Letter 10: “Consider the Lobster”

Dear Mr. Wallace,

I have never eaten lobster, and I hereby vow to never eat a lobster.

It’s not because of all the PETA propaganda about the cruelty of boiling them alive.  I honestly just don’t like seafood.  Sure, I’ve had a few dishes that I enjoyed: fish tacos from a street vendor in Ensenada, some grilled mahi-mahi, even some well-blended tuna salad.  But as a rule, I’m just not a big fan of seafood.  So reading a rather detailed description of lobsters trying to climb out of a pot of boiling water as they are cooked alive, or the alternative of stabbing them in the head to avoid the trauma[1] of being boiled alive, sort of sealed the deal for me.  I will never eat lobster.

As I read “Consider the Lobster,”[2] I couldn’t help but notice the veritable smorgasbord of ironies and contradictions.  Like how it was not until sometime in the 1800s that lobster was considered a snobbish delicacy.  As you mention, the enjoyment of these “giant sea insects” was left for the destitute and institutionalized (237).  Eating too much lobster – the probable goal of some of the Maine Lobster Festival’s patrons – was actually considered cruel and unusual punishment.

Or the irony that the claws of lobsters in holding tanks are bound so that they don’t tear each other apart before being plopped into pots of boiling water.  Footnote 8 furthers the point by telling us that chickens are debeaked, cattle dehorned, and swine de-tailed for the same reason.  We don’t want our food hurting or killing each other before we get a chance to, now do we?

Or my favorite irony of all is that this essay was originally written for Gourmet magazine.  A correspondent sent to write about the grand experience of the Maine Lobster Festival spends over half the article discussing the physiological and philosophical debate about whether lobsters are able to feel pain, and if the physical sensation of pain transfers into the existential experience of suffering.  I wonder how the editors and readers of Gourmet felt about that.

While the majority of the essay focuses on this debate, it was actually Footnote 6 that caught my attention.  Within the context of the Maine Lobster Festival, you make some rather interesting comments about the idea of tourism.  The tourism industry allows us access to some of the most beautiful natural wonders in the world, places that the average Joe might never see or experience otherwise.[3]  But as you point out in Footnote 6, tourism is “to impose yourself on places that in all non-economic ways would be better, realer, without you” (240).  Our very presence in these locations – especially en masse – spoils the inherent beauty and wonder of the place.

I can remember a few vacationing experiences in which this proven to be true.  A few summers ago, my wife and I spent a week in Kauai.  One of my favorite experiences of the vacation was a guided kayak trip up a beautiful river.[4]  After about an hour or so of paddling, we pulled our boats onto the river bank, and then hiked a mile or two to the “Secret” Falls.  A secret that is apparently shared by a handful of tour companies and visited by hundreds of people each day.

Or on another morning of this same vacation, we went snorkeling at Poipu Beach.  We arrived early and shared the waters with only a handful of people.[5]  About the time we were tired of swimming and taking pictures of the colorful fish and got out of the water, the tour buses began to arrive.  The beach and waters were soon swarming with people slathered in sun block and wearing all shapes and forms of swimwear.  Looking back on that morning after reading “Consider the Lobster,” I wonder how the fish – the main attraction at a snorkeling beach – responded to the hundred of people now invading their home.  I have a feeling that my wife and I and the three other families who were there early saw a whole lot more fish than those who poured off the buses.

We want to experience the world, to see all its natural beauty and splendor.  Yet the more we visit and the more we snap photos, the more damage we cause.  We leave our mark, often a lasting and negative one.  I can’t think of how we might be bettering these beautiful landmarks by visiting by the thousands every year.  Surely our high-rise hotels and souvenir stands are doing no one any good, except perhaps the owners and investors.

Which makes me wonder if that – in part – is the point of your essay.  When we tread upon these “tourist destinations” and park our RV’s and take our hundreds of digital pictures, perhaps we are “boiling the lobster alive,” so to speak.  Whether the lobster is actually capable of experiencing pain, or whether that pain translates to actual suffering, is not the point.  The point is, the lobster is dead, dipped in butter, and headed for our stomachs.  These natural wonders – like the lobster – are merely victims of our insatiable appetites.

[1] The trauma for the cook rather than the lobster.  The idea of dropping a live lobster into a pot of scalding water and watching it squirm and scratch the sides of the pot as it tries to escape leads some gourmet chefs to simply stab the crustacean in the head.  Apparently this is a less distressing method of killing the lobster.

[2] By far my favorite essay thus far.

[3] And the Industry allows us to look like complete jackasses while enjoying the natural wonders of the world.  The Industry is more than willing to sell us all kinds of hokey hats and sweatshirts to wear while on vacation, and we are usually stupid enough to buy things that a person in their right mind would only wear while on vacation.

[4] What made the trip so memorable was not the scenery, but the conversations with our tour guide, one of the most fascinating people I’ve ever met.

[5] The fortunate thing about the three-hour time difference between California and Hawaii is that we never slept past about six o’clock.  So we were on the road to see the sights pretty early each morning, and thereby avoided most of the crowds.


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