"Consider the Lobster," written for Gourmet magazine in 2004. While Infinite Jest may be the touchstone of Wallace's literary catalog, "Consider the Lobster" is perhaps the touchstone of modern food writing. Well brother, this article is not it. This is about Lobsterfest." />

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Feature Fri Apr 29 2011

Lobsterfest: A Godless Pilgrimage

If you're familiar with food writing, or just writing, you're likely familiar with David Foster Wallace's pivotal piece "Consider the Lobster," written for Gourmet magazine in 2004. While Infinite Jest may be the touchstone of Wallace's literary catalog, "Consider the Lobster" is perhaps the touchstone of modern food writing. A meditation on the meaning of eating, negotiating the space between animal pain and human pleasure, and an at times mouth-watering read, Wallace's piece received more responses by mail than any other article in Gourmet's history--and with its author's too-soon departure from this world, the desire to determine a literary inheritor has been often expressed, even now.

Well brother, this article is not it. This is about Lobsterfest.

That's right, Lobsterfest--Red Lobster's annual spring promotion. A pale, anemic imitator of the authentic, East Coast celebrations described by Wallace, housed across the country in nearly 700 shabby-chic, faux-clapboard dining rooms meant to evoke Cape Cod, Lobsterfest rolls around every year near the end of winter. And I can't freaking get enough of it.

IMG_1399This year marks the fourth excursion my ever-growing group of Lobsterfest devotees has made up to Lincolnwood, the closest Red Lobster outpost after the downtown Dearborn location closed in 2007. I say excursion because the whole thing has become kind of a pilgrimage. It started with me and three friends. This year, our Lobsterfest table had expanded to 15 people. (The chain doesn't take reservations, but did seem to appreciate my warning call that a large group would be descending upon them--I imagined if nothing else they would want to have fair warning to fill the lobby lobster tank to full capacity.) Fifteen manically excited, starving urbanites, many of whom were entirely new to the pleasures of chain seafood, generally disrupting an otherwise pleasant evening out for our Lincolnwood dining companions.

We made commemorative pins, thanks to a Café Press Groupon and an artistic friend. We gave them to our servers, who seemed both really pleased and a little freaked out (one noted it was the most interesting thing that had ever happened to her at work, and would be honored with a Facebook status update later). There was a commemorative travel mug, which was raffled off during the course of the meal. There was drawn butter. There were cheddar bay biscuits. There were lobster nachos. There are already plans for t-shirts next year, in honor of Lobsterfest V.

Lobsterfest, like other religious experiences, is ultimately more than the sum of its parts. Any event that requires a tightly packed car trip (or convoy of vehicles) to a destination beyond the confines of the daily routine tends to breed excitement. Meeting new people through a new, shared experience tends to forge strong bonds--ask anyone who's been in combat. And based on the sheer amount of food that arrives on the typical Red Lobster dinner plate, Lobsterfest often feels like a war against one's own body to shuck that last shrimp, pop that last claw, and douse that last meaty hunk of fish in drawn butter before your metabolism simply gives out, cardiac arrest sets in, and the EMTs have to remove your lobster bib to apply the defibrillator. Not that this particular scenario has ever played out, but the Lobsterfest food coma is universally persistent--which makes eating the leftovers an almost martial challenge.

Of course, the tradition would never have caught on, either within my circle of friends or the larger Red Lobster-patronizing public, if the food weren't actually worth eating. Say what you will about fast casual chain restaurants--they sort of know what they're doing. This year, in addition to the lobster nachos (which I'm not utterly convinced, after two years, are the best idea--though the lobster cheese sauce is pretty tasty) and a lobsterita roughly the size of my head, I tackled some sort of new lobster and shrimp trio, that featured a lobster tail, garlic shrimp skewer, and shrimp and lobster gratin, bolstered by seasoned broccoli and home fry-style potatoes. Maybe I'm a fool and there's just a guy in the back with a spray bottle labeled "Grill Flavor," but damn if that lobster tail didn't have a woodsy smokiness and a convincingly firm char on it, just the right amount of lemon and salt, and perfectly cooked, sweet meat.

IMG_1401The food is central, as it should be. But the pilgrimage also doesn't really seem to be about approximating the level of intimacy of, say, a beach-side lobster broil out East. Not once in the times we've gone has anybody asked to pick their lobster from the tank. I frankly have zero interest in being that close to the process of sentencing my meal to death. While Lobsterfest has attained a certain level of evangelical zealousness among my friends over the years, I get the distinct sense that no one actually care to step up to play God--to determine which lobsters live, and which lobsters are sacrificed to the hunger that we all admit, upon reflection, is a little strange.

The Lobsterfest pilgrimage started not with the desire to get closer to one's seafood, which I think informs many of the lobster festivals on the coastal parts of our country. In the Midwest, or at least among my twenty-something yupster friends, Lobsterfest is all about the irresistibility of modern food advertising. It all comes back to that seductively squirting lemon, the claw sending a tidal wave of golden butter over the sides of its container, the clouds of steam and beads of condensation. It's food porn extraordinaire--and I'm not talking artsy food photos. I'm talking straight-up soft-core porn. Right down to the music. And it's incredibly effective. You know how it goes--after months of being bombarded with images of bbq sauce being slathered onto ribs, cheese strands trailing a piece of pizza, slightly wet vegetables bouncing on a cutting board (I've never really got that particular image, but it must work for someone), one suddenly clicks and you want nothing more in this life than wings at Applebee's or endless salad and bread sticks at Olive Garden. Even people who are a little weirded out by the Lobsterfest pilgrimage concept get it when you mention the ads. "Oh riiiiight, with the squirting lemon. That did look kind of good." See for yourself:

It's hard to eat these days without being influenced by the media (I should know - I'm one of the influencers, if you're reading this), and expensive, well-shot campaigns by chains like Red Lobster have made it easier than ever to reel you in, and then absolve you of thinking too hard about your food, even despite the lobby tank of lobsters staring you down when you walk in. Standardized menus, aesthetic and reproducible rather than seasonal and localized, are the only way that chain restaurants work, just as a function of their massive scale. None of this means, however, that our Lobsterfest group, and diners more broadly can't be conscious about what they're eating, and don't have any responsibility to care. My secret dream is that Lobsterfest pilgrimage continues to grow - so large, so hysterically pumped, and so annually predictable that eventually corporate has to get in on it somehow. I don't want to be a poster child. But I'd like to get a chance to have a serious conversation about bringing sustainable fishing practices at the world's largest seafood chain. If that doesn't happen (or if they throw us out of the board room after they learn of our nefarious green ways), the cheddar bay biscuits will still be sweet, buttery consolation. I think even David Foster Wallace could get behind that.

Red Lobster, 3301 W. Touhy, Lincolnwood. (847) 674-0238

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
Read this feature »

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