Maine Lobster Festival and DFW
December 9, 2004 10:38 AM   Subscribe

Palaverous Diatribe on the ethics of lobster consumption by the equally equanimous David Foster Wallace.
posted by svenvog (55 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
That many people with bibs on would give me the Howling Fantods indeed.
posted by Constant Reader at 10:47 AM on December 9, 2004

Here's an interesting article on the lives of lobsters, part of it a rebuke of Wallace.
posted by The Card Cheat at 10:54 AM on December 9, 2004

See, he's best when he sticks to journalism-like stuff. This and his profile of John McCain in Rolling Stone a few years back showcase his quirks but focus him (sort of). As a result of the McCain profile (and how much it resembled Neal Stephenson, whom I adore) I bought Infinite Jest... only to find no semblance of plot, anywhere.
posted by krewson at 10:57 AM on December 9, 2004

Where is the nut graph?
posted by inksyndicate at 10:58 AM on December 9, 2004

Oh yay, a PETA shill site.

Totally best of the web!
posted by u.n. owen at 11:07 AM on December 9, 2004

Apparently, Edward Furlong agrees.
posted by tizzie at 11:13 AM on December 9, 2004


posted by sourwookie at 11:15 AM on December 9, 2004

Thanks. Always interested in Wallace and lobster death and I would have missed this.

I loved Infinite Jest and i also love the varied reasons that people have for not reading it. For example, my dad got stuck on page 1, where the protag. says something about "what I thought was my right hand." Pops could not figure out why he didn't know for sure, and it annoyed him to the point of closure.
posted by 31d1 at 11:16 AM on December 9, 2004

It is a great article.

quotation: "...the PETA people are fanatics, and a lot of their rhetoric seems simplistic and self-righteous."

It's interesting seeing this on a PETA site. The article isn't anti-lobster, really; it's more encouraging people to examine these sorts of moral questions, which I think is fair.

and yeah unkie owen, I think it qualifies. Did you actually download the article? That it happens to be hosted there is pretty incidental...
posted by cmyr at 11:17 AM on December 9, 2004

Yes. The fact that animals instinctively avoid death means that they obviously have as much consciousness and awareness as we do, sourwookie. Didn't you get the memo?
posted by u.n. owen at 11:17 AM on December 9, 2004

I love DFW, but I'm not all that concerned with the ethics of lobster consuption and he's never given any indication of being an animal rights buff before. He has however shown signs of being something of a satirical put-on artist, so I'll chalk this up to wicked satire.
posted by jonmc at 11:19 AM on December 9, 2004

Chill out, u.n. owen. It's an essay that people have been talking about for quite a while, and until now it was only available in print.

On preview: OK, now chill out twice.
posted by COBRA! at 11:19 AM on December 9, 2004

cmyr, toward the end the article is distinctly polemic. It basically explores the moral question for a couple pages, then implies it's a torture fest and that the people are awful, and that anyone who doesn't believe it is deluding themselves.

It's a stupid article based on somewhat unsound science - he sounds like he's only getting information from PETA-approved sources. But hey, anything for publicity, no?
posted by u.n. owen at 11:20 AM on December 9, 2004

I'd also like to point out that lobsters can lose their claws pretty much with impunity and grow them back quickly - though a human would probably pass out or die from that pain, even with our opioid production that kills intense pain.

So I somehow doubt they really suffer as much as this article postulates. When you show me a human that shrugs off his or her arm being cut off, then maybe I'll believe that they're on par with us.
posted by u.n. owen at 11:25 AM on December 9, 2004

A sentient being is not necessarily one capable of higher cognitive functions. It means only "responsive to or conscious of sense impressions." So an organism that seeks to avoid pain, injury, or death--instinctively or not--is sentient. In fact, DFW notes in the article that the human response to pain is not a result of higher cognitive function. Your reaction to painful stimuli--like a hot stovetop--is rooted deep in the brain stem, and in that regard, is not unlike the response of the lobster.

I also have to disagree with the description of the article as a polemic. I read it as a concerned and thoughtful examination of difficult moral questions and an admission that those questions have no easy answers. DFW's distate for the PETA extremists is apparent, and I would hardly characterize his examination of the science as "unsound."

Finally, many reptiles have the ability to apparently painlessly lose and regrow their tails, not unlike the ability of the lobster to lose and regrow a claw, but I'm not sure that this can reasonably point to the conclusion that reptiles don't mind being boiled alive.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 11:31 AM on December 9, 2004

It's very simple. They taste good, and so I eat them. I am a human, and a lobster is not. My gustatory enjoyment trumps its right to not suffer.

If an animal's suffering could somehow make it taste better, I would insist that my food have suffered.
posted by solid-one-love at 11:33 AM on December 9, 2004

I've seen iguanas actively tend to wounds and act injured when their tails were damaged.

I've seen crayfish get their claws ripped off by other animals in an aquarium and really not seem to give a damn. if we're allowing anthropomorphism as a determinant of sentience, then cool, but you have to allow the other side of that as well.

Also, monju, many plants are capable of responding to sense impressions - in fact, I'd say almost any living organism is. Plants know when it gets colder, so they drop leaves or go dormant. Some plants eat insects when they touch sensitive hairs.

Are you honestly telling me venus flytraps are sentient beings?
posted by u.n. owen at 11:38 AM on December 9, 2004

humans can have their mercedes' stolen and shrug it off, this implies they do not mind so much.

100% of fact.
posted by 31d1 at 11:40 AM on December 9, 2004

solid-one-love, there's always Kobe beef, where the AWESOME treatment of the animal makes 'em taste better.

You know, I don't think I'd mind a life of daily massages and tons of free beer but then dying a bit before my time. I think it'd be well worth it.
posted by u.n. owen at 11:40 AM on December 9, 2004

Good article, thanks.

I do the knife-in-the-head killing method. Didn't realize the distributed nervous-system issue that DFW points out, but I still think it's the most "humane" method. ANYTHING is better than dropping them into boiling water.

BTW- here's a great recipe for butter-poached lobster: Boil water. Take off heat and pour over your lobsters. After two minutes, rip off the claws. After five, rip off the tail. Discard or do whatever you want with the body. Crack the shells and remove the meat- it should not be fully cooked, but just enough to loosten it from the shells. Poach the claw and tail meat in melted butter for a couple minutes. Mmmmmm.

krewson- you might enjoy "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again", which is a collection of his essays. The titular piece (about being on a commercial cruise) is one of the best pieces of anything I've ever read.
posted by mkultra at 11:40 AM on December 9, 2004

I must admit, I'm an avid supporter of People Eating Tasty Animals. And, frankly, if the lobsters don't like being boiled alive and eaten, then I suggest that they evolve to the point where they can reason, make tools and weapons and fight back. Until then, I will simply say that my ancestors didn't spend 40,000 years clawing their way up the evolutionary ladder just to eat lettuce and tofu.

It's a cruel world, and you're either holding the knife or you're on the dinner plate. As much as we like to surround ourselves with the trappings of so-called "civilization", engaging in all of this navel-gazing and genuflection, that fundamental reality remains unchanged.

I certainly don't believe in abject cruelty towards animals, or anyone else, but, sorry, I'm not going to weep over my plate of Surf 'n Turf. Just pass the melted butter, please.
posted by mstefan at 11:41 AM on December 9, 2004

If you're going to eat an animal, why be concerned with its suffering?
posted by haqspan at 11:45 AM on December 9, 2004

The fact that animals instinctively avoid death means that they obviously have as much consciousness and awareness as we do, sourwookie. Didn't you get the memo?

No no no. The memo got it all wrong. The avoidance of death and injury is purely instinctive and nothing more than a side effect of a biological process in any animals that aren't human.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 11:51 AM on December 9, 2004

u.n.owen: I've had a $40 Yagyu sirloin -- a small one. It wasn't all that. I was disappointed. Might have been different if I'd dropped $75 on the rib eye.

But for $40 I could have had a decent Alberta sirloin and had someone give me a beer and sake massage.
posted by solid-one-love at 11:51 AM on December 9, 2004

I'm getting "Bad Request (Invalid Hostname)"
posted by Optimus Chyme at 11:52 AM on December 9, 2004

solid-one-love, I like how you think. Suffering for animals, massages for humans! Life as it should be. *purr*
posted by u.n. owen at 11:56 AM on December 9, 2004

I'm surprised by the binary thinking behind "I'm a human, I eat meat, who cares? Throw it in the pot!" I eat meat, but I don't think there's any wrong in wanting to mitigate suffering as much as possible. Would it kill you (pardon the pun) to take two seconds out of your life to semi-euthanize the lobster? You'd think you were being asked to sit down with the lobster's family and explain what happened to mommy.
posted by mkultra at 12:05 PM on December 9, 2004

David Foster Wallace tastes great when dipped in drawn butter.
posted by Mick at 12:11 PM on December 9, 2004

I'm getting "Bad Request (Invalid Hostname)"

seriously. thanks for getting my hopes up ... nope, now it's back! here's a direct link to the DFW article (PDF) (i cannae find the google HTML version).

If you're going to eat an animal, why be concerned with its suffering?

for the same reason we don't burn people at the stake anymore. or use firing squads.

i might eat a dog, but i can't kick one without getting in trouble. morality is relative (as u.n. owen and solid-one-love have demonstrated so admirably).

on preview: yes, mkultra, the binary thinking disturbs me as well, because it seems like it's on the same slippery slope as dominionist theology, i.e. "man is the ultimate expression of creation," and this planet exists only for us.

boy, that PDF is hard to read. i'll wait for an html link. (anybody got one?)
posted by mrgrimm at 12:16 PM on December 9, 2004

From the Salon article:

You might feel pity for the clawed creatures when you see them floating somnolent in restaurant tanks, a claustrophobic's worst nightmare. But then again, after reading Trevor Corson's "The Secret Life of Lobsters," you might not. Corson describes lobster life as an endless round of ruthless, ritualized violence and kinky, territorial sex practices that would make a porn star blush.

The author's main argument is ridiculous. It seems to be: lobsters are unpleasant little bastards, so it's OK to subject them to unnecessary pain and suffering. And, presumably, if they were friendly little sea kittens, boiling them alive would be a big no-no.

Wolves have a nasty, violent social structure, too. Low-ranking pack members are commonly attacked and persecuted by higher ranking animals until they are killed, driven from the pack, or so weakened by the stress that they succumb to starvation or disease.

Does that mean its OK if I catch that annoying stray dog that's been hanging around my yard and boil it alive? I hope I have a big enough pot . . ..
posted by crake at 12:16 PM on December 9, 2004

What about the suffering of that poor webserver as it fries under the strain? Huh? What about that?
posted by lumpenprole at 12:21 PM on December 9, 2004

Also, that tired old "they don't feel pain" argument is worthless. Pain is what causes an organism to avoid bodily harm. An animal that doesn't feel pain when it's being harmed will last about as long in the wild as an animal that doesn't feel hungry when it needs food, whether it's an insect or a human.

To say a reaction to pain is "just an instinctive response" doesn't answer the question of whether the animal is feeling pain in a meaningful way. Humans display instinctive reactions to pain just as strongly as any other species, but we still have a conscious sensation of it. And that sensation would be impossible to scientifically measure without being able to ask a test subject "Did being poked in the eye with that sharp stick hurt?"

No matter how much we know about its sense organs or nervous system, it's never going to be possible to know exactly how much pain a boiling lobster feels. It seems to me that, in the face of that level of uncertainty, the most ethical thing to do is to err on the side of caution and not boil the disgusting sea roach.
posted by crake at 12:32 PM on December 9, 2004

Speaking of lobsters as "sea roaches," I'm assuming that the people who are against this would never use poison to kill actual roaches, then, either, if their house were infested?

I'm just wondering. 'Cause it seems more cruel, you know...after all, at that point it's sheerly out of convenience for you, and you're not even making any use of the roaches.
posted by u.n. owen at 12:36 PM on December 9, 2004

you're not even making any use of the roaches.

I love roach chowder, you insensitive clod!
posted by lumpenprole at 12:43 PM on December 9, 2004

duh. i printed it out. i actually forgot i could do that.

if you didn't find a plot in Infinite Jest, you couldn't have read very far. he's nothing like Stephenson at all, imo. i'd put him closer to Franzen or Moody, if you want to compare him to a contemporary.

I'll chalk this up to wicked satire

after reading the article, i think you're dead wrong. but what's new? ;) i guess it's best to ignore or dismiss offhand anything you might disagree with ...

great article. thanks, svenvog. i remember that Mary Tyler Moore flap from a few years back.

on preview: Speaking of lobsters as "sea roaches," I'm assuming that the people who are against this would never use poison to kill actual roaches, then, either, if their house were infested?

well, we wouldn't use poison if there were an alternative, mostly because the unnamed "poison" might be more dangerous than the roaches.

i'm also not sure i'd call de-infesting your house or apartment as a "convenience." i'm no expert, but i don't think it's healthy to live in roach-infested apartment.

poor analogy. try again.
posted by mrgrimm at 12:47 PM on December 9, 2004

Wallace brings up something I have to think about daily. I work part-time in a seafood place and often boil or broil the lobsters myself. I often think about whether it's right or not.

Boiling doesn't seem so bad to me. I've never heard one scream and they certainly do not thrash about. They pretty much stop moving right after they hit the water.

Broiling is the one that really gets me thinking. You cut it open alive, pull out its guts (all the time thrashing) pour on the butter and while it's still spasming its last neurotic spasms, you throw it under the salamander.

It sounds cruel and it is cruel. And I'm a part of that. I don't try to rationalize it, I just try not to care. They are food, after all. And they're not cute food, like cows or lambs, so most people don't care.

I don't eat lobster, or any shellfish for religious reasons, but I'm a link in the chain of destruction for crustaceans. Think about all the oysters shucked alive, or clams and mussels steamed in their shells.

That surf 'n' turf has you from the arthropod and mammalian sides. And forget that bacon cheeseburger (which I also don't eat).

I guess the main thing I took away from Wallace's article is that people just don't think about their food in a holistic way. They often think about preparation, they often think about presentation. Sometimes they think about food's place in their lives or what it means to share food with others. Some people are focused wholly on where our food comes from and how it got there.
posted by Captaintripps at 12:54 PM on December 9, 2004

i personally use my cat to kill roaches. cats are the best for insect problems. i feel kinda bad for the suckers. but they gotta go. cause of disease and all. its them or me. but i still feel bad for them. sometimes i gotta stomp one and even after reading all the punditry i still don't know how much it hurts one to die, and occam's razor has me imagining getting my exoskeleton crushed and my guts squirt out all over the place is gonna hurt. but hey, its life's brutal and short.

Only thing i'm against is weak attempts to put a happy face on killing things. I like the unrepentant carnivores and the following-their-principles vegans about equally, but i feel bad for the sanitized everything is lovely crowd cause they get so uptight when they are questioned it just seems like something ain't right.
posted by 31d1 at 12:54 PM on December 9, 2004

According to Alton Brown of Good Eats fame, if you put Pinchy in the freezer for ten minutes, it acts as an anaesthetic and thus they don't feel the boilin. That's what Alton says and I trust Alton.

Seriously, though, I don't know if it mitigates any suffering, but you can clearly see the lobster is comatose upon coming out of the freezer, so perhaps that tends to support his contention.
posted by spicynuts at 12:57 PM on December 9, 2004

I'm assuming that the people who are against this would never use poison to kill actual roaches, then, either, if their house were infested?

Well, its better to avoid the whole situation by not having anything they can eat lying around loose. But with a heavy infestation poison may be the only realistic answer. The difference is that killing vermin is necessary for health and sanitation, while paying a good sized chunk of cash to have a lobster transported to your kitchen to be boiled alive is purely a luxury.

Euthanizing excess cats in a shelter is necessary, since there is no way they can be taken care of. Purposefully running one over on your way home from work is wrong, even if the end result is the same. It's somewhat illogical, but then again, we aren't robots.

On preview--mrgrimm and 31d1: You beat me to it.
posted by crake at 1:02 PM on December 9, 2004

well said, 31d1.

from DFW's note 19:

Suffice it to say that the scientific and 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 still seems to come down to individual conscience, going with (no pun) your gut.

interesting that Captaintripps brings up his Judaism (i assume), because vegetarianism actually is quite a religious issue.
posted by mrgrimm at 1:04 PM on December 9, 2004

mrgrimm, you'd be correct, though I was not raised kosher and do not follow it as strictly as I could (obviously I'm handling lobsters).

That said, I don't think kashrut is something one can really be militant about towards others. That would be pretty funny.

"Hey, you, Mr. Burger Man! What you want, to kill me over here? Get that cheese off!"

"I see that bacon poking out, too..."
posted by Captaintripps at 1:17 PM on December 9, 2004

So it's fine to obliterate thousands of animals, not using them in any way whatsoever, killing them in a fairly dramatic way that takes a long time and infiltrates their entire social structure, just because there's a bare possibility they could cause disease...but not to boil a lobster and kill it in 35-45 seconds.

So what you're saying is, you believe in human dominion over animals, except when you don't feel like it.
posted by u.n. owen at 1:28 PM on December 9, 2004

u.n. owen:
#1: roaches are not animals. they are insects.
#2: given your admonishment of others for simply *giving away* kittens, i have to say you sound a bit hypocritical here.
posted by pikachulolita at 1:43 PM on December 9, 2004

what i'm saying is that these things happen, but there is no reason they have to be considered pleasant, or easy, or not worth thinking about.

what i'm saying is that i find it important to question ones precepts, and if that questioning makes one uncomfortable then that is perhaps a powerful clue that the question is worthwhile.

for example, if i decide to decide that i, as a human, have dominion over animals, does that dominion entail any sort of responsibility?
posted by 31d1 at 1:45 PM on December 9, 2004

We had a fairly large infestation of lobsters at the last apartment we lived in ... sometimes I'd run over to the landlord with two or three of them hanging off my nose and he'd be all like "What? What?" Eventually we had to use one of those Lobster Bombs, butter and bibs everywhere. First time I used the "CALL ALL" recorded announcement feature on my cellphone.
posted by user92371 at 1:47 PM on December 9, 2004

u.n. owen, drawing a parallel between killing a lobster and killing a cockroach is a lame rhetorical trap. The logical counterargument is that you shouldn't mind if I come over and kill and eat you, because human flesh is apparently pretty tasty.

Unless you're a Jain, EVERYTHING is relative. Has it occurred to you that it's possible to be incrementally more humane?
posted by mkultra at 1:51 PM on December 9, 2004

mkultra: Uh, everyone's been saying a lobster is a "sea roach." Even the article asserts that it's basically an underwater insect. My comparison is off, how, exactly? The animals are incredibly similar. Roaches have a very similar structure to lobsters, physiologically.

pikachulolita, I have to assume your first statement was a joke? Please? Pretty please? Oh jesus please tell me you don't actually think insects aren't animals.

And you know, I'd say it was pretty lousy if someone promised to keep ANY animal as a pet and take care of it forever, then killed it. But I see a difference in wild animals and/or food-raised animals.

But if you actually think insects aren't animals, ignore all that, you're too dumb to talk to.
posted by u.n. owen at 2:04 PM on December 9, 2004

Insects are animals, and accusations of hypocrisy are ad hominem fallacies.

On preview: sheesh.
posted by box at 2:10 PM on December 9, 2004

So what you're saying is, you believe in human dominion over animals, except when you don't feel like it.

No. If lobsters was crawling around in my pantry and leaving gritty little turds in the bottom of my coffee cup, and boiling them alive was the only realistic way to stop them, I'd have a pot heating up in a hurry. Killing animals is an inevitable part of life. But poisoning something that has invaded your living space is different than actively searching for an animal that wants nothing to do with you, or the Rice Krispie crumbs in your cabinets, and painfully killing it just because it tastes good with butter.

It's the difference is between causing pain to something which is adversely affecting the quality of your life, in order to solve the problem, and doing the same thing to something that isn't bothering you at all, purely for your own pleasure.

On preview: user92371, there was an outbreak of shrimp in my place. It wasn't much of a problem, though: I just had to leave stem glasses full of cocktail sauce in the corners for a few weeks. They'd poke their heads into the sauce and choke, in neat little rows all around the edge of the glasses.
posted by crake at 2:12 PM on December 9, 2004

Just a small but important distinction; lobsters are crustaceans which are part of the class Crustacea, insects are part of the class Insecta. Both are part of the phylum Arthropoda. So no, lobsters are not insects. Its like saying a rifle is a gun, therefore all guns are rifles.

I assumed the author was being poetic in his description of lobsters as insects. But maybe he was confused as well.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 2:20 PM on December 9, 2004

Lobsters are not insects, but they're arthropods. They are fairly similar physiologically, particularly in skeletal structure.

And I don't know about anyone else, but my quality of life is impacted horribly when I go without some lobster.

You know, this thread has made me crave seafood. Mmmmmmmm.
posted by u.n. owen at 2:23 PM on December 9, 2004

I won't get into how much 'worth' a lobster has over an insect. But I will say that for me it's a matter of where my food comes from and how it's prepared. Some would call this 'ethical eating'.

I'm not a vegetarian by any means, but when I learned how cattle were treated - packed into cramped, filthy pens, and wallowing in their own excrement - it made me think twice about eating a burger that came from that environment. I won't stop eating burgers, I just might investigate a little about where that meat came from, and the conditions in which it was raised.

Similarly, pate is the liver of a goose. Nothing inherently wrong with that, but many farmers have taken to stuffing geese necks with food resulting in a liver 10 times that of its original size. If I could ever afford to eat pate I think this knowledge would give me pause.

So I appreciate knowing this about lobster, and while I won't begrudge someone else their food preferences, for me I have to wonder why they don't just quickly kill the lobster before tossing it in the boiling pot? Does it affect the taste?
posted by OpinioNate at 2:41 PM on December 9, 2004

OpinioNate, there's no good way to quickly kill them because their "brain" isn't just in their head. They have nerve bundles different places.
posted by u.n. owen at 3:17 PM on December 9, 2004

So I appreciate knowing this about lobster, and while I won't begrudge someone else their food preferences, for me I have to wonder why they don't just quickly kill the lobster before tossing it in the boiling pot? Does it affect the taste?

In general, it's a matter of safety and freshness. The enzymes in a lobster's digestive tract are toxic, and they tend to have a lot of very unpleasant microorganisms in them. With a live lobster, you know that it hasn't been sitting around dead for some time, waiting to make you good and sick.

I understand that two popular techniques for "humanely" killing them is to either freeze them beforehand or drowning them in wine or spring water. Seems like a waste of time to me, though. Just into the pot and get it over with.
posted by mstefan at 3:20 PM on December 9, 2004

Very particular about usage
posted by DenOfSizer at 5:57 PM on December 9, 2004

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