"Consider the Lobster," a Gourmet Classic

Dec 292009
 
Photo from Gourmet articlePhoto from Gourmet article, 2004

The other day I sent out a Tweet about a list of best food books of the decade at the UK Guardian. Amy Sherman replied she found the list strange because of two books on Indian food, but then, the British now say they like curry more than fish & chips.

I enjoyed that exchange, but actually, Indian cookbooks were not what I found odd — and ultimately wonderful — about the article. It was because it said, a few paragraphs in, “We had an interesting nomination… David Foster Wallace’s essay Consider the Lobster, written originally for the now defunct Gourmet magazine, which… ‘set the bar for food writing for a generation.’ If you haven’t already read it, do.”

Right then I realized I had never read it. I was too excited to be ashamed, so I printed it out and pored through the long piece about, ostensibly, attending a Maine lobster festival on assignment. The author, if you don’t know him, was famous for writing the novel Infinite Jest, and for committing suicide last year at age 48.

Not all Ruth Reichl’s assignments to non-food writers (superior to food writers, apparently) were successful, but this one broke new ground. Once he gets past the introduction about the festival, Wallace asks the hard question: “Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure?”  I bet a question like this had not been asked in a food magazine before.

He knew it was a delicate point. He writes, “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 acknowledgements 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)?”

Wallace continues with sensitivity, grace, and tons of research that concludes, in essence, that the answer is no. He also details various other ways of killing lobsters (remember the scene in Julie & Julia? Right between the eyes?) as not being any better.

Two other literary techniques worth mentioning are the way he speaks to the reader indirectly, yet in an intimate manner; and his fanatical use of footnotes — something typical of Wallace’s work, but fortunately, not a Gourmet trend that endured.

So, as the writer of the Guardian piece said, if you haven’t already read it, do, and tell me if you think it’s a classic.

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  18 Responses to “"Consider the Lobster," a Gourmet Classic”

  1. This is an excellent question, and one that I grapple with whenever I see lobster on the menu. My morals win out and I usually order the halibut (though I’m sure the vegan contingent would crucify me for this decision as well…).

    • It’s all a matter of degree, Stephanie, and the important thing is that you’re thinking about it.

  2. Thanks for the link. It was a very entertaining read. Not because it made me squirm to think about the living beings killed for our enjoyment. But mostly because of the author’s understated disgust of being sent on such a task.

    One wonders what she thought when she received his submitted manuscript.

    • Yes, he handled it well, don’t you think? Especially considering his readership. I hope Reichl was delighted!

  3. I haven’t read this article, but it’s now on the printer waiting for later this evening when I have a chance to really commit to it. One thing that I immediately noticed was its length, so I’ll be interested to see if I’m compelled to keep reading, and if so, what compels me. I feel that true food writing is getting a bit of the short shrift these days because so much of it is moving online. The de facto approach to writing for the web is to keep things sweet, us a lot of headlines and bullet points, and to create many links which can send people away from the content mid-sentence. There may be something to learn here about developing techniques that bridge the print and online worlds with respect to food. I’ll come back when I’m done reading to let you know what I think.

    • Natanya, yes, it’s dense reading, but so worth it. Here’s a quote from the Rolling Stone article I linked to:
      His life was an information hunt, collecting hows and whys. “I received 500,000 discrete bits of information today,” he once said, “of which maybe 25 are important. My job is to make some sense of it.”

  4. You can hear a bit of DFW reading Consider the Lobster here:

    http://www.audible.com/adbl/site/products/ProductDetail.jsp?productID=BK_TIME_000419&BV_SessionID=@@@@1982458900.1262187945@@@@&BV_EngineID=cccdadejfehghlmcefecekjdffidflg.0

    My morning is willingly shot to hell reading the Rolling stone story
    More later..

    • Thanks so much for tracking down this link, Carol. At least it’s the time of year when you can shoot a morning to hell.

  5. Oh I do want to add that I grew up eating Lobster as my prized birthday meal since age 5. I ate lobsters with my mother in Rockport Maine as they were fished out and instantly popped into the pot.
    I’ve made lobster many times including the Chinese method of killing with the knife down the middle and never gave it thought.
    I have attended the Rockland Maine Lobster Festival eagerly at least 4 times.
    Will all that change once I read Consider..?

  6. Incredibly interesting and moving article. I’ve often been thankful that I’m allergic to lobster so I wouldn’t have to object to it based on these reasons and be seen as one of those preachy, flower power types.

    I would love to see a follow-up to this article with reader responses. I can’t fathom not being moved by this article and would be very interested in seeing the point of view of those who do not agree with DFW.

    • Candice, yes, that would be fun to read, wouldn’t it? Let’s see, when would they appear…the September issue might have already been at the printer when the letters started coming in, but it wouldn’t hurt to look anyway. October and later would be your best bets. If you do find them at the library, write back and let us know. Unless someone reading this has issues of Gourmet going back that far.

  7. I just read the article and found it both entertaining and educational – definitely a classic. At university, I briefly studied the history of lobster consumption, so I knew quite a bit going into the article. However, I have never given that much thought to the morality of the cooking process – mainly because I have never cooked a lobster myself.

    At the risk of sounding like Anthony Bourdain, I feel that less intelligent creatures were placed on this planet for our (human) enjoyment. Unfortunately, the lobster is designed in a way that makes it nearly impossible to kill it in a humane manner before cooking it. The moral issue has less to do with the feelings of the animal, and more to do with the feelings of the cook. This is only an issue due to the level of discomfort people feel when cooking a lobster because almost all of the other animals we eat are already dead when we prepare them.

    What about mussels? Those are still alive when you’re splashing wine on them and steaming them to death. Why does no one care about them??

    • And oysters? Sometimes they might still be alive when you slide them down your throat. That always makes me queasy.

  8. DFW’s article was a shock to Gourmet’s readership when it came out and from what I can remember, Ruth received tremendous criticism for including it in the magazine. It was actually mentioned again, recently, when Gourmet went under, as one reader’s point in case reasoning for the magazine’s imminent demise.

    My own feeling when it came out, was that it was yet again, one more reason to read Gourmet as opposed to Bon Appetit or some of the other frill-oriented food mags.

    And considering, I suppose we could once again question what a good food magazine makes, or rather what constitutes a good “food” writer and all the particularities of such.

    Obviously (or perhaps, I should say-don’t you think?) there are great differences between the writer who writes in sound-bites, side-bars, etc (and apparently what many magazines now want) and is referred to as a food writer, as opposed to someone like DFW who writes about food in this instance–yes–but not necessarily straying from the novelist/writer he was with his fantastic use of language and storytelling.

    Perhaps, also making sense of Ruth’s earlier point that she wants to be considered a “writer”, not specifically a “food writer.”

    Alas, look forward to reading the article again. And Dianne-is he really famous because of his suicide?

    • Nani, good to know about Gourmet, and good for Ruth for weathering the storm. She must have a tough skin after all these years, particularly after her years as a restaurant reviewer.

      I agree, a good reason to read Gourmet. And maybe we don’t get to see very many long pieces like that in magazines anymore, unless we’re reading the New Yorker.

      I remember it generating quite a bit of news when he killed himself. If you Google it you will see many stories. Maybe it goes to the idea that artists are more famous in death than in life.

  9. Greetings from over the pond….

    The appearance of two Indian books on the list was hardly surprising, given estimates that the Indian food industry accounts for 2/3 of all eating out in the UK (via the government website: http://www.food.gov.uk/news/newsarchive/2003/nov/curryfacts ).

    I don’t know if things have changed much from that survey in 2003 (there seem to be an awful lot of Italian-y restaurants on the high street now), but “going for a curry” is often the least objectionable suggestion when it comes to getting a large group of colleagues/friends out for a meal. Power of the most common denominator.

    Re: Amy’s comments on the Britishness of the list – I’m sure most Guardian readers would be rather pleased about that…. =)

    • Hey Jen, thanks for saying hello. I love that government page on curry. An excellent use of British tax dollars.

      I lived in London when I was a teen (a long time ago), and even then, going for a curry was an excellent — and cost-effective decision. British food was so bland then, and people saw no contradiction in the other extreme.

  10. sorry, I I don’t get it

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