What does a lobster feel when it's dropped into a pot of boiling water? And should we care? Such are the questions David Foster Wallace asks in "Consider the Lobster."

To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit. It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience. It is to impose yourself on places that in all noneconomic ways would be better, realer, without you. It is, in lines and gridlock and transaction after transaction, to confront a dimension of yourself that is as inescapable as it is painful: As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing.

On a Wednesday morning in late July 2003, David Foster Wallace made his way to the “the enormous, pungent, and extremely well-marketed Maine Lobster Festival” held every year in the state’s midcoast region. Wallace, “your assigned correspondent…accompanied by one girlfriend and both his own parents,” had been sent there by Gourmet, “the Magazine of Good Living,” whose bon vivant of a readership no doubt anticipated a freewheeling, lighthearted tour of the festival’s gustatory pleasures of August in Maine, perhaps accompanied by a recipe or two.

Meanwhile, the narrative’s temperature steadily increases to a boil, and readers are unable to think or claw their way out.

And for a while, at least, Wallace — keeping true to his own words that a “good opener, first and foremost, fails to repel” — maintains an amiable demeanor with his readers, displaying mastery of his subject material with a tongue-in-cheek transparency to the research process itself: “All this is right there in the encyclopedia.” From historical insights (“some colonies had laws against feeding lobsters to inmates more than once a week because it was thought to be cruel and unusual, like making people eat rats”) to taxonomy and etymology (“a lobster is a marine crustacean of the family Homaridae….the name ‘lobster’ comes from the Old English loppestre, which is thought to be a corrupt form of the Latin word for locust combined with the Old English loppe, which meant spider”), Wallace peppers opening sections with his unique brand of witty self-consciousness in tandem with humorous sketches surrounding U.S. tourism at large (and public gorging festivals in particular):

I confess that I have never understood why so many people’s idea of a fun vacation is to don flip-flops and sunglasses and crawl through maddening traffic to loud hot crowded tourist venues in order to sample a “local flavor” that is by definition ruined by the presence of tourists …  watching people slap canal-zone mosquitoes as they eat deep-fried Twinkies and watch Professor Paddywhack, on six-foot stilts in a raincoat with plastic lobsters protruding from all directions on springs, terrify their children.

After building this rapport with readers of Gourmet, Wallace—just shy of the article’s halfway point—casually drops a line that, in retrospect, appears as a crustacean version of Chekhov’s edict about never placing a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off: “A detail so obvious that most recipes don’t even bother to mention it is that each lobster is supposed to be alive when you put it in the kettle.”

Shortly thereafter and seemingly without warning, readers are plunged into the coup de grace of rhetorical questions that will solicit a record-breaking number of responses from readers:

So then here is a question that’s all but unavoidable at the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker, and may arise in kitchens across the U.S.: 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 individual choice?

This is all to say that what makes “Consider the Lobster” so good is not merely Wallace’s detailing of the various ways in which lobsters are euphemistically “prepared” for cooking — e.g., “Some cooks’ practice is to drive a sharp heavy knife point-first into a spot just above the midpoint between the lobster’s eyestalks” — nor is it his erudite display of “comparative neuroanatomy” and “hard core philosophy” that is required to discuss behaviors associated with pain and suffering, but rather his propensity to lure readers of Gourmet into the depths of self-investigative moral inquiry with him. An undertaking many readers of Gourmet, as we shall soon see, would not have otherwise agreed to at the outset of reading. “What were you thinking when you published that lobster story?” writes in one distressed reader, continuing, “Do you think I read your magazine so you can make me feel uncomfortable about the food I eat? What are you going to scare me away from eating next? Is this your job and the purpose of your magazine?”[1]

Another alternative is to put the lobster in cold salt water and then very slowly bring it up to a full boil. Cooks who advocate this method are going mostly on the analogy to a frog, which can supposedly be kept from jumping out of a boiling pot by heating the water incrementally. In order to save a lot of research-summarizing, I’ll simply assure you that the analogy between frogs and lobsters turns out not to hold.

There’s nevertheless a useful correlation between the frog parable and thinking about the structure of Wallace’s career-long engagement within the literary journalistic tradition: He begins slowly, almost tepidly, with his readers, gracefully careening them through a seemingly innocuous narrative about “one of the best food-themed festivals in the world.” Meanwhile, unbeknownst to gourmands and frogs alike, the narrative’s temperature steadily increases to a boil, and readers are unable to think or claw their way out of questioning the varying gradations of consciousness and the responsibilities and subsequent difficulties of living a thoughtful, conscientious existence. As Karen Kaplan of Huntington, New York, writes:

I imagined feeling the way a lobster feels after being plunged into a pot of boiling water. I certainly felt like I was rattling and clanking on the lid of the pot trying to escape. But in reality, I was just trying to finish this painfully long and footnoted-ridden article.

Wallace hooks readers like Kaplan into taking the plunge with him, so to speak, with not only his deployment of humor and the above parable-ish type rhetorical device but does so in tandem with implying that the stakes and scope of the article’s thesis remain uniquely suited for the very readers of the very commissioning magazine itself: “After all,” Wallace writes, “isn’t being extra aware and attentive and thoughtful about one’s food and its overall context part of what distinguishes a real gourmet?”

And many readers did love the piece. Eric Henderson of Morgantown, West Virginia, found it “the most entertaining, well-written, and honest articles I’ve encountered in a magazine in the past decade,” while Charles Warner of Memphis thought its description of the standard American tourist “should be emblazoned above the exit portal at every international airport.” But then there’s Eileen O’Farrell of Healdsburg, California: “Your author, whose writing I find tiresome and somewhat infantile with his footnotes or information he couldn’t figure out how to include otherwise, admits he lacks ‘culinary sophistication’ and ‘is confused.’ He has obviously been taken in by the protestors. Please find writers who enjoy their job, their travels, other travels, and food!”

O’Farrell’s opinion notwithstanding, “Consider the Lobster” was included in Robert Atwan’s 2005 “Best American Essays” series, guest-edited by Susan Orlean. In the collection’s introductory remarks, Orlean considers her own criteria for selecting essays: “Many of the essays that intrigued me this year were funny, or unusually structured, or tonally adventurous…. What mattered most,” Orlean writes, “was that they conveyed the writer’s journey, and did it intelligently, gracefully, honestly, and with whatever voice or shape fit best.” E.g.,

I’m not trying to give you a PETA-like screed here—at least I don’t think so. I’m trying, rather, to work out and articulate some of the troubling questions that arise amid all the laughter and saltation and community pride of the Maine Lobster Festival. 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.

Wallace’s voice is, to use Orlean’s phrase, tonally adventurous throughout, a contagious bewilderment from Wallace in unceasing conversation with readers of Gourmet, never quite letting them forget that they’re part and parcel to his own thinking about the various “questions of whether and how different kinds of animals feel pain”:

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 lobster and the experience of buying and eating lobster, it turns out that there is no honest way to avoid certain moral questions.

Wallace, self-admittingly lacking both culinary sophistication and comprehensive understanding in mass tourism’s supposed appeal, nevertheless remained earnest in his quest to explore and question “whether the reader can identify with any of [his own] reactions and acknowledgments and discomforts” surrounding “the whole morality-of-boiling-lobsters-alive issue.” I suppose it’s safe to say that Wallace, in the end, was correct after all: “There are limits to what even interested persons can ask of each other.”

[1] All reader response quotes come from Gourmet’s October 2004 “Letters to the Editor” section.

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