After reading Dorothy's very thoughtful post on an essay by Jonathan Lethem about copyright in last years' Best American Essays I decided I would grab my own copy and see what else was on offer. However, a quick perusal of the table of contents in a previous edition of the book (Best American Essays 2005) brought my attention to an essay by David Foster Wallace. I've had him in mind ever since a group of readers read his hefty Infinite Jest last year. At the end of the year he ended up on so many top reads lists that I knew I wanted to try his work at some point, and what better introduction than an essay. To be honest I'm a little in awe of him. I've heard he's considered a literary genius and praise is generally heaped on his work. Am I a good enough reader to appreciate his prose?
"Consider the Lobster" originally appeared in the now-defunct Gourmet Magazine in 2004. It is also the titular essay in a collection by Foster Wallace, which was published a year later (and that is now going to be in my next book order). So what did I discover? I need to stop being afraid of authors and just try them and learn from them what I can. Wallace Foster is an intelligent writer, very witty yet self-effacing. He's not a hard read. On the contrary his prose is smart and well-informed and I think I'd enjoy reading more. And I find his use of footnotes amusing and in many cases quite useful as little asides.
David Foster Wallace was asked to cover Maine's annual lobster festival, which is quite a tourist draw. I wonder if the editors of Gourmet had any idea what they were getting into when they asked him to write about it?
"The 2003 Festival highlights: concerts by Lee Ann Womack and Orleans, annual Maine Sea Goddess Beauty Pageant, Saturday's big parade, Sunday's William G. Atwood Memorial Crate Race, annual amateur Cooking Competition, carnival rides and midway attractions and food booths, and the MLF's Main eating tent, where Maine lobster is is consumed after preparation in the World's Largest Lobster Cooker near the ground's north entrance."
Foster Wallace goes on to talk pretty straightforwardly about lobsters--their biology and history. In the 1800s they were thought of as low-class food that only the poor and institutionalized ate. There was an overabundance of them at times and they were referred to as a "smelly nuisance", though now they are considered a delicacy. Now the MLF does everything they can to promote it as a healthy food choice, which it might just be until it's dipped in all that melted butter. Lobster is also one of the freshest foods there is--no decomposition between harvesting and eating. But then Wallace Foster turns things upside down and the essay takes a new tack.
"A detail so obvious that most recipes don't even bother to mention is that each lobster is supposed to be alive when you put it in the kettle."
Now I'm not a fan of seafood and I've often contemplated this fact as well. Foster Wallace gives a detailed explanation of the various methods to cook a lobster--what works well and what doesn't. How you can tell if it's ready to eat ("try pulling on one of their antennae--if it comes out of the head with minimal effort, you're ready to eat").
"So then here is a question that's all but unavoidable at the Wold's Largest Lobster Cooker, and may arise in kitchens across the United States: Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure? A related set of concerns: Is the previous question irksomely PC or sentimental? What does 'all right' even mean in this context? Is it all just a matter of personal choice?"
This did make me fairly uncomfortable, so I can just imagine what the readers of Gourmet must have thought. But Foster Wallace is never preachy about the questions he asks or the answers or information he gives. Apparently there was only so much he could write about the MLF and on the fringe of the festival he noted the presence of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), which caused him to ponder the harder questions about just what it means to prepare and eat lobster.
"The more important point here, though, is that the whole animal-cruelty-and-eating issue is not just complex, it's also uncomfortable for me, and for just about everyone I know who enjoys a variety of foods yet does not want to see herself as cruel or unfeeling. As far as I can tell, my own main way of dealing with this conflict has been to avoid thinking about the whole unpleasant thing. I should add that it appears to me unlikely that many readers of Gourmet wish to think hard about it, either, or to be queried about the morality of their eating habits in the pages of a culinary monthly. Since, however, the assigned subject of this article is what it was like to attend the 2003 MLF, and thus to spend several days in the midst of a great mass of Americans all eating lobster, and thus to be more or less impelled to think hard about the lobster, it turns out that there is no honest way to avoid certain moral questions."
David Foster Wallace deals with these questions with a light touch and in a fair manner. He mentions that at least people who eat lobster know what they are getting, whereas other meats come prepackaged and the consumer has little idea of the journey a steak takes between cow and plate. He asks hard questions, but in a thoughtful way, not in any attempt to bait the reader. He genuinely is someone interested in knowing the answers to the troubling questions that came about through the writing of this essay. He doesn't come to any concrete conclusions, but it's interesting to see how he works through what he's thinking and the questions he asks. He doesn't assign blame, but as someone who has a vested interest (he enjoys eating some of these foods as well), he like to work out a personal ethical system that's "defensible and not just selfishly convenient."
I'm really curious to read more of his essays now. You can read "Consider the Lobster" here. And listen to an interview with David Foster Wallace here. He was an articulate speaker and it's obvious much thought went into his answers. I can see his reputation was well earned and look forward to reading more.