Consider the Oyster

Something must die to become our food. Vegetarians and vegans limit the dying strictly to plants. Pescetarians allow for fish, mollusks, and crustaceans, but nothing further. Pollotarians allow for chickens and other types of poultry.1 The rest of us, probably more because of anthropomorphism than an understanding of neurobiology, draw the line somewhere just below species which are common pets. There is a hierarchy buried somewhere in these dietary restrictions: a sequence of eating philosophies, each with its own limit to how much sentience may die for sustenance. The whole thing, at least for those of us who are omnivores, has turned into a sort of vigilance-from-a-distance over the whole foodmaking process, and we start questioning it all only when some segment of the process, which we’ve more or less asked not to have to see, becomes seen. We omnivores understand that animals with cerebellums are doomed to slaughter to become our meat, so we at least hope their life before death as humane as possible, whether that means preferring cage-free eggs, or grass-fed beef, or a farm which at least keeps its animals right-side-up.

Few scenarios remain where meat eaters can witness the death of their food. I can think of a quick three: getting a job on a kill floor, acquiring a hunting license, or cooking lobster. It’s the latter which occupied the mind of David Foster Wallace when he attended 2003’s iteration of the Maine Lobster Festival, where “something over 25,000 pounds of fresh-caught Maine lobster is consumed after preparation in the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker near the grounds’ north entrance.” The thing about that “preparation” though is that it’s pretty much just the transfer of the lobster, as in one that is alive, from a vat of seawater and into a vat of boiling water, which kills the thing and has the added benefit of cooking it. The vitality of the lobster before it is boiled is “a detail so obvious that recipes don’t even bother to mention it.” To People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, it is a crime so obvious that the group never fails to protest it. “Being Boiled Hurts,” remind the adhesive stickers handed out by one high-ranking PETA official at the MLF entrance gates. It’s all documented in Consider the Lobster, the resulting essay from Foster Wallace’s trip.2

There’s no question that the lobsters are Being Boiled, but whether it Hurts is a difficult question in all sorts of complex ways, and it’s not even clear who has the in authority is the best place to start looking for an answer. The Maine Lobster Promotion Council, the people who coordinate the whole MLF and for that very reason definitely probably not one of the places we should trust for a seriously objective answer, included in the 2003 MLF program the following lobster fun fact:

The nervous system of a lobster is very simple, and is in fact most similar to the nervous system of the grasshopper. It is decentralized with no brain. There is no cerebral cortex which in human is the area of the brain that gives the experience of pain.

So then, throughout the remainder of CtL, Foster Wallace ransacks the archives of just about anything that has ever been written about lobsters, neurology, pain reception, lobster neurology, lobster pain reception, and ultimately arrives at the conclusion that the Maine Lobster Promotion Council’s above fun fact is probably really not all that factual, or all that fun either. True, lobsters have no cerebral cortex and, while it remains unclear if they experience pain in the emotionally unpleasant human sense, they certainly do exhibit a sensitivity toward temperature and a preference (exhibited by their thrashing about and trying to escape boiling water) for not being placed in boiling water. Confronted with these facts and assuming, probably correctly, that most of us who presently boil and eat lobsters are just going to continue on boiling and eating, we’ve essentially decided, whether or not we are willing to declare it, that lobsters’ preference for not being boiled is of a lesser moral value than humans’ preference for the taste of lobster. It gets even more icky when we realize that quick-kill methods we employ on more “advanced” animals are really only merciful in the sense that they simply don’t give the animal the opportunity to exhibit any of those preferences, which feels a lot like cheating. But for now we’ll leave that where it is, because we’ve got to get to oysters.

Using Wallace’s Consider the Lobster as a framework for considering oysters is difficult because so much of it revolves around this test of the animal’s preferences, which in the case of the lobster are exhibited through physical movements. Oysters don’t really move apart from occasionally flexing their shells at the hinge, and usually the first thing done to prepare them is to remove half that shell. Often they are served just like that, meaning anyone who has ordered cold oysters at a bar has possibly eaten oysters alive, especially in the days where they were harvested off of city wharfs and carried directly into restaurants. It’s unclear if taking the killing into our own hands—or mouth—somehow gives us more of a right to the animal, or if death by chewing is an even more barbaric and excruciating killing method, but the latter stance was loudly adopted in the early twentieth century (a time when oysters were available for a penny each on the streets of most American cities) by the president of Alabama State Oyster Commission, John Craft.

In January of 1912, Craft appealed to the City of Mobile’s Humane Society on behalf of the oyster, pleading that it receive the same sympathy as any other animal, but the sympathy he called for was more complex than to simply refrain from killing it. Actually, it was the killing of oysters for which he was advocating. Like David Foster Wallace considering the lobster, Craft was less concerned with the eating of oysters than with their preparation (or lack thereof), and had concluded that the eating of oysters alive constituted cruel and unusual nourishment. His goal was to convince the Humane Society to draft and push legislation which would prohibit the eating of oysters unslaughtered. I could find nothing of the Mobile Humane Society or its actions after meeting with Craft, but the event did trigger a dozen or so articles in local newspapers—little one-or-two-paragraph pieces—which carried the conversation on oyster ethics far beyond whatever Humane Society walls. It was more than Alabama news, appearing in newspaper columns as far west as Spokane, Washington and as far east as Adelaide, Australia. And it was more than flash in the frying pan, with some coverage appearing one full year after the initial event, in January 1913. Expectedly, two camps emerged: those for the oyster, and those for the oyster’s unabated enjoyment. Their arguments followed almost precisely the same pattern as would be laid out a century later in Consider the Lobster.

Craft’s manifesto, as it was printed in the May 6, 1912 copy of Whangarei, New Zealand’s Northern Advocate, in the top left corner of its third page, reads as follows:

Just because an oyster cannot yell and wriggle when its shells3 are torn violently asunder and it is cut from its base and speared with a fork, and sprinkled with salt, pepper, and vinegar, is no reason for concluding the mollusc has no feelings. As a matter of fact, it does feel pain, and it suffers dreadfully. All this could be avoided if the oyster were killed before being served. It could be slaughtered quickly and mercifully, and it would come to a peaceful end, without lessening its palatable nature in the least. In fact, a fresh oyster that has just died is better than one still alive. This is explained by the simple and well understood natural laws. Both humane persons and those acquainted with food hygiene will be with me in my crusade. I expect to maintain the agitation until it is no longer a misery for the patient oyster to be served at table. I expect to meet with ridicule at first, but in the end humanitarianism will win, as it always does.

Craft can’t quite make the oyster pass the Wallace Test, which depends so heavily on the animal demonstrating through physical movements a preference to not be killed in the manner which it’s being killed, but he marches on with its conclusion nonetheless: the oyster feels pain when killed the way we kill it, thus it should be killed more humanely. The Journal of Conchology which, through a wonderful series of events, actually existed, referred to the whole incident as a rare instance of hilarity in its normally very sober field: a “really humorous item…worth saving from oblivion.” The journal controverted the “humanitarian gone astray” Craft with a different Wallace, Alfred Russel Wallace, author of The World of Life, whose critique of Craft followed a format similar to that of the Maine Lobster Promotion Council’s defense for boiling lobsters:

The idea that every living thing thinks and feels and suffers in exactly the same way as a human being is a relic of barbarism. An oyster is a very low form of living being; its nervous system is next to nothing, and all talk about cruelty in eating it is the most utter nonsense.

Journalists also had some fun pitting Craft’s plea against his critics, and the March 5, 1912 Spokane Daily Chronicle out of Washington State included one article subtitled Miss Emma Howe, Bacteriologist of Oregon, Ridicules Idea of Eastern Cities. Howe also claimed “Oysters are of a very low order of life: indeed. they are very near the link that connects the animal with the plant life.” The Scottish poet and collector of fairy tales Andrew Lang at one point involved himself, and is recorded in Australia’s January 16, 1913 Adelaide Register giving a more verbose iteration of Howe’s reasoning:

The bivalve is a creature of low sensibility. It does not even pretend to the head development of a limpet or a snail. It lies buried in its mud bank. Active oyster life is represented by currents of water which are swept in and out of its shell. All the rest is purely automatic action. Its nervous system is of low order. A series of three nerve centres or so, scattered through the body, represent its sensitive apparatus. It has no head, no brain mass; it is as nearly as possible a mere molluscan machine, which lives, and no more. This being so, where does any question of pain intervene? To have pain you must have the consciousness of it to begin with, and a sensory apparatus which feeds the consciousness with intelligence of what is happening to the body at large. You have no more evidence or warrant for presuming the existence of consciousness in the oyster than you have in the case of a jellyfish.

It’s worth a reminder that the Alabama Oyster Commission, of which Craft was president, was no PETA. The AOC was not out to deter the consumption of the oyster but to encourage its responsible and sustainable harvesting. Raising public oyster sympathy may have been a strategic component of that mission, but I find it that difficult fact to swallow, just as I’d want to double-check any report that said Donnie Smith, CEO of Tyson Fresh Meats, was encouraging customers to purchase only antibiotic-free pork.

CtO map

As far I can tell, Craft had legitimately gone through Wallacesque consideration of the oyster, and concluded that it was morally better to kill the animal swiftly, and then eat it, than it was to masticate it to death. This is about as far as David Foster Wallace got us with the lobster, which is to more or less have decided that what we’re doing is probably not morally sound, but then again the alternative doesn’t seem that great either, and then again, again, we’re basing this all on a sense of morality very difficult to apply to sea creatures.4 Any ethical system which protects the lobster likely does it by pointing to uniquely lobsterial traits which the oyster simply does not possess. Of course there’s avoiding meat altogether but, especially to us omnivores, vegetarianism just seems to deny us participation in what we perceive as a natural food chain.

Enter Lee Kum Sheung, who in 1888 founded the Lee Kum Kee food company which is now by a long shot the world’s foremost producer of oyster sauce.5 Corporate legend has it that Sheung accidentally invented oyster sauce when he was cooking oysters as usual by boiling them, but forgot about them until they had, essentially,6 melted into “a thick, brownish sauce with the most fragrant smell and unique, delicious taste.” Two decades before Craft first advocated for oyster’s humane slaughter, twelve before Foster Wallace considered the lobster, Sheung had inadvertently constructed the ultimate case study: the boiling (Foster Wallace’s specialty) of oysters (Craft’s).

Reader, I feel I owe you at least a few paragraphs of ethical quandary here, but it’s just not going to happen. I’m no moral compass, I’m just curious. Ethically, I’m stuck. Foster Wallace does a great investigative deal on the boiling of auto-locomotive creatures, and Craft raises the plight of the masticated oyster, but Foster Wallace gives us little by which to understand stationary creatures, and Craft never defines in any precise terms what the humane slaughter of an oyster might actually look like. Is boiling an example?

So, in lieu of an ethical conclusion I’ve chosen to arrive at a culinary one, by making my own oyster sauce. The best recipes begin with raw oysters but, considering how upscale of a food the once lowly oyster has become, and how really I’d only really be boiling the thing for the its flavor and probably discarding the leftover solid bits, making oyster sauce from actual raw oysters anymore approaches a level of extravagance entirely foreign to its humble origins. For that reason, and also because it was the only type of oysters I could find at Trader Joe’s, my recipe substituted the raw bivalves with three cans of presmoked oysters, all of which had been languishing in vegetable oil throughout their canned life.7 With this purchase I had already violated the prerequisites of the oyster sauce recipe laid out on wikiHow, but I continued unfettered, separating the canned oysters from their oily bath fluid and chopping them into smaller bits, a process which I assume increases their surface area for maximum flavor extraction. Then, in a makeshift saucepan,8 they were reunited with their oil and simmered gently, until I realized I was making warm oyster-flavored olive oil, not oyster sauce. Ignoring the basic and well-known interactions of oil and water, I strained out the olive oil, set it aside, and placed the oyster chunks back in the pot but this time with an estimated cup of water. 10 minutes later the oyster-infused water was strained again, then mixed with the oystery olive oil.

Soy sauce was added for flavor, then corn starch for thickness, and the creamy liquid was shaken often to keep it looking decent before being served at a dinner party whose company included the unsuspecting professor of very class for which I write this paper. And, when it was served atop a French baguette alongside butter, scalions, a sprinkling leftover oysters bits, and a section from Consider the Lobster read aloud, Professor Jack Tchen declared that I had invented a new and, somehow, attractive flavor. It had a similar relationship to oysters as applesauce does to apples. And as the ambiguous and ominous morality of it all became dinner conversation, and the conversation became our dinner, my own inconclusive confusion and reckless curiosity led to a small twist on CtL’s concluding sentence: “There are limits to what even interested persons can ask of each other.” But when most of the quandary happens internally, I say there are also limits to what we can answer of ourselves.

  1. There’s also pescapollotarianism, whose practitioners will eat fish and poultry. [return]
  2. The whole of which was orchestrated and commissioned by Gourmet magazine, and appears in the publication’s August 2004 issue. [return]
  3. The manifesto also appeared a July 1913 issue of the Journal of Conchology, with a few changes:

    Sentence 1: valves instead of shells
    Sentence 1: base, to be then speared instead of base and speared
    Sentence 1: fork, sprinkled with salt, pepper, and vinegar, that is instead of fork, and…vinegar, is
    Sentence 1: oyster instead of mollusc
    Sentence 2: [comma omitted after fact]
    Sentence 3: were first slaughtered, quickly and mercifully, and brought to a peaceful end instead of were killed…peaceful end
    Sentences 5–6: alive, and this instead of alive. This
    Sentence 7: agree instead of be
    Sentence 8: shall instead of expect to
    Sentence 8: swallowed alive instead of served at table

    I have no idea if these are significant. [return]

  4. Though in an amazing display of journalistic serendipity and/or foreshadowing, the April 27, 1912 issue of the Illustrated London News covered the oyster ethics debate in an article written by an Andrew Wilson, who dolls out the following advice: “I think if Mr. President Craft had espoused the case of the crab or the lobster, he would have had a better brief, on the face of things, on which to argue his case.” [return]
  5. I highly encourage a visit to the Corporate Overview page of LKK’s USA website, which at the time of this writing contains a 14-minute long video on the company’s values which features, to the soundtrack of orchestral music and those staccato marimba chirps which typically signify breaking news, current LKK Group Chairman Lee Man Tat being interviewed in front what’s got to be at least a 20-foot tall bottle of oyster sauce.LKK Group Chairman Lee Man Tat being interviewed in front what’s got to be at least a 20-foot tall bottle of oyster sauce.[return]
  6. Literally. [return]
  7. There is, as far as I know, no seal or certification for humanely killed oysters, and I checked every square inch of Trader Joe’s packaging. Therefore, I can offer no guess whether my choice of already-dead oysters would be met with John Craft’s approval or scorn. Chances are they died from asphyxiation when removed from the water, or, depending on how quickly they were canned, by drowning in olive oil. [return]
  8. Really, it was a saucepot. [return]

Written by Jacob Ford in May of 2016.