I’ve always enjoyed lobster ravioli, the rich meat cushioned between soft pasta sheets, lobster rolls, showcasing the beauty of the key ingredient with little more than mayonnaise, and Lobster Thermidor, a richly overworked French concoction. My favorite preparation, however, has also been the simplest: lobster just boiled and served with butter and lemon. We’ve prepared lobsters at home on several occasions, always dropping them headfirst into boiling water because, we were told, the lobsters die instantly and can’t feel anything anyway. Right?

I’m not sure I can eat lobster since reading “Consider the Lobster,” written by David Foster Wallace. This essay was published in a 2004 issue of Gourmet magazine, and a few weeks ago, I finally got around to reading it. Here are the words that gave me pause:

 “…we come in from the store and…however stuporous the lobster is from the trip home, it tends to come alarmingly to life when placed in boiling water. If you’re tilting it from a container into the 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. 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… the lobster acts as if it’s in terrible pain.”

We tell ourselves the lobsters feel nothing, that they die instantly, but from personal kitchen experience, I can tell you that this seems not to be the case.

It’s not as though cows and pigs, which we regularly eat, do not feel pain, but in the twenty-first century, some efforts have been made to harvest these animals “humanely,” with a minimum of pain. To prevent unnecessary animal suffering, we’ve had the Humane Slaughter Act in place since 1958, and Temple Grandin’s landmark Animal Welfare Audit is now a national standard.

Lobsters, on the other hand, are considered maybe just a cut above insects, and so these delicious creatures are usually boiled alive, which seems a bad way to go. “With very few exceptions,” CBS reports, “lobsters and crabs are not protected by animal welfare laws because of a long-held belief that the creatures cannot experience pain.” 

There are quick and perhaps more humane ways to whack a lobster, like plunging a knife into its head right behind the eyes. If you’ve examined the lobsters that you’re served in a restaurant, however, there are usually no visible head injuries so it’s likely the lobster was cooked in the traditional manner, in boiling water.

So that’s why I now feel uncomfortable eating lobster. I’m not judging if you celebrate National Lobster Day on June 15 with a two-pound beauty from Maine, but this year at least, for the first time ever, I don’t feel right about donning a bib and joining you at the table.

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David Hammond

David Hammond, a corporate communications consultant and food journalist living in Oak Park, Illinois, is a founder and moderator of LTHForum.com, the 8,500 member Chicago-based culinary chat site. David...