Friday, September 11, 2009

The Tender Trap: A Loathsome Lobster Tale

(or, Why some foodies make me boiling mad)

“I don’t think you realize who you’re dealing with here. You might have me in the tank for now, but just wait ’til I get these f---ing rubber bands off.”

Freddy the Lobster, from an op-ed in The Onion

Most omnivores wouldn’t know an absent referent if it were staring them in the face (which it is, in fact, every time they eat meat), but I expect a heightened awareness from fellow writers, who I believe are socially obligated to deeply consider the ethical implications of their words. I was therefore struck once again by people’s seemingly limitless capacity for insensitivity and death-dealing denial when I read today’s “Bitten” blog in the New York Times entitled “Boiling the Lobster,” in which author Emily Weinstein recounts her first attempt to cook live crustaceans.

According to Weinstein, she just had to send these inveterate invertebrates to Davy Jones’ Locker herself “at least once” as “a rite of passage” (into the ignominious ranks of culinary killers, one can only presume). Yet what is most disturbing about Weinstein’s insistence that she’s engaged in some sort of sacred ritual is her disingenuous attempt to make violence palatable by leapfrogging clear over the obvious objections against killing that vegans embody in their everyday actions. Here, in Weinstein’s own words, are the excuses she proffers:

“The problem was that I was actually kind of afraid of putting (the lobsters) in the boiling water. It wasn’t the thought of killing a living creature — to me no meal could be more celebratory than one that begins with a cocktail and a round of raw oysters, which are live when they’ve shucked and served. And it wasn’t a moral issue. I am a meat eater, and no matter how lovely the life of an animal was, someone, somewhere, still had the task of dropping it in the proverbial pot. What I feared was kickback — the lid blowing off, hearing the sound of lobsters screaming*, or something unimaginable, and worse.”

Yeah, that’s right, Ms. Weinstein: it’s all about you. I mean, really: who the hell cares about the murder of three insignificant lobsters — as long as you have a “celebratory” meal and get to safely confront your phobia of feeling even a tiny fraction of the terror, pain and utter annihilation of consciousness you just knowingly inflicted on several sentient beings? After all, according to your “logic” at least, torturing small animals to death is inherently therapeutic!

And by the way, the life of every creature you’ve ever eaten was indeed “lovely,” as you say — the animal equivalent of a spa vacation! The lobsters you bought, for example, likely lived in a warehouse storage tank for months before even arriving at the pound where you purchased them, crammed in with hundreds of others whose claws were banded shut to prevent them from tearing one another to shreds under the stress of severe confinement — which was just so much fun for them all, like a nonstop party! Lobsters have a strong predilection for dark places and are highly attuned to atmospheric temperature changes, so the store owners may have thoughtfully illuminated their glass aquarium and adjusted the thermostat a few degrees colder just to make the zany antics of these born entertainers even more exciting for you, the paying customer. But the fact that you yourself so graciously killed these creatures after their blissful captivity for your very own meal, instead of letting some anonymous chef do your dirty work, definitely makes up for any slights our diminutive red friends may have experienced while accommodated as preferred guests of the altruistic seafood industry.

Putting sarcasm aside for a moment, the rest of Weinstein’s post documents her flawed and failed attempts to “minimize (the lobsters’) pain” and cook them in a “humane” manner — first by unsuccessfully hypnotizing them, then freezing them — before painfully boiling them to death. Despite these precautions, at least one of the animals remained conscious during the deadly dinner preparations: when their tormentor lifted the pot’s cover, “As if shielding itself from the intrusion of light, a lobster raised up its claw,” at which point the callous cook “clapped the lid back on.” With this chilling image still freshly imprinted on the reader’s mind, Weinstein efficiently ends her account with a description of how “sweet” the lobster meat tasted, a self-congratulatory pat on the back for so courageously dispatching defenseless creatures, and a cutesy killing joke about not quite yet deserving the “go-go wellies” worn by the teenaged Rhode Island shopgirl who helpfully sold her the live lobsters.

If you find yourself existentially distressed after reading Weinstein’s mundanely-related horror story, a quick perusal of reader comments should provide sufficiently convincing proof of your minority status. Which is to say, a sizable proportion of reader responses would be most accurately categorized as macabre preparation suggestions — everything from “killing the lobster with a knife to the brain” to using “special scissors to snip off their little faces.” These people would be vilified as psychopaths for talking about kittens this way, but their recommendations are welcomed in this mainstream online forum because most people think of lobsters as things so lowly that we need not even concern ourselves with whatever form of alien sea life may lie behind those beady black eyes.

Well, if you eat lobster (and are, by some circumstantial fluke or cosmic miracle, still reading this), here are a few fascinating facts about these captivating creatures that will hopefully change your mind.

Lobster Lib

• Lobsters are members of the Phylum Arthropoda (which in the original Greek literally translates as “jointed feet”): their closest genetic cousins include crustaceans like crab, shrimp and crayfish, but they are also related to insects, spiders and scorpions. As a species, lobsters have inhabited Earth since the Jurassic period (~ 206 to 144 million years ago), meaning they are about two hundred times as old as the human race. Lobsters can live for well over 100 years when left alone, but most at some point fall victim to the U.S. fishing industry, which traps and removes about 3.5 million tons of lobsters from coastal ocean waters every year.

• Like sea turtles and some migratory birds, lobsters have a built-in magnetic compass that enables them to engage in true navigation. That is, they exhibit an extremely rare talent for orienting themselves — in total underwater darkness on the ocean floor, mind you — without accessing physical landmarks or chemical cues. Using this ability, some lobsters journey hundreds of miles to reach their spawning grounds.

• The unfounded claim that lobsters cannot feel pain has been proven false by scientific research, some of which indicates that lobsters produce opioids (the chemicals that convey painful stimuli to the brain) and have opioid receptors. It is therefore logical to conclude that they would not possess these anatomical features if they could not experience physical suffering. And, of course, the most obvious evidence that lobsters feel pain is that they wildly flail their bodies around when thrown into boiling water, and sometimes desperately try to climb out of their scalding prisons.

Would learning about lobsters’ lives have any effect on foodie bloggers who wax poetic about the succulence of their meat? Well, some gourmands already apparently experiment with ways to “humanely” kill lobsters before cooking and eating them, either to salve their own guilt or get animal rights activists off their backs. But the thing about many meat-eating foodies is that their pattern of moral disconnection applies to virtually every species of animal.

Granted, I focused on lobsters in this critique, but there are also countless examples of foodie bloggers relishing such gourmet atrocities as foie gras, milk-fed veal, lamb brains, and live baby octopus tentacles (among many, many other harvested body parts) — and then nonchalantly writing about their aesthetic adventures without bothering to even mention those who suffered and died to sate their appetites. Meanwhile, other foodie scribes cagily try to justify murdering animals by offering up the same old trivial alibis that are so obviously intended to evade any authentic ethical discussion. Seriously, flesh-eaters: arguments like “meat tastes good” and “Hitler was a vegetarian” (FYI, he most definitely was not) have absolutely no bearing on whether it is ethically acceptable for humans to inflict suffering and death on billions of animals when we don’t have to.

On a positive note…

There is a veritable cornucopia of high-quality vegan foodie blogs out there with pictures, recipes and restaurant reviews to get your mouth watering. Here are just a few (somewhat arbitrary but worthwhile) selections to start with:
- The Vegan Foodie
- Vegan Yum.Yum
- Post Punk Kitchen
- Vegan Appetite
- Vegan Eats & Treats

…and here are some random lobster-related resources for good measure:
- Watch “The Simpsons” episode in which Homer raises (and then accidentally cooks) his pet lobster Pinchy
- Listen to the B-52’s classic New Wave song “Rock Lobster”
- Read the late David Foster Wallace’s article “Consider the Lobster” from the August 2004 issue of Gourmet magazine

* Marine zoologists maintain that it is physiologically impossible for lobsters to scream, as they have neither lungs nor vocal chords: the noise that to many people sounds like screaming is actually trapped air being expelled from their shells, which expand rapidly when immersed in hot water.


  1. Thank you for using logic.

  2. Anonymous8:12 PM

    Thanks for your post. I was looking further into America's perception of veganism , and ran across your site. I posted a comment on that person's article, and I hope it helps to shed a light on the situation a bit. Its responses such as yours to this type of everyday absurdity that will help enlighten others... if, in the least, it helps more people become aware of their actions, then it has been a success.

  3. Another excellent post, Mat. I am glad you mention David Foster Wallace's article. One of the passages from his story that had a big impact on me is where he writes, "Standing at the stove, it is hard to deny in any meaningful way that this is a living creature experiencing pain and wishing to avoid/escape the painful experience. To my lay mind, the lobster's behavior in the kettle appears to be the expression of a preference; and it may well be that an ability to form preferences is the decisive criterion for real suffering."

    Again, well done.

  4. oh thank you for the response to the atrociously disturbing article by Weinstein. Because however well-written it may be, it's still disgusting and cold.

  5. Curious about your comment about lambs' brains. I understand (but don't share) your view on lobsters, foie gras and live octopus (a new one on me), but why would lamb's brains be any different to lamb chops? Surely vegetarians should be thankful that we meat eaters might want to eat the whole animal rather than just a few parts, thus meaning the animal lasts more meals and fewer are killed? Just a thought ;)