So then here is a question that’s all but unavoidable at the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker, and may arise in kitchens across the U.S.: Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure? A related set of concerns: Is the previous question irksomely PC or sentimental? What does “all right” even mean in this context? Is it all just a matter of individual choice?
As you may or may not know, a certain well-known group called People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals thinks that the morality of lobster-boiling is not just a matter of individual conscience. In fact, one of the very first things we hear about the MLF …well, to set the scene: We’re coming in by cab from the almost indescribably odd and rustic Knox County Airport9 very late on the night before the Festival opens, sharing the cab with a wealthy political consultant who lives on Vinalhaven Island in the bay half the year (he’s headed for the island ferry in Rockland). The consultant and cabdriver are responding to informal journalistic probes about how people who live in the midcoast region actually view the MLF, as in is the Festival just a big-dollar tourist thing or is it something local residents look forward to attending, take genuine civic pride in, etc. The cabdriver—who’s in his seventies, one of apparently a whole platoon of retirees the cab company puts on to help with the summer rush, and wears a U.S.-flag lapel pin, and drives in what can only be called a very deliberate way—assures us that locals do endorse and enjoy the MLF, although he himself hasn’t gone in years, and now come to think of it no one he and his wife know has, either. However, the demilocal consultant’s been to recent Festivals a couple times (one gets the impression it was at his wife’s behest), of which his most vivid impression was that “you have to line up for an ungodly long time to get your lobsters, and meanwhile there are all these ex–flower children coming up and down along the line handing out pamphlets that say the lobsters die in terrible pain and you shouldn’t eat them.”
And it turns out that the post-hippies of the consultant’s recollection were activists from PETA. There were no PETA people in obvious view at the 2003 MLF,10 but they’ve been conspicuous at many of the recent Festivals. Since at least the mid-1990s, articles in everything from The Camden Herald to The New York Times have described PETA urging boycotts of the MLF, often deploying celebrity spokespeople like Mary Tyler Moore for open letters and ads saying stuff like “Lobsters are extraordinarily sensitive” and “To me, eating a lobster is out of the question.” More concrete is the oral testimony of Dick, our florid and extremely gregarious rental-car guy, to the effect that PETA’s been around so much in recent years that a kind of brittlely tolerant homeostasis now obtains between the activists and the Festival’s locals, e.g.: “We had some incidents a couple years ago. One lady took most of her clothes off and painted herself like a lobster, almost got herself arrested. But for the most part they’re let alone. [Rapid series of small ambiguous laughs, which with Dick happens a lot.] They do their thing and we do our thing.”
This whole interchange takes place on Route 1, 30 July, during a four-mile, 50-minute ride from the airport11 to the dealership to sign car-rental papers. Several irreproducible segues down the road from the PETA anecdotes, Dick—whose son-in-law happens to be a professional lobsterman and one of the Main Eating Tent’s regular suppliers—articulates what he and his family feel is the crucial mitigating factor in the whole morality-of-boiling-lobsters-alive issue: “There’s a part of the brain in people and animals that lets us feel pain, and lobsters’ brains don’t have this part.”
Besides the fact that it’s incorrect in about 11 different ways, the main reason Dick’s statement is interesting is that its thesis is more or less echoed by the Festival’s own pronouncement on lobsters and pain, which is part of a Test Your Lobster IQ quiz that appears in the 2003 MLF program courtesy of the Maine Lobster Promotion Council: “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 humans is the area of the brain that gives the experience of pain.”