I wouldn't go so far as to say that everyone should experience killing his or her own food, like some might suggest. In The Omnivore's Dilemma, one of my favorite books of recent memory, Michael Pollan follows his purchased steer to the slaughterhouse. He visits a self-sustaining farm in Virginia and beheads his own chicken. He hunts wild boar, and forages for wild mushrooms, which is more daunting than you would imagine. And did you know that mushrooms, as fungi, are more closely related to animals than to plants? I sure didn't.
I don't come from hunters. My North Carolina grandpa may have shot a rabbit or two, maybe a duck (shades of Elmer Fudd) but to hear my dad tell it, grandpa was more of a fisherman than a hunter. He'd come home with bass, or lake trout, his mouth just watering for my grandma to fry them up for him. And she would say to him, "That's wonderful dear, now take them right back outside and scale them and clean them and gut them, and then I'll get right to it."
My dad's family kept chickens in the back, and when he reached a certain age, probably younger than we pampered city-slickers would imagine, he was charged with going out and selecting and killing a chicken for dinner. An ax wasn't even part of this little backyard operation. No, killing a chicken for dinner on Driver Avenue in Durham involved catching one of them, wrapping your hand around its head, and swinging the whole feathered bundle a good strong couple of 360 degree turns. A little wrist action was necessary; if you didn't have the proper wrist action, the neck wouldn't snap properly and kill the chicken quickly and you'd be left with a brain-dead chicken that would run around the yard after you dropped it. Wouldn't that be a nice image to replay through your mind later as you settled down to supper that evening?
But I suppose it is fair to say that growing your own food and, yes, killing your own food, is character-building. While it isn't the line in the sand that I would use to separate a worthwhile person from one not deserving of my time, it's an experience maybe one shouldn't pass on if it comes up. As I get older, I find I am less likely to dismiss such ideas with an "ewwwww."
I had the opportunity in Wellfleet last week. We were all staying, even my dad, with Peter's sister Sharon and her husband, Danny. Everett wanted to have lobster before she returned to the city. You don't have to ask me twice if lobster is on the menu, and it was decided Tuesday would be the day.
"Fantastic!" I said. "Where do we want to go? Arnold's? Moby Dick's?"
"I was thinking we'd just buy some and cook them here," Danny said. "It's a whole lot cheaper."
Here. At home.
In a big pot of boiling water.
"Oh, uhh...great idea!"
We're gonna kill us some lobster.
Now, I realize it's sort of a yuppie dilemma, boiling a lobster alive. It's not the same as holding a chicken carcass in your hand, or shooting and skinning a rabbit. It's not as gross, and there's not the same central nervous system involved--no pain. They're just fish, after all.
I took Everett and Zack on a lobster boat tourist ride in Bar Harbor a few years ago. The guy hauled up the trap and showed us lobsters, showed us how to tell a male from a female. The female's tail wraps around more tightly under herself in order to protect her eggs. Females are also more likely than males to be spared by fishermen, and thrown back into the sea--to live on and raise more babies.
Which is how I think it should be, except for that eternal raising of babies part.
He also showed us how to tell if a lobster is right-handed or left-handed. The smaller pincher--if you look carefully, all lobsters have a larger and a smaller pincher--is the fine-motor pincher. ("What, is that the pincher he writes with?" I wanted to ask.) A lobster with a smaller right pincher is a right-handed lobster.
"Look! I have a right-handed lobster!" I announced at the restaurant that night. "I wonder what percentage of the lobster population is left-handed? Is it the same as humans? What do you think, kids??"
Blank stares. I realized right then that gender and handedness was more than I wanted to know about something I was getting ready to eat. Dad killed the chicken by putting his hand around its head--if I had been there, I wouldn't have asked which one he had slaughtered. Grandpa caught a fish and Grandma cooked it. I didn't need to know which pincher mama lobster used to check her eggs, or which pincher papa lobster would lead off with to avoid the lobster trap nestled in the bottom of the ocean.
It didn't stop me from eating lobster if the opportunity arose, no sir, but it did make me think a little bit each time, at least until the first couple of glasses of pinot grigio kicked in, that maybe I was a bit of a....hypocrite. But big deal, I'd tell myself, eating lobster was no worse than any number of sins I'd committed in the last year, and no worse that eating a hen that had been killed by an inept hand and spent a bit of time running around the grass like a....well, like a chicken with its head cut off.
But knowing a lobster is killed and cooked by dropping it in boiling water, and actually doing it are two different things. I had always bypassed even selecting my lobster out of the tank at the restaurants. That was way too "Hand of God" for me. "Just pick one for me please, and bring it out. ....Oh, and with extra melted butter, thanks."
All that was about to change. Danny's friend told him the best place to go to buy the lobsters, a place a few miles up in Truro. Some fisherman selling some out of his garage. Nice and tasty, and only $7.99 a pound.
"Say, that's the same as buying a nice sirloin," I rationalized to myself, trying desperately to find a common ground between buying a cellophane-wrapped pre-killed steak in the Stop 'n' Shop and boiling one of God's freshly-caught creatures alive. But that was about the only similarity I could muster up, unless you hauled a live steer up with a giant pulley and lowered it slowly into a giant vat of boiling oil, like something the Joker might do to Batman and Robin. "Holy Lobster Bib, Batman!"
Peter and my dad were enlisted to find the lobster place and make the purchase. I gave Everett a look and a toss of the head. "Go with them," I said. "Make sure they do it right." Off they went.
Sharon had quietly decided to not participate in the ritual slaughter. She didn't make a big showy stand about it, because she still had every intention of eating the results. But she sort of disappeared. I stayed in the kitchen to help. Danny clanked around under the counter and pulled out a big lobster pot. Big, but not huge. "Will that be big enough?" I asked.
"It'll be OK for four, I figure, then we'll use this pot for the other two," he said as he pulled out a smaller one. "I guess it'll be OK, I've never done this before."
What?? Oh dear.
I set the table to burn off nervous energy waiting for the lobster delivery. Danny worried over water levels and heat settings. "We're boiling, we're not steaming them," he said. "Boiling takes about fifteen or twenty minutes, the website said."
Hey! Web research is my job.
Peter and my dad and Everett returned with the lobsters. "It wasn't 'Commercial Street,'" Peter cranked, "it was 'Commercial Place'--we drove right past it!"
"How many 'Commercial' anythings did you think there would be, Peter?" I asked. You were in Truro, for heaven's sake, not Queens!"
There were brown paper bags. I was surprised, but what was I to expect, really? Tanks?
I reached in and pulled out a lobster and held it up. It had those thick rubber bands around its pinchers. I avoided taking note of which pincher was the larger one. I avoided looking to see if its tail was tightly wrapped up underneath itself.
"Oh right! Look! Rubber bands! Do we take these off before we kil--, I mean before we drop them in the boiling--, I mean....(huff)....do I take these off?" I asked Danny.
Everyone else had conveniently made him or herself scarce.
"Yes, the bands need to come off," Danny said. "Is the corn cooking?"
Is the corn cooking?? Am I supposed to be thinking about the corn, too? I've got enough on my mind here. I don't usually find myself on the road to a nervous breakdown simply from preparing an evening meal. But Sharon had the corn out on the grill and a salad already prepared. She had more than contributed her part and could guiltlessly stay away from main course preparation. "You don't want the corn ready," Danny said, "before the lobsters are."
Oh, 'Mr. Dinner Preparation Expert' all of a sudden.
"Everything doesn't have to be ready at the exact same time," I told Danny. "The lobster or the corn can sit around for a few minutes to wait for the other one, it will be all right."
"Oh, no," Danny said. "It all has to come out at the same time, or it won't be good!"
Sigh. This is why I get aggravated cooking with men. Especially ones who cook just once in a while, yet think they know everything oh so much better than I do when their turn comes up. Just get out of the way, please, and let me do it.
But I was the sous-chef here, and I wasn't going to stage a mutiny....particularly not in this case, because I was not at all certain I could step up to the plate and take over preparation of the main course. That's right....the lobster-killing.
The big pot was boiling.
It was time.
"OK, I think we're good to go here," Danny shouted, ridiculously, like we were at opposite ends of a big boat or something.
"OK," I shouted back, "here I come!" I came over with the first de-banded lobster. I held it way up and out in front of me, like one of Zack's particularly smelly socks I might carry to the hamper.
Sharon and Danny's Cape Cod kitchen is large by middle-class New York City standards, but small by any other standard. Maybe four or five steps tops from counter to stove. But that night it was the Appalachian Trail or the Penine Way. Days, it took, to carry across my first victim--er--lobster. The right-handed lobster...oops! I snuck a look, in spite of myself. She (oh gosh, did I check for that curled-under tail, too?) wasn't moving too much, wasn't struggling or anything. She probably was near-dead, wouldn't even know what hit her when she hit the boiling water. We all gotta eat, right? Beast killing beast, right? Hey, it's Darwin, it's survival of the fittest, it's natural....it's how life works.
"Here I come," I said, still shouting, as Danny, a beast, stood by the boiling pot holding the lid with the oven mitt on. I, another beast, held it over the pot. The lobster, beast number three in this little scenerio, the snowball in hell, writhed slowly in my hand.
I couldn't do it.
"I can't do it," I said. I shoved it into Danny's hand. "You'll have to do it. Sorry."
Danny dropped the first lobster into the pot, as I went back to bring over the next one and the next one. Three lobsters in the first pot. It looked full, I thought. I stood there with the fourth lobster in my hand.
"We can fit in another," Danny said.
"Are you sure?" I asked. "It looks pretty tight in th--"
Danny took the lobster and pressed it in and replaced the lid. Within seconds, he had the remaining two lobsters in the smaller pot.
"So how long are you cooking them?" Peter came over to ask. Oh sure, everyone comes out of the woodwork now that the dirty work is done. "The guy at the lobster place said ten-to-twelve minutes."
"The website said fifteen-to-twenty minutes if you're boiling them," Danny said.
"I think the bottom two lobsters in the big pot are boiling, but the two you shoved in on top of them are steaming, technically speaking," I postulated, as I took a big gulp of wine. I will postulate while drinking as long as I am in the safety of the home.
And then the lid moved.
I choked a bit on my pinot, and then it moved again. As Peter and Danny debated over lobster-cooking details neither one of them really knew anything about, I pointed while I had the lip of the wineglass still at my mouth. "What?" one or both of them said. I pointed again, with a bit more urgency. I couldn't even say it.
The fourth lobster was trying to climb out of the pot. It (he? she?) had knocked the lid halfway off the pot and one entire claw came out. It was actually making progress.
"Oh, shit!" Danny said, and flipped the lobster over and pressed down the lid, harder this time.
"Is dinner ready?" Sharon came in off the deck. "No, it's not ready," I said. "It's still trying to climb out of the pot!" She set her mouth in a line and returned to the deck.
Eventually dinner was ready, and we were all seated around the dinner table with honking big lobsters in front of us. Everett and Zack emerged from wherever they had been hiding to avoid the hullabaloo. Corn was brought out, butter was melted, extra napkins were brought to the table. It was darn good, the lobster. Danny had managed to cook them all perfectly. I don't know if you can attribute that so much to the fact that he figured it all out, or to the fact that perhaps lobster is "forgiving," and not that hard to cook. As long as it doesn't escape. But it was yummy, and they were so big that there was plenty left over. Everyone, at my instruction, put their plates on the big kitchen counter, and as I finished the bottle of pinot, I broke into everyone's leftover lobsters and picked and scraped and got enough meat out to combine and make a rockin' lobster salad for lunch the next day. As Sharon likes to say, "We're all family here."
"Is there something the matter with me?" I idly wondered and I cracked and picked and rummaged through the shells. "I watched a creature literally fight for its life, make a last-ditch effort to save itself from what has to be one of the worst ways on this earth to die. And then after watching it fail, watching it be pressed back into submission, I turned around ten minutes later and enjoyed the hell out of myself eating it with a side of corn. I can stand here and rip it apart with my bare hands to make a nice dainty salad for us to feast on the next day. What does that make me?"
I guess it makes me....human?
P.S. My dad had a hot dog.