There was an alignment in my lifelines recently and they merged together like a threeway knot. If I had a shrink I would have no doubt spent my weekly session untangling it with them on the couch. I was in Ireland, island of my birth, for the first time in a long time and was hanging out with my mother and one thing that I was reminded of was how much she hates dogs. Hate is a strong word, so let’s say she doesn’t really like them. Certainly she would never own one and indeed growing up we never had a dog. Then next was the romantic partner who asked me straight out: could I share a bed with a dog? As in: she wanted to know if she was wasting her time, as an avowed dog lover, contemplating hanging out with me. Which is a fair enough question to ask I guess at some point in a courtship: it’s not unlike the would-you-like-to-have-kids-one-day innocent query that’s not that innocent at all. Then lastly I found myself killing an animal (albeit not a dog) for the first time in order to eat it. It was a busy, emotional week.
This personal introduction is a way of giving context to the nature of this article, namely the decisions each one of us make in choosing to eat animals. For many it isn’t even a conscious choice. But either way, not many meat eaters actually meet the creatures they eat when these creatures are still alive. Like a child who has never spotted a cow or a pig, the food we eat comes from obscure places we know little about.
With lobsters it’s different and I killed two of them last week. The way you would picture it is pretty much how it played out: a big pot of boiling water, with some seaweed thrown in, bubbling and steaming, a glass of white wine nearby and me reaching nervously into the cooler box that held the two anthropods. I was scared of the creatures in a giddy way, much like an elephant dancing away from the little fieldmouse. Oh, they move in my hand! They’re alive! After a brief pause for a photo – the memory fills me with shame in retrospect, what was I thinking? perhaps I had this article in mind, perhaps just as an all too human reflex – they were placed one after the other into the water and pushed down under the surface ensuring sufficient submersion and the lid was then placed over them.
It takes between 35 to 45 seconds for a lobster to die in this way.
This wasn’t supposed to be how my dinner ended, thinking about the slow murder I inflicted on a living creature. I guess with a lot of the articles that your CFL correspondent writers deal with a vague effort to consider the moral questions, large, small and irrelevant, that come up with food, its cultivation, consummation and waste. And none is bigger perhaps than the question around animals, farming animals and eating animals. This comes to a head with lobsters because not only are they the pinnacle of fine dining, one cooks them alive. The latter necessity (and it is largely a necessity due to the rapid deterioration of lobster once it dies, bacteria override a crustacean’s body making it largely toxic to a human) means more often than not we ‘meet’ the animal we eat, either choosing the poor guy from out of a fishtank in a restaurant or handling it ourselves in the kitchen: it’s not every animal we eat that has the misfortune of being cooked alive.
Lobsters are of course considered a delicacy and a favourite of gourmands. But it wasn’t always this way. They are the ‘garbage man of the sea’, themselves feeding on a whatever they can get their claws on, mostly dead matter and detritus not eaten by other sea creatures. European lobster, homarus gammarus, has a dark chitinous exoskeleton which turns an orange, pinkish colour once boiled due to the release of pigments with extreme temperature. They date from the Jurassic period and look and behave like large insects from the sea’s dark nether regions. This alien aspect probably has something to do with why they weren’t always considered the delicacy they now are, often the most expensive item on the menu. In the 1800s they were considered so lowly that there were laws in North America making it illegal to feed them to the imprisoned or institutionalised. It was thought to be similar to feeding people rats, an overly cruel degradation that was unjust. Likewise along the very same coast where I was spending my holidays: during the Great Irish Famine of the 1840s a report was carried out that found there was an abundant supply of lobsters (along with crabs, oysters, scallops) that were catastrophically not being taken advantage of by the starving locals.
The day of my lobster killing I woke up feeling a bit of a piece of garbage myself, hungover and knocked a little senseless from the storm-tinged fresh bluster of western Ireland, it would take a swim in the wild Atlantic before I started to feel human again. My artist friend and generous host and I then drove along the epic karst landscape of the Burren for lunch, the landscape severe and sublime in equal measure and an affront to my upset stomach but one I was willing to put up with: it had been years since I was last in this part of the world, one redolent of childhood Easter holidays and Eilís Dillon novels, the books that got me reading and writing my own early novels about Atlantic adventures on storm tossed Galway-hookers. The best place in the world to enjoy some fresh shellfish, brown bread and a pint of Guinness.
We pulled into the carpark at New Quay looking to see if the fishshop was open. It wasn’t so we decamped for lunch in Linnane’s, the pub that sat just above the little harbour. We ordered a couple of fish chowder but sadly I was feeling too tender to have a Guinness accompaniment. Enquiring after the fishshop, the friendly bar staff rang the woman in question but she wasn’t picking up. Then as we were halfway through our chowders our attention was directed to a the fisherman loading lobsterpots into the little blue fishing boat moored along the little inlet’s quay.
‘There’s Gerry now, he’d probably be able to sort you out with a few lobster. If you catch him before he heads out to sea…’
Catch him we did and we got ourselves two lobsters and two crabs, the latter he pulled up out a trap under his boat, straight from the sea. All for a song, as they say. Cheap as chips.
There is a lot of debate of course about what happens to lobsters during the 40 seconds it takes for them to die in boiling water: in particular how much do they feel and how do those feelings translate into what we term pain and in turn suffering. There is the commonplace belief that lobsters in fact scream and that one will often hear this terrifying and terrified screaming when the lid is thrown over the pot. Indeed upon returning to my mother’s house and I recounted my lobster misadventures she guessed how I must have heard the poor critters scream. But what these sounds are is in fact the evaporation of trapped fluids between the carapace and the flesh of the lobster (the same fluids that make a difference in choosing between a lobster who has recently moulted or one which has a hard carapace).
Like so many moral questions if we stop and dwell on our actions they become pretty depressing, but it seems to me like in so much of our behaviour we hedge the bet on whether a lobster feels pain like we do: if we are to go down the comparative neuroanatomy route than their brains are simply not the same as ours, and even if they do feel pain, which the release of cortisol, the same enzyme we as humans release on experiencing pain, suggests that they do, is this the same as suffering? Since Descartes we have had a mind-body dichotomy with a lot of weight being given to the idea that we simply do not know what it is like to be a lobster, let alone animals higher up in the animal kingdom. Lobster’s don’t necessarily hear or see like we do but they do have neurotransmitters and nociceptors which register pain. But pain is not commensurate with suffering. Like so much it seems to me that people who wish to ignore the base fact that a sentient being is being boiled alive will ignore the fact and justify it in whatever manner comes easiest to them – they will make someone else place the creature in the water, they will leave the room, declare the thing primitive or simply non-human and therefore fair game, or kill it by chopping the tail from the main body – and enjoy the delicacy as they see fit. With some garlic butter say, or aioli, or garlic mayonnaise. With a nice glass of Sancerre and a healthy portion of chips.
As ever, in place of a shrink I turn to literature. In one of Samuel Beckett’s earliest short stories Dante and the Lobster there is a lot of the future Nobel laureate’s themes and images but weighed down in youthful, Joycean verbiage and a young man’s infatuation to style and the bon mot, but there is also an untangled threeway knot of ‘one, lunch; two, the lobster; three, the Italian lesson.’ The story sees Belacqua, the pretentious, weak-kneed main character go about his day: reading Dante’s Divine Comedy, picking up for his aunt a lobster, having a few pints, attending a flirtatious, desperately frustrated Italian lesson before being horrified that evening back at his aunt’s that the lobster was alive throughout the day and be cooked alive. His less than heroic horror at the live beast leads his no-nonsense aunt take the pragmatic approach to the moral question posed above:
“Have sense” she said sharply, “lobsters are always boiled alive. They must be.” She caught up the lobster and laid it on its back. It trembled. “They feel nothing” she said. […] “You make a fuss” she said angrily “and upset me and then lash into it for your dinner.” She lifted the lobster clear of the table. It had about thirty seconds to live.
Well, thought Belacqua, it’s a quick death, God help us all.
It is not.
Indeed it’s not.