Monday, October 11, 2010

Consider the considered lobster

living in new hampshire with ro and eli this august really made me think about my food politics and why I am vegan, which was awesome. It meant that I partook in more non-vegan things than normal, because they were still within the parameters that I feel myself keeping now. Namely: can I see with my own eyes that the food is produced locally, sustainably, humanely and hopefully with some love and understanding around the value of life? If so, i'll eat it. Which meant I did things like drink goat's milk from the farm nearby after having met the goats and heard the 13 year old son tell us about them. He was pretty proud even if he professed to hate living on a farm.
In talking with ro about carbon footprints and processes that are bad for the environment I was made more aware than previously of the fact that vegan eating isn't necessarily that much better for the environment if you are eating processed stuff, and not just Quorn fake chicken nuggets, but soy milk and tofu even, which tend to be made from soy beans grown on huge monoculture farms and require a ton of processing—water and energy consumption and such...
all of which I know and have had to let go of on the grounds that 1) I dont really eat that much processed stuff (i've never been that into 'fake meat') and 2) at least i'm not participating in the inhumane treatment, killing, and wasting of animals. I want to never partake in that huge corporate factory farming economy in any way, if I can help it. Which means that, no, I wont eat the 'cage free' eggs from whole foods if they cant tell me what farm they come from, and no it doesn't matter if you bought an organic 'free range' turkey from costco for thanksgiving i'm still not gonna partake. One, 'organic' and 'free range' have somewhat uninspiring meanings these days and two, costco? Really? Can we get any more removed from the sources of our food?
Until I know the owner of the chickens (or they are mine) and can buy a turkey i've seen alive and enjoying life before becoming our dinner, I will refrain, but thank you for the offer.
So, with these thoughts in mind as well as conversations with ro about fishing, its sustainability, and the history of the seafood 'industry' in new england with local guys and their boats out being careful to maintain populations, I decide, if im less than 100 miles from the coast of new hampshire and we can find a local lobster guy, I should prolly test this whole working-within-my-vegan-politics-but-eating-non-vegan thing. Push the envelope a bit past goats milk.
So, we find a roadside store that is owned by the guy who actually fishes the coast and runs the lobsters over fresh and they live in a large, well maintained tank at the store, and we buy 3 chick lobsters (for $5 each!) and take them home to eat. We have done a bit of research and decide to steam them in a big pot, which is supposed to be tastier than boiling, but I want to kill them quickly first instead of making them die slowly of heat. Cuz I hate the idea of boiling them alive anyway, but boiling is one thing, and steaming them to death seems like quite another.
And I know everyone says lobsters dont feel pain like we do, and I believe that. They dont feel pain like humans because we have evolved to a point of self-consciousness which means we tend to also have mental anguish attached to our pain. But crustaceans, tho they dont have the same kind of nervous system we do, still have some kind of basic way of feeling stuff so that they can get along in the world, and all living things react to a sensation that will be detrimental to themselves in order to survive. Even plants, when hooked up to diodes, show electricity spikes when you break off a leaf. Is this pain in the sense that we use it for ourselves? I dunno. But it stands to reason that lobsters, as animals, know when they are being hurt and are going to die. If you pulled the legs off a spider you'd see it squirm, this can't be any different. Because I feel this way, I wanted to basically chop thru their main nerve center (i.e. brain) and kill them as quickly as possible. The idea of being witness to their death felt so much better than just putting a lid over them as they expired.
So, when we were ready with the pot on the stove, I took the first one out of the fridge, rinsed it off, handed it to ro who held him on the chopping board with a towel, took a chef's knife and held it pointing downward with the tip poised above the back of his head. then I poked the knife all the way thru till it hit wood, and then pulled the handle downward, thru the front of the head, right between the eyeballs, with a motion like I was pulling a slot machine lever. Then I watched the poor thing struggle and twitch and take a good 30 seconds to actually stop living. It was horrifying and made me sick to my stomach. Everything i'd read about this method of killing lobsters said it completely severed their nerve center and they died really quickly, like close to instantly, tho sometimes their was a twitch or two left in them right after. This guy, however, was still moving and breathing and would prolly have been saying some profound last words to us if we had any lobster communication skills, and it was incredibly painful to watch. And I tried my damnedest not to take my eyes off him the entire time. There in front of me was what looked like an immense amount of suffering at my hands, it would go against everything in me to ignore it. But my god, it was hard to watch. I witnessed his death with an aching heart, an overturned stomach, a catch in my throat and the itch of tears behind my eyes. And there were still 2 more to go.
The second one went quicker, but still seemed to linger longer than I would have ever wished on any living creature, so by the third one I must have looked a bit despondent, cuz ro offered to kill it. She picked a spot on the back of the head for the tip of her knife that was further back than I had gone, and no sooner had the thunkchunk of the knife finished its path thru the head than this lobster flinched once and was dead. I was so grateful to not have to hold it still as it slowly kicked its last that I almost cried in relief. Or despair. I had been cutting in the wrong place. Well, not wrong, but not optimal. Which means I could have spared the suffering of the first two had I done it correctly. Forgive me, lobsters, for I know not what I do. My god. A humbling experience in every way. If I ever kill again, which I will have to decide if my heart and soul can handle taking another life before trying, I vow to know exactly how to do it in the quickest, most humane way possible, preferably after having watched it done right by an expert. Given that I am the child of a father who says a prayer for every dandelion he uproots, i'm not so sure at this point if killing, let alone slaughtering, are within my realm of ability. Not physically, mind you, but emotionally and spiritually. I guess, as long as I did it with a spiritual mindset in a way that honored the creature, I probably could. I'm sure the entire time those 2 lobsters were leaking their lifeforces out onto the table, every second found me praying for their suffering to be over. I was also extremely aware of the fact that their death was to further my life, to nourish and sustain me and my friends and in that way at least they didn't die in vain. That amounts to prayers of gratitude in my book.
By the time dinner was served my body and emotions had calmed down enough to be prepared to enjoy the experience of eating this animal, of feeding myself with an (until recently) living creature, to partake in the process of turning its flesh into my own.
I systematically took apart my lobster and found every bit of meat in it, remembering that I had to chew a lot more than I do when eating plant matter, which made the meal a meditative process for me. The searching for and working to exhume the morsels, the tasting and chewing and contemplating and swallowing all succeeded in humbling me further, even as the massive protein high cam into effect.
We hadn't really bothered with anything in the way of side dishes for the meal, and I was glad of that. There was nothing to divert my focus from my meal that had once been its own entity enjoying a life in the atlantic, catching, killing and eating its own meals.
As traumatic as the lead-up to this sounds, it was a delicious and satisfying meal. The biologist in me really loved looking at all the different parts of the creature and I appreciated getting to interact with the carcass as a whole. not that I really needed a reminder that I was eating an animal, but just to be aware of it as an entire being. So often people eat something like chicken nuggets or even just buy ground beef, or boneless, skinless chicken breasts—pieces of meat that look nothing like the animal they came from. We are good at distancing ourselves from the sources of our food here in america and I remember appreciating the opposite of that in china, even if it made me feel a little queasy to see a turtle on a plate that looked like it could get up and walk away. Getting to break into the lobster shell with my hands and fish out the flesh was a very intimate way of dealing with this animal while treating it as food. It was a bit of a scavenger hunt and a way of really deeply knowing 'he who is now your dinner.' no shying away from this process of eating an animal, not at any point from start to finish.
And it wasnt even finished. After we had gleaned every bit of meat out of the lobsters' shells, we boiled them overnight in the crock pot to make lobster broth, the smell of which was very strong and permeated my dreams. And then, of course, there were the dishes. And the lobster pot took some scrubbing. I waited a while to do the dishes, and at that point I was ready to forget the fact that my dinner had been alive, but the reminder was there in the smell of the leftover cooking water and the hardened scum on the pot that was much more pungent and stubborn than any plant matter could be. My stomach thought hard about turning again, but the only thing that could make the evening's meal harder to cope with would be to throw it up, so I resisted the urge, plugged my nose to the smell of crustacean death, and dug in with soap and water.
The house ended up smelling like seafood for a couple days, tho I doubt ro and eli noticed. Animal food is so much stronger in flavor and smell than plant food and I forget sometimes how finely calibrated my senses are now that I deal only with more delicate ones. When others wouldn't notice the bacon fat or even butter in something, I find that it has a really strong showing in my mouth. Which is not to say its gross. On the contrary. If I smell something with meat in it cooking I will invariably say, 'wow, that smells good.' cuz it does. Animals and animal products taste good. Show me a vegan who says they don't miss cheese and i'll show you someone who is either a liar or delusional.
Cuz yeah, in case you missed this part, im just gonna put it out there again: lobster is delicious! Really tasty, almost sweet, and really succulent if you cook it in salt water cuz it retains more of the flavor and tastes a bit like the sea. It was very obvious to all of my senses that I was consuming something oceanic. And I loved it. I came to the table with an almost religious reverence, not just for the life taken in order to eat, but for the simple scrumptious decadent delight that is fresh steamed new england chick lobster. I sat deconstructing the carcass with meditative thoroughness, not just to interact fully with this dead animal, but to delve deeply into the full sensual experience of my food. I consciously chewed each bit, not just for digestive purposes, but for gastronomic ones as well.
If I went into this endeavor with the desire to enjoy the experience of eating a lobster, I believe I succeeded. If I went into it to be fully present with an animal as I killed and consumed it, made it my food, I succeeded. If I did all of this in order to test my ability to take a life and incorporated it into my own, i'm not sure whether I passed. if I went in hoping to god I enjoyed the experience more than I abhored it, the jury is still out. If I wanted something to test my vegan parameters, I found it. If I wanted an experience I will remember for a long time, I got it. If I hoped to know if I could do it again in good conscience, i'm nowhere near sure.

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