“For 56 years, the Maine Lobster Festival has been drawing crowds with the promise of sun, fun, and fine food.”
Consider the Lobster is an essay by David Foster Wallace, originally published in Gourmet magazine in August 2004, and later appearing in book form as part of a collection of essays with the same title.
Wallace’s essay brings to it all the wit, wisdom and wry introspection readers have come to expect of him. Having been commissioned to cover a food event for Gourmet by editor Jacelyn Zuckerman, after a few false starts of events unsuitable due to timing or Wallace’s sobriety, Wallace was ultimately sent to Maine to cover its yearly lobster festival.
The essay begins unassumingly, discussing the event’s history, location and the experience. A consummate professional, Wallace has done his research and explores the background of a lobster, its biological taxonomy, and the history of its consumption. He reviews the experience of sitting down to eat at the festival, and while not a hit piece, it comes across unfavourable, describing it as a “mid-level county fair.”
Then, the essay takes an unexpected turn.
“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?”
Wallace goes into detail of the process of cooking lobster, most notably, that it is cooked alive. He explores the perspective of PETA protestors, a festival spokesman’s response to them, then dives deeper.
Wallace examines the question posed from several angles: How does a lobster act when put in the pot? Does it looks like it is feeling pain? How do human cooks respond? What does the lobster’s nervous system look like? Does spiking it in the forehead help? What does it even mean to ask about the subjective experience of pain when applied to a creature so utterly unlike us, evolved in the Jurassic period, before mammals even existed?
Each point is examined in detail, Wallace maintaining a perfectly passive and neutral tone throughout. Yet, here is the piece’s brilliance; it describes in horrifying detail all the ways in which a lobster must suffer in ways unlike any other animal we cook, yet never outright calls you a monster.
“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”
The essay almost never saw print.
In its original version, it was harsher, more accusatory. Zuckerman demanded an edit toning it down, and at first Wallace (known for being obsessive and detail oriented regarding each facet of his writing) refused, saying he’d rather see the piece not run. Eventually, Wallace relented and made the changes. In hindsight, he claims Zuckerman was correct – the first version was too hostile, and the latter revision is an improved version.
“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.”
In true David Foster Wallace fashion, Consider the Lobster is a masterpiece. Taking a pedestrian and middle-of-the-road country fair, any other writer would turn in a boring and uninsightful review, praising it for quaint charm (or for having had their pockets lined by the event organisers) or assailing it for a lack of sophistication. Wallace does neither, instead taking the opportunity to draw back the curtain on society and make a point about an uncomfortable truth: What right do we have to kill and eat a creature without a consideration of the creature’s point of view?
Ultimately, Wallace is inconclusive. He makes no final judgement either way on the lobster; the experience being so subjective as to be impossible to resolve. Yet Wallace’s ending remarks betray not only an internal uncertainty, but a dissatisfaction with society and society’s lack of introspection:
“...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.”
Consider the Lobster hides its purpose in plain sight, right there in the title. Much like his other work, This is Water, Wallace calls for us to “Consider”, to bring our thoughts - willingly – to the experiences of those around us.