Incident at the Pick Your Own Lobster Restaurant in Philly
We drove from Pittsburgh to Cape Cod in the family station wagon that summer in 1970. For too many road hours, we’d listened to my dad proselytize about Bookbinder’s Restaurant in Philadelphia, a stop on our itinerary. I was sixteen, lived in a landlocked state, had a mother who hated seafood. I'd never eaten a lobster. By the time we pulled into Bookbinder’s parking lot, I felt hot, grumpy, a little carsick, and too cool at sixteen be seen with parents dressed in L.L.Bean.
There are three points to this story that I remember with clarity. The first was the view on opening Bookbinder’s door, of a gigantic wall of water, lit from an unseen light source. Fish swam back and forth, and the bottom crawled with live lobsters, elbow to elbow, or claw to claw, like hippies at Woodstock (In 1970, I was still holding a grudge that I'd not been allowed to go). Before seating us, we were told to pick a lobster. I pointed at one active fellow. A net came down, and off he went, like a goldfish to the plastic bag at Woolworth’s. I’m not sure what I understood about where meat came from then. Our family ate things that came home on plastic-wrapped trays.
The second point of memory was my victim, now red and dead, on a plate placed before me, followed by instantaneous tears, and despondent, guilty weeping. I’d fingered an innocent creature. The results of my actions lay motionless next to a cup of melted butter.
In the third point of memory, I’m sitting back in the station wagon, in Bookbinder’s parking lot, waiting for my family to finish their dinners, sent there because I could not stop crying at the table, and would not believe that lobsters just go to sleep when placed in hot water.
More or less, that was the end of meat in my life. My mother, until her cooking days were over a few years ago, considered vegetarianism a phase I’d outgrow some day, and continued to sneak hunks of chicken into my soup, as if I couldn’t tell, until I was fifty something years old.
As children, we know who we are, what we love, who we will become. We might have no language to express it, and parents who discourage or refute it, and sometimes, we can lose touch with this knowledge for years, maybe forever. All I experienced then was involuntary tears and an aching awareness that fifteen minutes earlier, my dinner had been doing whatever lobsters do, would never do it again, and I was responsible.
Many decades later, I encountered Thich Nhat Hanh, a monk who teaches that consuming creatures who suffer means consuming their suffering, and I recognized that I had always known that, but could not have put words to it. It is a personal belief. What others eat and enjoy is their business. I try to keep my eyes on my own bowl, as they say.
It is worth noting that in writing this post, I googled Bookbinder’s Restaurant, the oldest and most famous seafood house in Philadelphia, serving locals, tourists and celebrities for 143 years. It has closed. Vive la lobster.