While I'm on the heels of writing about tradition, I must give a few hundred words to writing about my dear, beloved lobster. From a taste perspective, it was one of my first loves. As a toddler, before I ate beef, or chicken, or pork, I ate lobster. The love affair has continued unabated since. Now that we live in Colorado, far from the Atlantic seaboard, getting reasonably priced live lobster (and sometimes, any lobster at all) is increasingly difficult. Before I continue, allow me to digress with a recent story:
Kelli requested I make scallops for her birthday dinner. It was to be a combined birthday dinner, and for my own meal, I planned on a steamed Maine lobster. Alas, I searched high and low, and nary a live lobster could I find in Colorado. I visited four markets. Two didn't sell lobsters at all. The two that did sold tiny frozen lobster tails at a price that equated to $48 per pound (when live whole lobsters are $8-10 per pound on Long Island, where my mom lives). (What's even more frustrating is that a few years back, Whole Foods stopped carrying live lobsters because of animal rights/welfare concerns about traveling conditions while the lobsters were en route from Maine to our market in Boulder, Colorado. And yet, Whole Foods doesn't bat an eyelash at selling uncooked, frozen lobster tails, which would have been torn from the bodies of live lobsters.) And so I balked at buying dry looking, frozen, horribly overpriced lobster tails, and resolved to wait until our annual trip to NY for the holidays. There I'd visit one of my favorite local seafood markets, buy fresh live lobster, and take them home to prepare for dinner. Which brings me back on track with the original story...
Having an annual lobster during trips to Long Island has become another holiday tradition. It's when I get "my fix," as Kelli says, and I look forward to it eagerly each year. This year was no different. We loaded up the car, went to our seafood market on the south shore of Long Island, picked up three 1.5-pound lobsters, and took them home to steam and eat. I must say, despite all the build up, despite all the potential for expectations not living up to reality, the lobsters were delicious. The meat was unbelievably sweet and tender and juicy. (I continue to affirm that the best lobsters I've eaten are the ones I've cooked myself...)
One day later, Kelli, my mom, and I sat down to watch the movie, Julie and Julia. (If you haven't read the book and/or seen the movie, I highly recommend you treat yourself to at least one, if not both...) One of the movie's classic scenes is one in which Julie, following Julia's advice, uses a knife to split the head of a lobster, instantly killing it and hence mercifully avoiding boiling it alive. There's just one problem: lobsters don't have a centralized nervous system the way you and I do, and so the "cleave the head" technique is an inappropriate analog. For me the whole scene, entertaining as it was, brought back to the forefront a long-standing debate about how to best kill and cook a lobster.
Boiling them alive is perhaps the most widely-used method, and therein lies the rub. Do lobsters feel pain and do they suffer? And if they do, Is boiling a live lobster a cruel and unusual form of torture perpetrated against an innocent and sentient creature, or is it a harmless (and painless) act in the course of preparing a tasty dinner? This debate has raged, almost certainly, for as long as people have both eaten lobster and cared about the suffering of animals.
David Foster Wallace did an excellent and eloquent job summarizing the debate in his essay, Consider the Lobster, which he wrote for Gourmet Magazine in 2004 after attending the Maine Lobster Festival. Since then, new scientific research findings have added to the debate, but not cleared up the debate, since various studies have sided with one side of the debate or the other. For example, a 2005 study out of Norway concluded that lobsters DON'T feel pain. A more recent study out of the UK conversely concluded that lobsters DO feel pain. And so the debate continues. (One writer summed it up succinctly, and I paraphrase: "If you eat lobster, they don't. If you don't eat lobster, they do.")
I, for one, am a fan of the precautionary principle. In the absence of clear evidence, it is best to err on the side of not inflicting pain, and so I'm quite interested in figuring out the best way (meaning swiftest, least painful) to kill a lobster before cooking it. Of course, this kind of dilemma applies primarily to those people who eat meat. Vegetarians and the like are absolved of wrestling with this type of culinary guilt and kitchen morality. Then there are people like me. I'm that brand of meat eater who cares HOW my food lives, and HOW it dies, but I'm apparently okay with the more basic fact THAT it dies in order for me to eat it. (To this degree, I like to buy certified humane eggs, and grass-fed beef from our local rancher, etc. when possible...)
I suspect that many of you out there are like me. We sit in a kind of moral nether-region. We care about the animals we eat, and wrestle with the ethical justifications for doing so. Meanwhile, when it comes to lobsters, there are strongly opinionated animal rights groups on one side of the debate (such as Lobster Liberation), and lobster industry groups on the other side of the debate (such as the Lobster Institute). Stuck in the middle are lots of confused and concerned lobster eaters who want to do the right thing.
At the end of the day, I think we all should be concerned with reducing the amount of pain and suffering in the world, no matter how trivial the suffering, or how seemingly insignificant the recipient of that suffering. Perhaps one day my own values and ethics will tip in favor of vegetarianism, or even veganism. I can't say one way or the other with any certainty. (And don't get me wrong...I'm not there yet. Not even close.)
I do know that I value the up close and personal killing I do in my kitchen when it comes to lobster. (It sounds twisted to say it that way, but hear me out...) Unlike supermarket meat, where we are detached from the life (and the taking of that life) of the animal we eat, when we bring live lobsters into our kitchen, we must come face to face with the reality of the act. It sounds corny to call it an homage to the lobster, but that's not far from the truth. Killing and eating a lobster, at least for me, is something of a solemn and reflective act (my enjoyment of eating it notwithstanding...). I respect the lobster, and I feel I pay some sort of karmic debt to it by doing the actual killing. It forces me to come to terms with the entirety of the act of eating lobster, and at the end of the day, I have to be okay with it in order to enjoy the meal.
That doesn't stop me, though, from continuing to try to settle the debate (at least for myself). I continue to try and sift through the bewildering network of science and opinion as to which method offers the swiftest, most painles death. If, and hopefully when, I figure it out, I'll let you know. But for now, I must go... we're having lobster for dinner tonight to end the decade, and I must attend to the task at hand.