ROCKLAND, Maine—The New Hampshire/Maine split on I-95 in Portsmouth, N.H., is unpredictable. Sometimes you’re able to breeze through to your final destination—back to your shit hole of a dorm room in Durham, or off to the Kittery Trading Post to buy a crossbow and a bottle of deer piss—but other times you’re forced to sit in traffic for 107 minutes in your father’s 2002 Cadillac Eldorado, which Eldorado is overheating and, of course, not in possession of a functioning air conditioner and, of course, in possession of a radio that only picks up stations broadcasting evangelical talk radio. Sometimes you’re unencumbered to visit the Macy’s at the Fox Run Mall to buy a discounted Le Creuset Dutch oven, but sometimes you’re forced to sit behind a Jeep plastered with bumper stickers that range from the tactless but nevertheless harmless pissing Calvin to the more existentially terrifying “I Carry a Gun Because a Cop Is too Heavy,” which Jeep’s passengers are, of course, rocking out to what you can only assume is Seether.
I was passing through because for reasons I can’t begin to explain, I thought it was a good idea to pitch a piece about the 70th anniversary of the Maine Lobster Festival, and I thought it was clever to title that pitch “Reconsidering Consider the Lobster.” I would travel from Boston to Rockland, Maine, and I would interview and photograph and taxonomize the gluttonous, plastic-bibbed masses as they tore at tails and cracked claws and fingered spindly legs in pursuit of that most coveted, briny-sweet prize: fresh Maine lobster meat.
It all checked out in my head, until I realized one crucial fact: Though I hold David Foster Wallace’s original work in high esteem—it’s an exemplar of essay writing, and you should read it if you have not—my behavior has never exactly meshed with its implications. Without explicitly moralizing, Wallace wonders in the end if maybe we haven’t given enough thought to whether it’s okay to boil alive a sentient being that may or may not be capable of experiencing pain—perhaps this ritual is, frankly, exceptionally fucked up. As a New Englander, it’s a ritual I’ve participated in, and blithely, for as long as I can recall, and until Wallace asked me to, I’d never actually considered the lobster. Honestly, I’m not sure Wallace ever intended to ask the question to begin with.
I think Wallace went to Maine in 2004 as a journalist and as a journalist only. Despite having ultimately done so, writing a dissertation on the sentience of a certain shellfish and its ability to feel pain—and therefore the human’s complicity in brutally murdering this potentially sentient shellfish for purposes that amount to little more than immediate pleasure, and then celebrating said pleasure in an annual industrial-scale orgy of consumption—was never his intention. He didn’t travel to Maine to become a champion of animal rights—he was writing the piece for Gourmet after all, which routinely published/publishes recipes for, you know, dead animal products—nor did he travel to Maine to chastise or take a shit upon an entire region and one of its most enduring traditions. But in writing “Consider the Lobster,” he accidentally did both.
The fallout from the piece was many-sided. There were the journalists and critics who said things like, “OK, so the guy can write...but once you cut through the words, what’s left?” There were the carnivores—even if just the class of carnivores who shouted things like, “Hey, we’re merely pescatarians, and so of course we denounce the wisdom of conventional meat eaters and all their nasty little beef factories, but goddamn it if we plan to stop eating lobster! They’re lower life forms!” And then there was and is PETA, whose membership must read Wallace’s essay as something of a mission statement. I can’t fucking imagine what might have happened if Wallace had written his essay in the age of Twitter.
As he was wont to do, Wallace reported—brilliantly (fuck the critics and journalists who were jealous of his ability to write and therefore could only, bizarrely, launch critiques of his ability to write)—on a significant cultural event. He never once proffered any solutions to the sticky ethical questions he raised, nor any judgment of anyone. His readers—whoever they were—assigned to his reportage whatever meaning fit their own previously held beliefs.
Truth be told, I’d only ever considered the lobster for the moments preceding and following my several readings of Wallace’s essay. For me, this live boiling has always been an amoral act. Not immoral, mind you. Not a just act, not an unjust act. Just an act. Just dinner. My consumption is unthinking. Maybe even reckless. But I didn’t realize this until the day before I was to drive up the coast, which is to say, I didn’t realize this until a lot later than I’d have preferred.
When I finally arrived in Rockland—after the traffic and the butt rock and the old white men jerking themselves off about their history of service and then proselytizing and then, of course, denying a woman’s right to choose (that is, to choose anything)—the first thing I noticed as I walked through the gates of the Maine Lobster Festival was a Domino’s Pizza kiosk.
Before the $7 styrofoam cups filled with lobster bisque (lukewarm), before the $14 lobster rolls (undressed aside from a squirt of mayo over the top, and served on stale hot dog buns), and before the football field-sized tent under which hundreds of plastic-bibbed adults—all of whom had paid at least $18 for the chance to claw at claw meat and wag their tails at tail meat (I myself did not partake in the eating of a whole lobster—all of the cracking and digging and “Is the tomalley safe to eat this year?” is exhausting, and the ends rarely justify the means)—I saw a Domino’s Pizza kiosk.
My suspicion—that the Maine Lobster Festival, despite all the history and pageantry and pride that tends to accompany festivals dedicated to a singular commodity so intimately tied to a specific region, was no different in kind or execution than any other middling county fair—was confirmed nine seconds after purchasing my ticket.
Why is middling county fair the default? The preeminent event of any region’s summer, let alone a celebration of a region’s signature cuisine and economic pillar, should maybe not be defined by hokey adults dressed as Generic Suburban Dad or Generic Suburban Mom or Poseidon or Captain Hook or Massive Lobster Lady (this last costume—and yes, Generic Suburban Dad and Generic Suburban Mom are costumes—was the only costume at the Maine Lobster Festival that remotely related to the festival’s theme).
Eating French fries out of a cardboard dog bowl (a thing that happens at the Maine Lobster Festival and probably at every other middling county fair in America) and then taking a photograph—for Instagram’s sake, for posterity’s sake, for whatever the fuck’s sake—in front of a massive plaster lobster, which lobster is backdropped by an admittedly gorgeous but equally gaudy “Welcome to Maine” sign, is, somehow, someone’s, perhaps even a lot of someones’, idea of what it means to participate in a great cultural ritual. This is a mongrelization of culture. But it’s what’s on offer and so that’s what we’ve been left with.
I didn’t go to Rockland to burden mid-coastal Mainers with my criticism. I was curious if Wallace’s assessment held up—and I admit I wondered what it would look like to watch thousands of people devour thousands of lobsters, unencumbered by any of the guilt that his essay may have inspired in an eater of a certain disposition—and I wondered how different it all might be nearly 15 years later. But aside from some uninspired cuisine, nothing at the Maine Lobster Festival was more plainly on display than the urge to participate in that time-honored American tradition: to recklessly consume.
At the Maine Lobster Festival, you can purchase a coffee mug shaped like a lighthouse. If you’d like to, you can purchase a faux leather lamp shade emblazoned with a moose in relief, which moose is cut from a darker sheet of faux leather than the faux leather of the shade on which it’s glued. You can purchase a fuzzy ostrich marionette and you can purchase a drug rug with Bob Marley’s face stitched squarely into its middle. If it’s cheap kitsch manufactured by cheap labor you’re after, you can find it at the Maine Lobster Festival. If it’s a tree branch stripped of its bark with your name carved into its side by a man called Dick at a kioski called Dick’s Sticks, you can find it at the Maine Lobster Festival.
I often feel self-conscious reporting on cultural ceremony because the reporter is America’s least favorite interloper. Why is this guy asking so many questions? Why is he asking if he can take our photograph? Sure, go ahead, but then get the hell out of here. I just want to eat some fucking lobster. Whenever I take a photograph—and especially when I take a photograph as a tourist, which is its own kind of reporting with its own intended audience—I think of something Susan Sontag wrote in On Photography:
Most tourists feel compelled to put the camera between themselves and whatever is remarkable that they encounter. Unsure of other responses, they take a picture. This gives shape to experience: stop, take a photograph, and move on.
I was in Rockland for a story, but I was also there as everything I hated about festival. I ate the lobster products. I stopped at the kitsch kiosks and entertained buying a commemorative burlap sack. I took a selfie in front of the giant lobster and shared that selfie with my audience of passive onlookers; I agreed, despite feeling disgusting about agreeing, that this whole thing might be a pretty decent photo opportunity. I snapped photos of the scene with my medium-format camera—and I indulged in the few instances strangers asked me about the history of that medium format camera—and I pulled my iPhone from my back pocket and snapped many more. Constant tourism, all the time. Life isn’t for living, it’s for creating evidence of life to convince ourselves we’ve lived. And if all that happens while participating in a supposedly vital cultural event, then all the better.
But to walk around with a smartphone in your pocket (as more than three-quarters of Americans currently do)—or with a fucking bulky medium-format camera strapped across your chest with the express intent of photographing that which the photographer deems is “odd” or “memorable”—is to imagine the possibilities of full-time tourism. That’s a bleak possibility for reasons David Foster Wallace was better able to articulate than I:
To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit. It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience.
Before scorching the tourist, Wallace noted that it might actually be good for the soul to be a tourist, if only occasionally.
Not good for the soul in a refreshing or enlivening way, though, but rather in a grim, steely-eyed, let’s-look-honestly-at-the-facts-and-find-some-way-to-deal-with-them way.
I get the sentiment, but how can one think in terms of occasionality when the very act in question has transformed into a totality? Life as a symptom of tourism, not the other way around. I wonder if Wallace’s take might have been different had he written “Consider the Lobster” in the age of social media, in the age of perpetual, yet somehow inattentive, digital tourism. I wonder if that even matters.
Between the tent full of disposable souvenirs and the tent full of bibbed adults picking over the remaining flesh inside a graveyard of fire-red exoskeletons sits what the Maine Lobster Festival proudly refers to as the largest lobster cooker in the world. Tourists flock to the many-chambered cooker to gawk at and photograph a team of several workers turn cage after cage of live lobster into plate after plate of lunch or dinner. Propped up next to the cooker is a cardboard sign marked with black Sharpie. “Cooked So Far, 8/14/17: 11,600 plus.” Boiling lobster alive might be an amoral act to me, but the body count smacked as sinister.
The lobster cooker was the Maine Lobster Festival’s most natural junction: Some tourists looked on while clutching to goodie bags filled with flamboyant fridge magnets or ill-fitting tee-shirts while others snapped photos of the workers as they dumped dozens and dozens of dead lobsters from hot steel cages into cold plastic bins. The black text on the cardboard sign informed the onlooker that this was the biggest lobster cooker in the world, and implicitly the best, and that the onlooker must therefore be having the best time in the world. We were consuming recklessly, and so there could be no doubt.