David Foster Wallace, Foodies, and Lobster

By Erik Marcus, Written in August 2004, Revised September 2008.

This past week, I learned that David Foster Wallace contributed a piece about the Maine Lobster Festival to Gourmet magazine (August, 2004). And this is one of the rare times I’ve encountered an animal rights oriented story that I think is a Very Big Deal. [Note: After Wallace’s suicide, Gourmet magazine graciously posted Wallace’s essay for free viewing at its website.]

Wallace is one of my favorite writers, and I can see why the editor of Gourmet contacted him to cover the festival. Food festivals are, by nature, packed with large numbers of odd people engaging in all manner of unconventional behaviors. And I don’t think there’s anybody better than Wallace, with his idiosyncratic and exhaustively detailed writing style, at dissecting weirdness in its myriad forms. One of my favorite Wallace pieces is the title essay of A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. The essay covers his voyage aboard a cruise line; an experience which is, on the surface, nothing but luxury and relaxation. But Wallace tears away the shiny marketing image and uncovers the lurking weirdness, from the ship’s surveillance of passengers to the quirks and foibles of the passengers themselves. The essay amounts to a contemporary version of Mark Twain’s Roughing It, set on an ocean liner rather than a stagecoach. I found ‘A Supposedly Fun Thing’ every bit as engaging and funny as Twain at his best.

The editor of Gourmet no doubt thought that Wallace would work similar magic on the Maine Lobster Festival. Doubtless there are enough goings-on at the event, where thousands descend on a sleepy Maine village over a summer weekend, to offer abundant material to a humorist like Wallace. Except for one minor detail: Wallace is more than a humorist. He’s also perhaps the most intellectually rigorous of today’s best-selling writers.

So I can only imagine the Gourmet editor’s horror when she read Wallace’s lengthy 6000 word piece. The first third of the article is vintage Wallace in the style of “A Supposedly Fun Thing,” and he’s never been funnier. But then, after hooking the reader’s attention with his exactingly drawn, and heavily footnoted, portraits of life at the Lobster Festival, Wallace takes a turn that had me cheering: he devotes the bulk of his story to exploring the ethics of boiling lobsters to death, pausing along the way to also toss off a few salient details about factory farming.

Wallace’s choice of focus must have plunged Gourmet’s editor into despair. Submitting a story on the ethics of lobster eating to a magazine like Gourmet is the editorial equivalent to driving a truck bomb to their offices. Let’s look at why Wallace’s story posed such a threat to Gourmet, and figure out why they decided to publish this incendiary piece.

To understand Gourmet and its appeal, you first have to understand a sub-class of cooks who call themselves ‘foodies.’ These are the people for whom no culinary extravagance is too extreme. We’ve all seen those irritating food photographs of shrimp scampi or scalloped veal, in portion sizes of a forkful or so, artfully plopped on a tiny white plate with three or four carefully applied squirts of various brightly colored sauces. This manner of food preparation is the domain of the foodie — the core audience of Gourmet, and the people the magazine can’t afford to alienate.

If the tone of my description strikes you as being dismissive towards foodies, it’s for good reason. I personally love to cook, but I don’t think that great food demands hours upon hours of fussy preparation. And that’s even not my main complaint. What I find most galling about foodies is that they seem to go out of their way to purchase precisely the foods that inflict the most suffering on animals. Delighting in exotic meats from such unfortunate creatures as suckling pigs, pheasants, and veal calves, these people generate more misery for mouthful than perhaps any other food consumer.

As you can imagine, being a serious foodie demands substantial discretionary income. And that’s why a magazine like Gourmet thrives. Each issue carries dozens of exacting recipes, and extended articles celebrating obsessively refined dining. And almost 50 percent of the magazine’s page count is devoted to advertising the various accouterments of the foodie lifestyle’ everything from Wisconsin cheeses to fine wines to high-end cappuccino makers.

Into this gloss steps Wallace with his “Consider the Lobster” article. I strongly suspect that if it weren’t for the established hiring practices that exist within magazine journalism, this article would never have seen the light of day. See, magazine writers are divided into two tiers. First, there are the unknowns, who contribute the bulk of each magazine’s articles but don’t have any reputation. These people are the cannon fodder of the magazine world. The pay is peanuts, and all-too-often nothing at all. The editor gives them an assignment, and if what they end up producing doesn’t square with the editor’s mood on that particular day, the article doesn’t get published ‘ and the writer gets zip for all her work.

But then there are “name” writers: the Updikes, the Wolfes, and the Wallaces. Magazines covet these people because their by-lines generate enormous publicity and sales. A good article, and even a not-so-good one, can inflate newsstand revenue while simultaneously enlarging the magazine’s subscription base. But these top-tier writers don’t come cheap, and their agents always include a very important clause in their contracts: the kill fee.

What the kill fee means is that if the editor doesn’t end up liking what’s produced — well, tough. The writer is still going to get paid, and will then have the added privilege of selling the work elsewhere — an easy task for a top-name writer. So you can only imagine how the editor of Gourmet must have felt when she received Wallace’s lobster story. She had to decide whether to pay Wallace and publish a fabulous article that squarely challenged the core values of her magazine’s readership. Alternately, she could pay him and receive nothing in return. She chose Option A, and undoubtedly braced herself for the fallout.

When Wallace considers the ethics of boiling lobsters to death, he treats the matter with the exhaustive rigor it deserves. In the space of a few paragraphs, he destroys the popular belief about lobsters that, “There’s a part of the brain in people and animals that lets us feel pain, and lobster’s brains don’t have this part.”

This introduction to lobster physiology sets the stage of Wallace’s devastating description of how lobsters react as they are slid into boiling water:

However stuporous the lobster is from the trip home, for instance, it tends to come alarmingly to life when placed in boiling water. If you’re tilting it from a container into a steaming kettle, the lobster will sometimes try to cling to the container’s sides or even to hook its claws over the kettle’s rim like a person trying to keep from going over the edge of a roof. And worse is when the lobster is fully immersed. Even if you cover the kettle and turn away, you can usually hear the cover rattling and clanking as the lobster tries to push it off. Or the creature’s claws scraping the sides of the kettle as it thrashes around. The lobster, in other words, behaves very much as you or I would behave if we were plunged into boiling water (with the obvious exception of screaming). A blunter way to say this is that the lobster acts as if it’s in terrible pain, causing some cooks to leave the kitchen altogether and to take one of those little light-weight plastic oven timers with them into another room and wait until the whole process is over.

It would be challenging enough if Wallace confined the key part of his essay to describing the suffering of lobsters, and analyzing it in the context of animal rights philosophy. But he goes further. Although still personally a meat eater, it’s obvious that this whole issue of boiling animals to death has brought up questions that he’s still in the process of pondering. With that in mind, he turns his gaze directly to the foodies who read Gourmet, and asks them point blank:

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 purpose of gastronomy)? And for those gourmets who’ll have no truck with convictions or rationales and who regard stuff like the previous paragraph as just so much pointless navel-gazing, what makes it feel okay, inside, to dismiss the whole issue out of hand? That is, is their refusal to think about any of this the product of actual thought, or is it just that they don’t want to think about it? Do they ever think about their reluctance to think about it? After all, isn’t being extra aware and attentive and thoughtful about one’s food and its overall context part of what distinguishes a real gourmet? Or is all the gourmet’s extra attention and sensibility just supposed to be aesthetic, gustatory?

But, you know, maybe I’m just being too cynical. Perhaps the reason Gourmet’s editor decided to run this piece isn’t because she had the kill-fee to deal with. Maybe she read the above paragraph and decided that Gourmet’s readers have a responsibility to confront the questions raised by Wallace. Maybe, just maybe, deciding to run this piece had nothing to do with the realities of a five figure advance going down the drain, and everything to do with the fact that Wallace asked tough but reasonable questions that demanded answers?

Surely, some readers of Gourmet will be outraged that their favorite foodie magazine would dare to print such questions. No doubt that Gourmet will see a rash of canceled subscriptions this month. But perhaps an immoderate interest in gourmet dining does not confer insensitivity to suffering. Let’s hope that Gourmet’s readership represents a new group of people being introduced to the ethics of eating. With any luck, the majority of Gourmet’s readers will finish the article and decide to continue thinking about the ethical issues of raising and eating animals for food.

I’m not pretending I understand foodies, but they are clearly on the leading edge of some aspects of dining culture. And if questions of animals rights are finally being entertained in the premier magazine for foodie culture, perhaps we will see some shifts in what being a foodie is all about. For instance, the Gourmet issue in which Wallace’s piece appeared (August, 2004) featured a recipe for smothered yellow squash that is not just heavenly, it’s also vegan. And it’s far kinder to smother a squash than it is to boil a lobster.