CASCO BAY, MAINE It's 8 a.m. and my neighbor, Bob Putnam, has been at work for hours by the time he eases the lobster boat up to the dock to take this slacker on board.
For two decades, my neighbor has brought lobsters to our kitchen and tolerantly discussed my pet theory of lobster "behavior modification." Lobsters are not just "caught," after all. They're fed and ranched over a bay floor nearly covered with traps. They walk in and out of the traps in search of their free lunch. They are hauled up and thrown back for about seven years until they reach legal size and are sent to market.
But today, as Bob hauls traps strung between his fluorescent pink and brown buoys, our conversation shifts. This is the talk of the bay this summer: How did lobsters, of all creatures, come to occupy center stage in the new American drama about ethics and eating?
A few weeks ago, Whole Foods, the natural-food chain, announced that it would no longer carry live lobsters. When the spokeswoman said, "This is about quality of life" - the life of the lobsters in a tank - a collective "oh puh-leeze" echoed along the Maine coastline. Meanwhile in Italy, a whole city outlawed cooking live lobsters. And the Web site of PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which has long touted lobster liberation, offered elaborate instructions on how to free this crustacean Willy.
This has led to more ridicule than outrage in a place where aquatic arthropods occupy a place on the food chain reflected by the origin of their name: insects. Not surprisingly, Bob places lobsters a lot lower than the angels. "Lobster is more related to an insect than a mammal," he says and, before I can stop him, adds sardonically, "When a mosquito lands on your arm, what do you do?"
As the new chair of the Maine Lobster Promotion Council, Bob then offers a somewhat more nuanced view of the controversy. "I find it strange that people are squeamish about killing lobsters but don't mind eating hamburgers," he says. "As for the quality of life, would you rather be a salmon in a pen, a steer in a feedlot, or a lobster walking around the ocean for seven years?"
The heated arguments - about the relative morality of selling live or dead lobsters, about the relative cruelty of boiling, steaming, stabbing or stunning lobsters - are a bit precious for folks who live in a fish-eat-fish world. But if there is any good news, it's about a movement reconnecting diners with their dinner, prompting us to think about what we eat.
Ethical eating is not, to put it mildly, a simple equation. In the book at the top of my summer reading list, Michael Pollan calls it "The Omnivore's Dilemma." Eating industrial beef, he writes at the end of a horrific chapter, "takes an almost heroic act of not knowing." But free-range chicken is also, he proves, "something of a joke, an empty pastoral conceit." Even vegans find no moral purity in his book for eating grain "harvested with a combine that shreds field mice."
If indeed the average food travels 1,500 miles to an American plate, how do you chart that journey in ethical terms? By focusing on the health of the diner, the dinner, the laborer, the land? How do you compare the morality of eating veal with the morality of flying baby lettuce leaves across the country on jet fuel?
In Europe, where ethical eating focuses on sustaining local farms and farmers, a favorite slogan is "Eat the View." With my island view, I have acquired a lust for fishing and have overcome squeamishness about the fish out of water. Some summer nights I smugly dine on food that's traveled no farther than the vegetable garden, the raspberry bushes and the clam flats. Unless, of course, I count the olive oil and the coffee.
Those of us who think about what we eat will end up making our own moral, somewhat irrational, sometimes convenient calculations. But when live lobster becomes the forbidden fruit of the sea, don't we have the ethics of eating exactly backward?
This is one of the last dinners many people ever see alive. Banish it from view into another shrink-wrapped, precooked, frozen "product" and what have we done except remove ourselves one creature further from reality?
"Eating is not a bad way to get to know a place," writes Pollan drolly. It's not a bad way to get to know a bay where seals compete for lobsters and my neighbors raise next year's catch on redfish and herring. But it's also not a bad way to get to know our own, complicated, place in nature.
- Ellen Goodman is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.