A question usually avoided

I turned the corner, pushing my shopping cart away from frozen vegetables and toward the butcher department. At the end of the display counter showing off the meat and fish of the day, there it was, a common sight in modern supermarkets. The tank of gloom, featuring large crustaceans from New England waiting to die. There were six of them, huddled in a corner, nothing moving except the occasional antenna, all with their large claws clamped shut by rubber bands. And that’s when I thought of David Foster Wallace.

Wallace, author of the much-acclaimed 1996 novel Infinite Jest and brand new member of the Suicide Club—he hung himself, age 46, in September—once wrote a memorable piece for Gourmet. He went on assignment for that epicurean magazine to Maine’s Lobster Festival, an event that is to lobster-lovers what the Nugget Rib Cook-off is to pork fans. Wallace wrote a lengthy, comprehensive essay on the festival, including a whole bunch of lobster data, factoids, and lore. (Did you know that back in the 19th century, for example, lobster was considered trash food, worthy only of the poor?) A healthy segment of the essay was devoted to a question that usually seems to be avoided, especially by readers of Gourmet—is it morally all right to “boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure?”

Wallace doesn’t duck the question he poses. He searches for answers from some of the folks at the festival. The most popular justification for the live boiling of lobsters comes in the form of slaphappy arguments based on the notion that these tasty crawlers, being ancient and relatively unevolved, simply don’t have the nervous systems necessary for the registration of enormous, howling pain, the kind of pain that one would undoubtedly experience if one were to be boiled alive. Wallace, suspicious, embraces this particular reasoning with the same gusto he would a barbed wire teddy bear. He notes that, for an animal with such a lousy nervous system, the typical lobster sure has a knack for making it abundantly and immediately clear that he would really prefer not to be boiled. Wallace thought that the frantic clattering of claws on the underside of the pot lid, which frequently must be held down by the cook, lent powerful support to this school of thought. He concluded, thoughtfully enough, that those who do boil lobsters alive should at least do so without resorting to the flimsily specious “too primitive to feel pain” argument.

Wallace’s collection of essays, called Consider the Lobster, is available in both written and audio versions from the county library. Not only does it include his lobster report, but also a thorough and often hilarious piece on a three-day porn convention in Las Vegas. As for Infinite Jest, his main claim to fame, it’s a worthwhile and often awesome read, but you wouldn’t call it a quick read, weighing in at a smidge under 1,100 pages.