“What do you want for dinner?” My dad asks this of me daily whenever I’m out East for a visit. I usually throw the question right back, and we play a lengthy game of verbal hot potato before the issue resolves itself. I always know what I want, but I feel awful about making the request: lobster. Not only is it a fairly costly choice, it also causes me a fair amount of angst. When I do proffer “Do you feel like lobster?” and my dad responds with “Call Braun’s [Braun Seafood in Cutchogue] and ask if there are any lobster specials,” I am elated, yet miserable.
Dana Goodyear described in her article “Beastly Appetites” [from the November 4, 2013 issue of The New Yorker] the term “meat paradox.” Coined by behavioral psychologists, it’s “the human problem of loving animals and also loving to eat them.” I have always felt this way about lobster. It’s my favorite food, yet I’m horrified by how it’s killed so that I may enjoy it — being boiled alive must be one of the unholiest ways to die. A friend stopped eating lobster because he was convinced that these creatures could sense their own death—fair enough. Goodyear shared a particularly grisly account of lobstercide at a Santa Monica sushi restaurant called The Hump. Here, patrons could witness their meal being killed before their eyes. In the case of lobster, the method wasn’t by boiling, but by being severed. “Live lobster was cut in half and presented with the tail meat draped over the carapace, and the head—antennae still moving—beside it on a bed of ice.” A frequent visitor to The Hump had written on his blog that “the effect of [this method] is the animal [watches] you eat it.” As sad and guilty as the article made me feel, the effect was not strong enough to force me to permanently abstain from consuming the crustacean.
David Foster Wallace wrote about this paradox and how it specifically pertained to lobster lovers at the Maine Lobster Festival in 2004, covering it for Gourmet magazine in his article “Consider the Lobster.” Wallace told of “a detail so obvious that most recipes don’t even bother to mention it is that each lobster is supposed to be alive when you put it in the kettle. This is part of the lobster’s modern appeal: It’s the freshest food there is.” Then he so eloquently articulated the very heart of my existential crisis — “Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure?” I was once told that lobsters “scream” before they’re put in the pot. Again, this horrid detail has yet to curb my appetite for the shy creature, gifted an odd prehistoric sort of ugliness.
I have long had an affinity toward lobsters, possibly longer than they have been my favorite food. I would stare at them in their tanks lovingly as a child in restaurants or supermarkets—marveling at their stillness, their mottled blue-and-brown shells. My tiny hands would stroke the glass slowly, careful not to cause distress by tapping. It was nice to see them alive (if barely) when every other animal was already a cut or a fillet.
Growing up less than a mile from the Long Island Sound, lobsters were a summertime staple. Before Braun’s became my family’s go-to for a lobster dinner, there was the man with his coolers. Parked on a small stretch of dry grass at the corner of Northville Turnpike and Sound Avenue, the man set up his operation, which was basically a series of plastic bins and a sign that read LIVE LOBSTERS resting against his vehicle, visible from the road. It seems funny now that someone might get the urge to buy a lobster while driving as you would a hotdog. These lobsters were rubber-banded and feisty, moving deliberately, but decisively after their release from the paper bag onto our kitchen counter. I stroked their segmented tails knowing that they couldn’t hurt me.
The poet Gérard de Nerval kept a pet lobster, as one might keep a dog or cat nowadays. Apollinaire wrote of having witnessed Nerval taking the lobster, which he named Thibault, for a walk in the gardens of the Palais-Royal in Paris. A long blue ribbon was tied around the crustacean. In response the naysayers, Nerval had this to say to those who called him eccentric: “And what could be quite so ridiculous as making a dog, a cat, a gazelle, a lion or any other beast follow one about. I have affection for lobsters. They are tranquil, serious and, they know the secrets of the sea.”