Way back when I was a fresh-faced young college student, I worked in a seafood restaurant down in Humble, Texas.
I was hired as a sophomore at University of Houston almost a decade ago to waitress in the Southern chain restaurant, slinging seafood with a bit of a Cajun flavor to people in the Houston suburb. I was not terribly good at it, but I tried hard despite the restaurant industry’s ability to encourage misanthropy and cynicism.
There were many things I did not like about that job — the co-worker who said he could recognize me from across the restaurant by my rear-end, the paycheck that was often less than $10, the customers who left a Jesus pamphlet instead of a tip — but those weren’t the worst part at the time.
The bane of my existence sat by the front door, on its own little stand, staring customers in the face as they walked in looking for slightly-better-than-average fish, oysters and other food found below the sea. I am talking about the lobster tank, a staple of seafood restaurants everywhere that operates on the assumption that people would really like to see their food swimming around, enjoying its subpar life before they eat it.
In my experience, that assumption is, for the most part, wrong.
While I usually did OK selling the lobster specials, which were entirely prepared in the back and had nothing do with the tank up front, I very rarely sold our whole Maine lobster dinner, which rang in at something like $30 per pound. (It’s now listed on the menu as “Ask your server,” which I assume is restaurant-speak for “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.”)
At this particular restaurant, ordering the fresh lobster meant the “guests,” as management insisted we call them, picked out which lobsters they wanted to eat out of the tank.
Usually, this is where I lost them. Only the most hardened meat-eaters were able to condemn a specific live lobster to death to become dinner.
As their server, I would take them to the tank, they’d pick one out and I got to try and catch the sneaky little bug of choice using something that looked like a two-pronged rake and put it on a tray.
In theory, this isn’t that hard. They’re alive, sure, but their claws are rubber-banded together and they’re pretty cramped in the tank so they shouldn’t be able to move too far. In practice, I always ended up with a wet sleeve and often a wet shirt-front as well as I chased the lobster around in circles. They move fast when their lives are on the line.
After I finally caught the thing, I’d have to take it back to the kitchen and flag down a cook to drop it into the pot — always easier said than done, because it turns out they’re kind of busy back there — before bringing it back, all red and ready to be cracked open and dipped in butter.
I was reminded of those days staring down the giant underwater bugs Friday by a story in the New York Times by Karen Weintraub.
In an article headline<&underline>d</&underline> “The Swiss Consider the Lobster. It Feels Pain, They Decide,” Weintraub explains that Switzerland’s government has ordered that lobsters and other crustaceans no longer be dropped alive into boiling water.
“Boiling them causes pain, the government said, and should be replaced by a more rapid method of death — such as stunning,” she wrote, although the science is out on whether lobsters really do feel pain.
“There’s no absolute proof, but you keep running experiments and almost everything I looked at came out consistent with the idea of pain in these animals,” said Robert Elwood, professor emeritus of animal behavior at Queen’s University in Belfast, Northern Ireland. “There should be a more humane approach with lobsters.”
Luckily for those more squeamish meat-eaters, marine biologists on this side of the pond aren’t so sure, with Joseph Ayers of Northeastern University and Michael Tlusty of University of Massachusetts both poo-pooing the idea, saying lobsters lack the brain anatomy to feel pain.
“I think the idea of producing such a law is just a bunch of people anthropomorphizing lobsters,” Ayers told the Times, adding that there were other possible explanations for Elwood’s findings. “I find it really quite remarkable that people attribute to these animals humanlike responses when they simply don’t have the hardware for it.”
That’s pretty compelling, but it must be said that both Ayers and Tlusty work in Boston, where I’m sure the seafood is to die for.
I have to say, regardless of whether they feel pain, there is just no way I could ever fish out one of those lobsters without being reminded of the scene in “The Little Mermaid” when the prince’s chef tries to serve Sebastian up with a lettuce leaf. I’m not sure hitting them over the head is any more humane than dropping them in the pot.
But, oddly enough, that doesn’t stop me from enjoying a good lobster roll, as long as I’m not looking into its beady little eyes while someone else fishes it out of the tank.