In our last episode I’d just witnessed the dying throes of a lobster being boiled alive for dinner. My appetite had taken a big hit and I was now facing the prospect of having to sit down and dine. I was in trouble.
Well, I’d just learned I knew nothing about how to cook a lobster. It was now time to discover that I knew even less about eating one. For any other novices out there, a quick word of warning: This is not…I repeat not…a task for the squeamish. One must butcher the carcass oneself, right there on the plate.
Fortunately, I had experienced mentors by my side, guiding me throughout the meal. The coaching was excellent and I was rarely at a loss, no matter which part of lobster anatomy confronted me. So did I eventually overcome my queasiness and enjoy the meal?
Regrettably, not really.
Some parts of the experience are a little blurry for me now but I remember enough. Like the sensation of ripping off the legs, one by one, and sucking all the meat I could out of the delicate, shell tubing. I can still hear the cracking sound as I tore the tail off the carcass and carefully, per instruction, pushed the pink flesh out of the big end of that larger shell tube with my finger. I vividly remember the spoonful or so of some soft, green, texturally questionable substance which our hostess encouraged me to eat as a particular delicacy. She called it tomalley and assured me that it was a favorite of hers, so I gave it a try. It was sweet in an overly ripe, already partially digested kind of way and secretly I wondered if she was fucking with me. Frankly, it looked like lobster pre-poop, the kind of stuff that collects in the lower intestine just before it’s expelled, but I was just being paranoid. I looked it up later online and discovered it consists of the liver and pancreas. Throughout the meal I had a bowl of melted butter available in which to dip the meat, but my stomach took exception to the addition of a slimy, oil coating on foreign matter it was already struggling to keep down. Butter was out.
And oh yeah. I think, in my determination to not waste any of it, I may have eaten some cartilage. This was towards the end of the meal when my conscientious consumption sparked concern. I remember chewing on something stringy and tough until our hostess leaned over, eyebrows raised, and murmured y’know, most people don’t eat that part.
No. I can’t say I enjoyed it. In fact, not only was that the last lobster I ate, it was the last seafood of any kind. Which, believe me, is no small feat for a tourist traveling along the Maine coast in October. Seafood is a big part of what people come for and it figures large in most menus. Fortunately, during the next leg of our trip up in the staggering beauty of Acadia National Park, we found an outrageously tasty, local place called Chow Maine where we ate for five days in a row until it was time to finally fly home.
Looking back now I have regrets. I’m sorry I let my queasiness get the better of me and wield the influence it did over the the trip. I wish I’d gotten over it so I could have eaten more of the fabulous seafood cuisine that Maine has to offer. It’s hard to understand how my reaction to a single incident could last that long but I’m not sure how one is supposed to overcome that level of digestive revolt. Nausea is not a sensation that lends itself to compromise.
But in spite of the fact that it affected my appetite the way it did still, I’m glad and grateful for my experience with the lobster. I’m satisfied that I seized the opportunity to finally participate in the killing/butchering part of the food cycle.
Over the years I’ve eaten my fair share of poultry, fish, and beef. I’ve willingly participated in the death of all the fellow creatures that a meat diet requires, but always and only as an end consumer. I’ve been happy there was someone else to handle the gut wrenching violence required to turn a living, feeling, innocent, helpless animal into something dead and edible, because that division of labor makes it easier to maintain the illusion that my hands are still clean.
But still, there are costs growing in the system that gnaw at me. I can’t help but wonder if it might not be better to participate in the whole process a little more, mainly for the sake of the animals out there that are not only dying, but also increasingly being forced to live under some horrifying and inhumane conditions.
Just so we’re clear, I’m not talking about lobsters here. Lobsters live (admittedly shortened) natural lobster lives in their natural lobster world before they’re finally caught and cooked. They spend their lives aggressively eating whatever species of neighbor they can, occasionally each other, and I suspect they’d eat me, too, if I ever fell off a boat and sunk to the bottom. More power to ’em. I don’t want to be a hypocrite. I’m willing to participate in the system if that ever falls to my lot. I don’t object to the food chain itself.
The part of the food system that I’m referring to is industrial agriculture (dubbed factory farming.) Because in that system, the lives the animals are forced to live are an unmitigated nightmare. Here’s just one example of an egg farm in California but there are countless others, all equally difficult to watch. I can’t help but feel that my own unwillingness to take responsibility is part of the problem. As long as I can have nameless, faceless people out there, killing nameless, faceless animals in some other galaxy far, far away, then I can continue to pretend like our meat really comes neatly packaged, skinned and weighed from grocery stores. Styrofoam trays are the wombs from which pork chops and ground beef emerge. Chicken breasts and steaks grow on trees, and you can tell if they’re not ripe yet because they’re still frozen in the middle.
No. There’s something inherently dishonest…cowardly…about hiding behind a shopping cart and a checkbook like that, something disrespectful to the creatures and lives that are being sacrificed for my nourishment and sustenance. They’re dying for godsakes. The least I can do is try and ensure that they live a good life beforehand and die a humane death when the time comes. I can stand witness to their suffering, care about it, say I’m sorry, and give sincere thanks before I bite a big chunk out of them.
I know if I was being eaten, I’d vastly prefer it was by someone who appreciated the costs on my side.
That’s what I tried to do in Maine. For the lobsters. It was harder than I thought it would be, a lot harder, but I think, with time and experience, it would get easier. (Although even after research, I’m still not sure how I would kill the next one. There’s a lot of controversy about which method is most humane.)
Of course back here in Idaho, my learning curve won’t involve lobsters. Maybe I’ll learn how to hunt instead. Or maybe someday I’ll raise a cow for butchering. But until then I think I’ll start with the chickens I intend to raise for eggs, learn how to swiftly and cleanly break their necks once they’re past their laying prime. Stand up, be a mensch, and do the sacred deed myself, then mourn and honor my beautiful girls as they deserve to be mourned, before we gratefully feast on their final gift to our family.
I just need to make damn sure that they live really great, happy, deeply beloved lives until then.
copyright 2010 Dia Osborn