Extra mural

Science in society – politics, development and social justice.

On Consider the lobster

with 5 comments

It is a sound piece of advice to order an embryonic writer to read David Foster Wallace’s collection of essays Consider the lobster. It is one that your correspondent heartily endorses from personal experience.

The guitar manufacturing advocate of said collection billed Wallace as: “as close as your generation is going to get to Hunter S. Thompson.” Perhaps wide of the mark; a suitable alternative comparison is not within grasp at the time of writing.

Consider the lobster, the eponymous essay, was first printed by the American magazine Gourmet in 2004. Commissioned for a piece describing what it is like to visit the then 56 year old Main Lobster Festival (MLF), Wallace submitted an essay of wit and humour, ambition and subversion. It is a far cry from some shallow review of Ludlow Food Festival you may come across in a weekly broadsheet’s glossy magazine.

The MLF through Wallace’s eyes sounds hellish and gross – decadence without glamour: the gluttonous consumption, the moral questions over boiling animals alive, the sheer effrontery of having to mix with tourists and the quandries these present.

“To be a mass tourist…is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience. It is to impose yourself on places that in all noneconomic ways would be better, realer, without you. It is, in lines and gridlock and transaction after transaction, to confront a dimension of yourself that is as inescapable as it is painful: As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing.” Footnote 6, paragraph 2.

With one footnote Wallace conveys all the disgust felt by the sight of either compatriots abroad or tourist hordes mustered on home shores. The damning realisation that those you mock, those you castigate as unworthy to be treading on such picturesque Tuscan hills or marching from room to room at the Tate, are just as you are. Snobbery becomes a millstone that rightly drags an attitude down from sneering self-righteousness to self-loathing.

More than an introspective judgement on “pure late-date American”; Wallace couches within the story of a weekend spent at a distasteful and disappointing food festival in Maine a debate that takes on greater importance as the world’s population grows and grows. As food becomes scarcer, how do we view our food? How should we view our food and how could this impact on our diet? Is it a mere commodity – how can we blithely, morally, accept agribusiness as the shape of things to come?

We have come so far on that consuming road: in the 19th century, Wallace explains, the lobster was so common for those living on the north east coast of the New World that it was considered too cruel and unusual to feed it to prisoners more than once a week. This is no longer the case.

Certainly in the United Kingdom lobster carries connotations of privilege and wealth. The MLF organisers, Wallace recounts, are keen to express the every-man appeal of this crustacean. In their literature the MLF organisers market lobster as healthier than chicken (1) and, at the festival, sell a decent sized meal for not much more than a McDonalds. It comes in copious quantities of Styrofoam and is served in the ominously named Main Eating Tent. Suffice it to say, cheek by jowl crustacean crunching with much butter and the children doing what they do best, it is not the most clean of environments (2).

The cruelty debate over boiling an animal alive for my eating pleasure is not one I have ever had to confront personally, dodging the issue by eating crab in the sanitised environment of the restaurant. I will and I wonder how it will affect me. Cowardly flight from the kitchen with an egg timer while the claws and legs scrape on a stainless steel saucepan is most likely. No looking the bugger in the eyes as I lower it into the pan. It is not that I am squeamish but I would rather ensure I enjoy the food I presumably would have forked over not inconsiderable amounts of money for. It would be prudent to avoid any chance of being put off my meal.

Wallace raises the distinction between feeling pain and feeling something about pain. He also raises a central issue of the debate on animal suffering and cruelty:

“Suffice to say that both the scientific and the philosophical arguments on either side of the animal-suffering issue are involved, abstruse, technical, often informed by self-interest or ideology, and in the end so totally inconclusive that as a practical matter, in the kitchen or restaurant, it all seems to come down to individual conscience, going with (no pun) your gut.” Footnote 19, paragraph 2.

Perhaps the fact that lobster and its bovine bedfellow in lacking animal welfare, veal, are so rarefied determines the level to which we consider the suffering they endure to provide us with tasty victuals. As Wallace identifies, gastronomy is the enjoyment of food for the pleasure it brings. But surely a full enjoyment of food would be to consider the meal as a whole – cruelty and all?

Pudding shaped gastronauts are not quite what spring to mind when considering Wallace’s essay. The annual lobster festival is trying to drive its product deep into the middle class (3) and shed the image that lobster is for the effete dandies of the world. This is symptomatic of a considerable problem facing the planet. As the population rises and money is accumulated by more people, demand for meat is going to rise.

It is an aspiration for many to live the life they see others have become accustomed to. Providing this level of meat will be detrimental to the environment in so many ways. The quantity of methane, the deforestation and more carbon combustion increased levels of livestock rearing will bring is one thing. The possibly irreparable damage to biodiversity is another; the fact that transmission of infectious disease from animals to humans will only increase are others is a third. It is a sad truth that we, as a species, are going to have to eat quite a lot less meat.

1 – Wallace does point out the fallacy in this statement: when you sell a meal containing more than four ounces of butter, chips and a bread roll you lose your health food status.

2 – Wallace’s description of the Main Eating Tent includes a pointed remark that no special forks for extracting all the tail meat from the boiled lobster come with the meal. This hindrance brings a memory to mind. When very small, your correspondent’s mother was questioned by her son on the nature of heaven, hell and the afterlife. When the knee high future blogger had settled down to a modest amount of nasal excavation the mother offered the following by way of an explanation:

“Heaven and hell are really much the same; in both places everyone sits at great long trestle tables that groan under the weight of a mighty feast. Every delicious thing you could think of is there, yes including ice-cream and stop picking your nose, but in hell no one can eat all the lovely food in front of them. It’s because the tables are laid with spoons longer than the people’s arms. They cannot reach round and put the food into their mouths. All the while this lovely food sits in front of them and they can’t eat it. In heaven it’s different because the people feed each other and so get to eat all the delicious food.” Sic (ish).

Besides being a rather crude description of a socialist utopia and therefore a quite telling event in forming the adult Extra mural’s political leanings, this serves as an interesting analogy of how selfish and gluttonous behaviour leads to consumption and ultimately frustration at never quite being satiated.

3 – Class is an interesting matter in America, especially viewed from the stratified society of Britain. It is much closer to a meritocracy than the UK – look at the Duke of Westminster. But to say it is classless is disingenuous. There is more than a handful of the idle rich, happily waiting to inherit when daddy snuffs it, bobbing around those United States.


Written by nascenthack

October 15, 2010 at 8:30 am

5 Responses

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  1. Great article. I really love the MLF


    October 15, 2010 at 9:03 am

  2. Er someone say lobster, got my cravings running…sorry I’m such an abundant source of bad jokes! Good piece: well written and engaging…well, in my humble opinion atleast!

    Intrepid Chronicler

    October 15, 2010 at 12:05 pm

  3. nicely placed advert: ‘£5 sushi all you can eat’. wonderfully written, you’ve tempted me to become a veggie again.


    October 17, 2010 at 1:05 pm

  4. god, and i was such a fan of bloody beef. bugger.


    October 25, 2010 at 11:36 pm

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