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Consider the Lobster

Literary phenom David Foster Wallace passed away this weekend, an apparent suicide and a great loss to American fiction. Reading his work is like being offered a glimpse into the mind of a mad genius — complex, overwrought, brilliant, disturbing, raw, wickedly funny. His 2004 essay for Gourmet magazine, “Consider the Lobster” — a sly nod to M.F.K. Fisher’s 1941 opus Consider the Oyster — was no exception. What starts off as an account of Wallace’s visit to the Maine Lobster Festival quickly progresses into a cynical yet earnest and spot-on musing about the surreal ridiculousness of American tourist traps and then, gaining momentum and before you know it, takes the reader on a supremely uncomfortable philosophical exposition on the ethical implications of eating lobster, this coming from someone who was a meat-eater:

Ultimately, the only certain virtues of the home-lobotomy and slow-heating methods are comparative, because there are even worse/crueler ways people prepare lobster. Time-thrifty cooks sometimes microwave them alive (usually after poking several extra vent holes in the carapace, which is a precaution most shellfish-microwavers learn about the hard way). Live dismemberment, on the other hand, is big in Europe: Some chefs cut the lobster in half before cooking; others like to tear off the claws and tail and toss only these parts in the pot.

You’d have to read the piece in its entirety to understand how (darkly) humorous it is, but the author’s prescience is evident:

The truth is that if you, the Festival attendee, permit yourself to think that lobsters can suffer and would rather not, the MLF can begin to take on aspects of something like a Roman circus or medieval torture-fest.

Does that comparison seem a bit much? If so, exactly why? Or what about this one: Is it not possible that future generations will regard our own present agribusiness and eating practices in much the same way we now view Nero’s entertainments or Aztec sacrifices?

I’m a meat-eater myself, but like other socially-conscious food lovers (and shouldn’t we all be?), I am slowly eliminating mass-produced meat from industrial feedlots and purchasing more humanely-raised, pastured meat from local farms. (Of course, my vegetarian and vegan friends would say there’s no humane way to consume animals, but bear with me here.) In the past couple of years, many more of us have started eating locally since becoming aware of big agribusiness’ contribution to the destruction of the environment and our health, not to mention cruelty to animals, no doubt in part by reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

“Consider the Lobster” supposedly elicited angry letters to Gourmet’s editors. I guess some people felt duped by what they thought was a moralistic finger-wagging not-so-cleverly disguised as a travel anecdote in a glossy food and lifestyle magazine. Not that I blame them; nobody likes being forced to think about disturbing ethical dilemmas while enjoying the pleasures of food. But David Foster Wallace’s writing was like a gigantic funhouse mirror reflecting all of our contradictions and exposing them as sometimes funny, sometimes unbearable to look at, but always revelatory.

I found this lobster recipe in an old e-mail from a local chef:

Lobster with Vanilla Sauce

Most recipes are simple; it’s the basic techniques that are difficult. In this case, the difficulty lies in the preparation of the lobster. Lobsters are extremely perishable, consequently, it is best to purchase them live and dispatch them immediately before cooking them. After cooking them, it is necessary to extract the meat from the shells. If you have experience working with lobster, and/or are not squeamish about killing and cooking them, then try this recipe.

2 1 1/2 lb lobsters
1 oz. unsalted butter
1 red onion, washed and chopped
1 stick celery, chopped
1/2 red pepper, chopped
1 piece celeraic, peeled and chopped
1/2 fennel bulb
2 vanilla pods
1 ts black peppercorns, crushed
3 tb madeira
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup chicken stock
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 sprig fennel

bay leaves
1 lemon
1 chopped onion

Into a large pan of water, put a cut lemon, a handful of peppercorns, a chopped onion, and 3 or 4 bay leaves and bring to the boil.

Lower in the lobsters, completely submerging them in the liquor and bring back to the boil rapidly. Cook for 6 minutes and remove them with a slotted spoon to iced water. Chill thoroughly.

Remove the lobsters from their shells using a sharp pair of kitchen scissors and break up the shells for the sauce with a cleaver.

In a large pan or wok, melt the butter and fry the onion, celery, celeraic, fennel, and pepper until the color just changes.

Add the broken shells and continue cooking to release the flavor.

De-glaze with the madeira and then add the wine, scraping up all the crusty bits of flavor into the liquid. Add the stock and reduce.

Add the peppercorns and cream.

Split the vanilla pods lengthwise and scrape out the seeds. Put seeds and pods into the liquid. Cook down until the cream has caramelized slightly and the flavor has deepened.

Pass through a conical sieve into a clean pan, pushing through solids with the end of a rolling pin to force all the flavor into the sauce.

Put the vanilla pods back into the sauce, add the sprigs of fennel leaf and simmer together until the flavor is right. Season carefully. Paint the lobster with melted butter and re-heat rapidly in a very hot oven. Remove the fennel and vanilla and serve the sauce with the lobster.

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  1. links « signs of life on Tuesday, September 16, 2008 at 7:40 am

    [...] Wasabigelatine is a food blog written by a new friend from church. Her latest post is a reflection on the recent death of author David Foster Wallace. David Foster Wallace’s writing was like a gigantic funhouse mirror reflecting all of our contradictions and exposing them as sometimes funny, sometimes unbearable to look at, but always revelatory. [...]

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