David Foster Wallace’s “Consider the Lobster”

How does Wallace turn a rather ordinary experience (covering a food festival) into a captivating essay?

As I began reading Wallace’s piece on the Main Lobster Festival, I thought it would just be an 11 page article on exactly that. However the first thing that threw me off was when I printed the article- as I skimmed through it, I noticed 3 pages of footnotes, some of them a whole paragraph in length. I couldn’t imagine why one would need so many long footnotes, especially on an article about a festival.

Wallace begins his article fairly normally, describing the festival, what goes on during it, who attends, and where it is located. A few paragraphs in, I learned that lobster used to be considered very low-class food, and some colonies allowed their inmates to eat lobster only once a week because they thought them to be the equivalent of rats. This is when I realized that there was something fishy about this article (pun intended). Wallace went into a very detailed explanation of the lobster itself and it’s previous stigma, which isn’t necessary for an article that claims to be about a festival.

Wallace then spirals into criticizing everything about the festival itself, including how everything comes in Styrofoam and with plastic utensils, the lack of manners of the eaters at the overcrowded tables, and having to pay $20 for a folding chair. This is the point at which I realized that this article was very out of the ordinary- what writer would bash the festival he is supposed to write about and shed a positive light on?

It must be noted that this article was written for Gourmet magazine. Whether they be about recipes, food festivals, different ways of food preparation, and reviews of restaurants, it is clearly supposed to feature food related articles. Wallace begins to create a very jarring and even repulsive atmosphere when he asks “is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure?” He then goes on to describe the process with which the lobsters are boiled alive. He uses sickening similes like “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”. Wallace makes sure to point out that his objective is to not give his readers a PETA-like reproach, but “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”.

Wallace’s second to last paragraph consists of open ended questions to the reader that he doesn’t provide the answers to, a “food for thought”. He asks what makes it okay to for gourmets to dismiss the whole issue of cooking lobsters alive? Do they just not want to think about it, or are they firmly convinced that lobsters don’t feel pain? Aren’t gourmets supposed to be extra-aware of the food they’re consuming? This article ends on a very different note in comparison to how it began. He starts to describe the festival, but then goes on a scattered tangent discussing the ethics of cooking lobsters alive.

My experience while reading this article was positive and eye opening, but it definitely wasn’t what I expected from the beginning. I was surprised to realize that I was able to get through an 11 page article about lobsters, especially because I’m not much of a “foodie”. What made this article interesting to read for me was that Wallace examined lobster from all sides- their structure, what they eat, where they live, their place in history, and the ethical issue of their consumption. It is very evident that the author did his research before putting together such an article.

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