‘Consider the Lobster’ by David Foster Wallace

Exhilaration. The joy of surprise. A sense of guilt for not having done something before.

That is what I felt when I recently read David Foster Wallace’s 2004 essay, ‘Consider the Lobster’, for the first time. I’d read about this essay a number of times before and I knew how important its author is (was—sadly, Wallace took his own life in 2008 at the age of 46) to contemporary American writing.

But the topic of the essay was not immediately attractive. I love cooking and eating well, but a 15-page text on just the ‘lobster’ seemed to me to be a little too much, so I waited until I couldn’t postpone any more. And now that I’m reading as widely as I can around the essay was the time to do it.

How wrong I was to postpone for so long!

As David Foster Wallace tells us early on, the subject of the essay – the Maine Lobster Festival of 2003 – was commissioned by the magazine, Gourmet, but as from the first sentence you realise that this is not going to be a regular entry in fine dining magazines:
The enormous, pungent, and extremely well marketed Maine Lobster Festival is held every late July in the state’s midcoast region, meaning the western side of Penobscot Bay, the nerve stem of Maine’s lobster industry. 

This is not an essay reviewing recipes and tastes – well, it is, but it is also so much more. As the first sentence indicates, Foster Wallace is going to be interested not just in the lobster, but all that which surrounds this Festival: its size (enormous); its not so pleasant sides (pungent); its relation to capitalist America (marketed); and the biology of the lobster (nerve stem).

The essay begins as you’d expect it to begin in terms of subject. It gives us the context of the festival, its history and even an etymological account of the name, ‘lobster’. We read about the differences between different kinds of lobsters and the changing conceptions of lobsters through time – from an over-abundant food fed to convicts, to a luxurious delicacy that signifies American prosperity.

There is more than meets the eye. With an impressively fluent and approachable style, Foster Wallace starts probing, digging and asking. As in the very best essays, he starts from tangible descriptions:

As an à la carte entrée, lobster can be baked, broiled, steamed, grilled, sautéed, stir-fried, or microwaved. The most common method, though, is boiling. If you’re someone who enjoys having lobster at home, this is probably the way you do it, since boiling is so easy. You need a large kettle w/ cover, which you fill about half full with water (the standard advice is that you want 2.5 quarts of water per lobster). Seawater is optimal, or you can add two tbsp salt per quart from the tap. It also helps to know how much your lobsters weigh. You get the water boiling, put in the lobsters one at a time, cover the kettle, and bring it back up to a boil. Then you bank the heat and let the kettle simmer—ten minutes for the first pound of lobster, then three minutes for each pound after that.

Passages like these abound, as he describes with the eye of a sharp reporter. But then he moves, at first hesitantly, but then more convincingly and unflinchingly, into reflection, analysis. The question of pain (especially that felt or not felt by lobsters as they are boiled alive) and our relation to it becomes dominant:

The lobster, in other words, behaves very much as you or I would behave if we were plunged into boiling water (with the obvious exception of screaming).15 A blunter way to say this is that the lobster acts as if it’s in terrible pain, causing some cooks to leave the kitchen altogether and to take one of those little lightweight plastic oven timers with them into another room and wait until the whole process is over.

The essay, which starts off as a descriptive account of a food festival written for a fine-eating magazine, becomes an exploration of pain and suffering: the lobster’s pain, the biology and chemistry of pain, but also our feelings towards pain. This seamless transition is one of the things that makes this essay worth reading. The other is the style. David Foster Wallace uses footnotes, digressions and meanderings of all kinds while moving forward in his analysis of the lobster, leaving gems of irony, introspection and black humour along the way:

On being a tourist:

As I see it, it probably really is good for the soul to be a tourist, even if it’s only once in a while. Not good for the soul in a refreshing or enlivening way, though, but rather in a grim, steely-eyed, let’s-look-honestly-at-the-facts-and-find-some-way-to-deal-with-them way. My personal experience has not been that traveling around the country is broadening or relaxing, or that radical changes in place and context have a salutary effect, but rather that intranational tourism is radically constricting, and humbling in the hardest way—hostile to my fantasy of being a real individual, of living somehow outside and above it all. (Coming up is the part that my companions find especially unhappy and repellent, a sure way to spoil the fun of vacation travel:) To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit. It 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.

On thinking about the lobster while eating it:

Given this article’s venue and my own lack of culinary sophistication, I’m curious about whether the reader can identify with any of these reactions and acknowledgments and discomforts. I am also concerned not to come off as shrill or preachy when what I really am is confused. Given the (possible) moral status and (very possible) physical suffering of the animals involved, what ethical convictions do gourmets evolve that allow them not just to eat but to savor and enjoy flesh-based viands (since of course refined enjoyment, rather than just ingestion, is the whole point of gastronomy)? And for those gourmets who’ll have no truck with convictions or rationales and who regard stuff like the previous paragraph as just so much pointless navel-gazing, what makes it feel okay, inside, to dismiss the whole issue out of hand? That is, is their refusal to think about any of this the product of actual thought, or is it just that they don’t want to think about it? Do they ever think about their reluctance to think about it? After all, isn’t being extra aware and attentive and thoughtful about one’s food and its overall context part of what distinguishes a real gourmet? Or is all the gourmet’s extra attention and sensibility just supposed to be aesthetic, gustatory?

‘Consider the Lobster.’ Indeed.

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