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.