of death for the creatures you throw into all that bolhir and abaisar, which is part of the appeal. It is, above all, a fresh stew, because if you shop for ingredients near the dock, it’s all alive when you toss it into that steaming pot. Water boils at 212° Fahrenheit, so it couldn’t be comfortable for the sea creatures, and probably shouldn’t feel comfortable for me, either, as cook.
But none of that has stopped me from eating lobster. Lots and lots of lobster. I grew up in New England, and went to college in Maine, where pursuit of just the right lobster roll is a holy quest, and the plunging of flailing crustaceans into a pot is a rite of murderous passage. On my honeymoon in Martha’s Vineyard, I consumed at least one lobster every day, launching married life with sea creature mayhem. I probably consumed a pint of melted butter, among the other lubricious joys of that week.
And so it has been throughout my lifetime, where lobstercide has been a highlight of many feast days. So in preparation for that bouillabaisse, I began touring local stores in search of a live-lobster tank. There weren’t any; lobster tanks have vanished from the grocery landscape. It’s either a victory for PETA, which argues passionately for the ethical treatment of shellfish, or a statement about the economics of running a saltwater tank 24/7 to keep some lobsters breathing. There is decidedly less atavistic thrill in plucking shrink-wrapped lobster tails out of a freezer case, than there is to carrying home a paper bag with beasts jostling within.
The soup was good, and I personally didn’t have to kill anything in it. But it did spur me to consider the lobster, so I turned to David Foster Wallace’s famous story Consider the Lobster, which ran in Gourmet, in 2004. (Wallace died in 2008, and the magazine followed in 2009, which I try not to read too much into.) His story tells, in excruciating detail, the story of the Maine Lobster Fest, and the namesake creatures who give their lives for its success. No need for a tank there; the lobster boats pull right up to the dock in Rockland, and offload the live creatures for their last moments on earth.
Foster writes: “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….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.”
And yet, yes way. I still willingly participate in the ritual slaughter, perhaps the only hunter-gatherer activity I engage in personally. But it’s more “personal” for the lobster, which is why I’ve launched a panel cartoon called “Consider, the Lobster,” with a thoughtful red creature named Consider, at its core. Perhaps he can teach me a thing or two about empathy at the dinner table?
I’m not sure this does anything to assuage my guilt. Nor am I sure that I actually feel guilt, from my high position on the food chain. But I am at least willing to consider the lobster, which may be the first step on the road to textured vegetable protein.
It comes in lobster flavor, no boiling/torture required.