Thursday, December 30, 2004

David Foster Wallace Considers the Lobster

I enjoy David Foster Wallace (DFW) as an author. And, needless to say, I enjoy food. So when my August 2004 issue of Gourmet magazine (a subscription I'm on the verge of letting lapse for its focus shift away from beef bourguignon and baguettes towards women's diamond encrusted watches and travelogues of small exploited European towns) arrived I was excited to see an article by DFW.

Actually, the FRE noticed it before me, read it, and kept slipping it under my grocery list saying, "Did you read this yet? You have to read this!"

Well, I read it, and now you can too:
(The page will send you to a pdf of DFW's article. Go to "Click here to read the full article".)

It was trademark DFW - footnotes, covert humor, and a vocabulary that Noah Webster would find unabridged. It addressed a topic I imagine lots of people think about but few take to conversation. DFW was given the assignment of covering the 2003 Maine Lobster Festival (MLF). What he returned for publication gave the editors of the magazine pause.

Not only did he shade the festival's bright tone with realness:
"Be appraised, 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."

But he led the reader into an emotional feast of what is required to "prepare" lobster:
"The intimacy of the whole thing is maximized at home, which of course is where most lobsters get 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 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 is 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."

And if there was any doubt in a reader's mind that a lobster can feel pain, that is, if they subscribed to the opinion of Dick, the man from the rental-car agency who chauffeured DFW from the airport: "There's a part of the brain in people and animals that lets us feel pain, and lobsters' brains don't have this part.", he proceeded to whittle away that doubt:
"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." And from TM Prudden's 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 since they do not "appear to have the equipment for making or absorbing natural opioids ... which is what more advanced nervous systems use to try to handle intense pain ... one could conclude that lobsters are maybe even more vulnerable to pain."

Near the end he addressed some moral questions:
"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."

Ruth Reichl, the Editor-in-Chief of Gourmet took a risk publishing it, but she smoothed over its appearance on pages 50 - 64 by describing it generically as "hilarious" and "thought provoking". She did finally render it with more honesty: "It is ... very uncomfortable - and something you're not likely to forget anytime soon."

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