Our is largely a Jewish household. Judaism, thankfully, is a somewhat flexible proposition, unless you’re a Fundamentalist (or, as we call them, Orthodox). The rules laid down in the Torah, the base text for the Christian Bible’s “old testament” have been interpreted and reinterpreted over the last three thousand years or so, to the point where many of them are nearly unrecognizable, and others are simply ignored. Kashrut, the rules for What May Be Eaten, have morphed over the millenia to the point where we now have Kosher For Passover Face Cream.
Roy, having been raised in an Orthodox household (although we are both officially Reconstructionist), is a bit more a stickler on these matters than I am. As a result, I do not cook dishes that combine the muscle protein of mammals with the dairy products of those mammals (originally: thou shalt not cook a kid in its mothers’ milk). It is kind of barbaric, if you think about it, to deck out the animal protein from a species with the fluid of life from that same species. I can get behind this. Mostly, and certainly with respect to what I cook in the house. Also, I respect Roy’s choices by refusing to cook treif (Forbidden Foods) in the house, when he’s around and in the position of potentially consuming them. I don’t cook pigs or shellfish of any kind in the house, when Roy is about. What I do on my Private Time is my Private Business, but I’m certainly not going to violate his Spiritual Beliefs by confronting him with objectionable items.
That said, my firm and private feeling is that this world is full of tzuris (great grief, and grief-inducing events such as the recent explosions in China, and certain…elements…of the US political scene). I do not, actually, believe in a Score-Keeping God, and I sure as hell don’t believe that – if we were brought here by some Creator – that Creator started off with a list of Things Off-Limits. I respect the journeys of those who choose to grow spiritually through restriction. I, however, am not one of them.
My feelings on the subject are that all of these exotic rules are intended, primarily, to foster spiritual awareness of even the mundane act of dining. And I thoroughly respect that. The meat brought into our house comes from animals that were raised with kindness and respect, and slaughtered with compassionate focus on minimizing terror and discomfort. I don’t actually care whether a rabbi was around to wave hands and deliver some kind of benediction. If a critter met its end, wild with fear and having spent a miserable few weeks or months, it ain’t Kosher in this house. Chickens eaten in this house dined on bugs, settled conflicts with other chickens using its god-given beak, and got to squabble like chickens do, when they’re left to their own devices. And so forth. Be Kind, is the first of the law in my personal books. Be Respectful Of Life, that’s right up there too.
So, given that I clearly play Fast And Loose with the incredible scaffolding of rules, regulations, and other complicated psychological issues erected around the Act of Eating by Jewish Law, we come to one of my many possibly heretical convictions: Oysters are Kosher in Wellfleet. Lobsters are Kosher in Maine. Some oysters are also Kosher in Maine, and some Lobsters are Kosher in Wellfleet. I am Eve eating the apple, and doing it several times a summer.
But. This does not imply that I scoff at what I believe to be the central philosophical point of this fantastically byzantine set of Eating Rules. No. I respect that even more highly, and insist on maintaining a Spiritual Awareness of the most mundane act of dining. Especially as it regards animal life. After all, some other creature died so that I might eat it. That other creature’s life ended and mine goes on, in part, because the creature is no more.
I’m the sort that doesn’t even like to trample ants on the sidewalk, and feels bad about killing yellow jackets, and feels uneasy that these hornets die because they’re a threat to my existence, given my major allergies. It’s not their fault that I’m allergic to them, after all. They simply behave according to their nature, just as a horse does when things get a little too exciting in their blind spot and they kick. It’s not a reason to die, but death still happens. I don’t take life lightly. Unless it’s a cockroach, especially a Giant F***ing Flying Roach like we have in Houston, or Fire Ants, all of which I feel completely comfortable, for some reason, wanting to eliminate from the Great Laboratory of Physical Existence. I don’t fully understand this, but will no doubt spend the next decade contemplating. Anyway, with the exception of the roaches and the fire ants, I don’t take life lightly. So I feel, strongly, that if something has given its life for me, even if it didn’t agree to this deal, even if it wasn’t asked – especially if it wasn’t asked – I have a powerful Moral Obligation to confront my role in that arrangement.
Which brings me to the topic of how lobsters are kosher in Maine.
A cow, it dies to provide sustenance to…a hundred people, maybe, after taking into consideration all the bits and pieces. Maybe even more. A chicken, it dies to provide sustenance to four, maybe six people, removed at some distance from the act of giving up its life.
A lobster, it dies to provide sustenance to one. One person, not at all removed from the sacrifice, but sitting feet away from the process. One. One lobster, one person.
This creates some difficulty for me. It is much easier to ask, or expect, that a creature will give up its life in exchange for the sustenance of a hundred than for the sustenance of one. I experience a moment of intense discomfort when inspecting a tank full of crustaceans, and having to select one of them to die for me. Not for nameless others. I am, even though I hand off the actual chore to a cook, that lobster’s executioner. It is difficult. I understand the Cycle of Life, I take my place in that knowingly, and thoughtfully, but the fact remains: I am at the top of the food chain, and other creatures lose their lives for my dinner. It’s just not as…direct…with anything else as it is with a lobster.
My approach to dealing with this discomfort is to recognize the sacrifice that another creature made, involuntarily, at my behest, and to honor that creature’s spirit as completely as possible. I am told that – as a result – the experience of watching me eat a lobster strikes awe into the hearts of all who witness it. Other diners, my companions, the wait staff at the restaurant, you name it.
I honor that lobster’s spirit by refusing to let even a tiny fragment of it go to waste. I honor that lobster’s spirit by refusing to engage in any distracting activity while I am communing with it in the act of dining. For me, this is a Spiritual Act.
For everyone else, it is a breathtaking exhibition in focus, ferocity, and determination, apparently. I scorn those individuals who eat only the easy-to-access meat in the tail and the big claws. I scientifically dismantle my lobsters, consuming every scrap of meat in the walking claws, the carapace, the fins on the tail, the small segments of the claws, and yes – the tail and the claws too. When I have finished with a lobster, there is nothing left but the shell. And the tomalley, because I’m concerned about the concentration of toxins from the crap that people will insist on dumping into the ocean. Other than that, there is nothing.
And woe betide any who expect conversation, attention, or any other distraction from my experience of communing with the spirit of the recently-departed lobster. The chit-chat, the request for another beer or a refill on the water, the ordering of dessert, the demand for the check, all of this can wait for another time. I reckon any critter that gave its life for me deserves my full, complete, and wholly-undivided attention while I’m assimilating its physical existence. I don’t care how many people are struck dumb in wonder at this spectacle. The lobster, honestly, is the only other being in my universe at these moments.