I found a restaurant in Santa Monica that sells lobsters for $45 apiece. I’m no expert, but I get the impression the price can go a lot higher at an elegant establishment. Here, the dock price is $6.
It’s a temptation that can’t be resisted. Several times I’ve gone into the kitchen to find lobsters crawling around the counters as one or another of our housemates prepares for dinner.
Just how I feel about lobsters, as creatures, is hard to say. They’re lazy and harmless (at least with their claws tied), but they are ugly as all get out. Looking at them too long or too closely gives me the creepy crawlies, especially when they’re turned over and you can see that their bellies are a sort of greenish-whitish slime color. Or when you foolishly put your head down next to one because someone exclaimed, “You can hear them breathing!” and you, do, indeed, hear them breathing – a rhythmic clicking sound, scarily inhuman. I don’t think there are any circumstances under which I could bring myself to eat one, food laws aside. All the same, perhaps because I only ever see them when they are under sentence of death, I might regard them with something like an inkling of fond pity.
At any rate, when I found out that they are most often boiled alive, I tried very hard to convince the cook of the moment to find a quicker way to end them before putting them in. He didn’t refuse so much as he dismissed the premise. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “They don’t have nerves. They can’t feel anything.”
I was extremely angry with him – not so much for his determination to boil them alive, which is, after all, the traditional method of cooking, as for his justification of it. After all, that is the reasoning humanity has always used to justify the mistreatment of those we think inferior. “It doesn’t matter if we split up slave families, because black mothers don’t love their children the way white mothers do.” I realize the magnitude of these cruelties is so vastly different as to make comparison inappropriate. But that was what flashed through my mind, and I was suddenly profoundly uncomfortable with anyone feeling that blindly superior to another living creature – even if the creature is an alien-looking bottom-dweller who’s about to be dinner.
“Anyway,” he assured me, “They’re dead now. At least, they’ve stopped trying to crawl out of the pot.” I wanted to ask him why, if they didn’t feel pain, they were trying to crawl out of the pot, but I decided it was neither the time, the place, nor the audience for that argument.
I was therefore quite pleased several days later when another housemate announced that there was a way of stabbing them which caused instant death, and that he intended to try it. I’d heard of this. Basically, you stab them through the brain.
Now, I’m not really a fan of gore. But it seemed to me that if I was going to recommend that people actively kill their lobsters, rather than passively slapping them in a pot, I should know what that involved. So I stayed to watch.
The lobsters were placed next to each other on the island.
Out came the chef knife – you know the kind. Ten inches long, curving to a sizable point.
The first victim was turned over onto its back.
The point of the knife crunched into the lobster’s sternum – horribly – too low. It wasn’t instantly dead. Its legs convulsed in agony and, beside it, its companion squirmed in fear and sympathy. The knife was pushed down along the length, eventually reaching the head, where it should have begun. It wasn’t a slow movement but it seemed to last an eternity. In my memory of this I hear the lobster screaming, but I know that was only the hissing of air escaping the shell. Lobsters don’t bleed, but this, too, is something I know, rather than something I remember. What I remember is the horror of it, the revulsion of watching torture – however inadvertent.
It was done; the lobster was dead; but it was hard to know exactly when. There it was, its head cut in half, and still its legs twitched. This is one of those quirks of biology. Witnesses at Madame La Guillotine reported seeing the eyes in severed heads opening and closing. Still, it’s unnerving when it goes on for thirty seconds, a minute. I’m not really sure how long.
The second lobster, still flailing in distress, was flipped onto its back. I fled the kitchen and plugged my ears to avoid the sickening crunch. It was over faster, I think. I think he realized the mistake he made on the first one, and had the technique down pat by then.
Never have I been so in sympathy with the vegetarian cause – a sympathy which lasted several days. Why should others suffer so we can eat, when there are plenty of foods that won’t suffer?
It’s easy to think this revulsion is a modern phenomenon, that for most of history, people have been inured to it. And to an extent this is true. But one’s first slaughter – probably, more than the first one – is always a disturbing experience. Around the same time this happened I was reading a biography of Benjamin Franklin’s sister, Jane. The following is an excerpt from a letter describing the reaction of their niece, Jenny:
“We have had another Killing lately – our Spring Pigs – and Jenny saw the whole process of them. She thinks She Shall not love Sausages any more nor has She eaten Cheese Since She Saw what the Rennet is made of.”
In the hours afterwards I found myself reverting to thoughts of the guillotine. As this lobster’s execution was botched, so was that of Louis XVI*. Indignity in death is something a lobster can share even with a king.
And I found myself thinking, “Death comes once to us all.”
*As I discovered later, of the five or six known eyewitness accounts of Louis XVI’s execution, only one mentions that it was botched. I’m not sure what to make of this, as it seems that several of the other accounts would have been likely to mention it if it were true. However, sources are agreed that Mary Queen of Scots’ execution required several strokes of the ax. So if indignity in death is not shared with a king, it is, at least, shared with a queen.